Could a salt flats pigment treat cancer?

Could a pigment from microorganisms in Spanish salt flats treat cancer? Photo/University of Alicante Applied Biochemistry research group⁠
Salinas de Santa Pola salt flats cancer

Researchers have identified the anti-cancer capacity of a pigment present in the Santa Pola salt flats in eastern Spain. 

The pigment is produced by certain microorganisms, the ‘halophilic archaea’, in order to protect themselves from the sun, and its anti-tumor capacity has been tested in several types of breast cancer.

The study took place at the University of Alicante Applied Biochemistry research group in Spain, in collaboration with researchers from the Alicante University Hospital Dr. Balmis (HGUDB) and the Alicante Health and Biomedical Research Institute (ISABIAL)⁠. 

La Salinas de Santa Pola, or the Santa Pola salt flats, lie just to the south of Alicante.

Professor in Biology and director of the group, Rosa María Martínez, said the important finding, which has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, began with the development of Micaela Giani’s PhD thesis. There, she demonstrated—through in vitro tests—the antioxidant activity of the pigment and its effect on enzymes (biocatalysts) involved in pathologies such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

After these results were made public, they wondered what would happen if they added the salt flats pigment to cancer cells, based on the hypothesis that, being a pigment with an antioxidant activity almost 300 times higher than that of other antioxidants, it could limit the ability of these cells to grow and reproduce.

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Microorganisms from the Santa Pola salt flats. Photo/University of Alicante Applied Biochemistry research group⁠

In this second phase, the research group worked in collaboration with Gloria Peiró, pathologist at the HGUDB and lecturer in the UA Department of Biotechnology, and Yoel Genaro Montoyo-Pujol, PhD in Experimental and Biosanitary Sciences and researcher at the UA. Both scientists belong to the breast cancer and immunology research group at ISABIAL. 

Due to the collaboration, the effect of this pigment could be tested in vitro in cell lines representing different intrinsic phenotypes of breast cancer and a line of healthy breast tissue. According to Martínez, they reached the conclusion that, in certain doses, the pigment does not cause any harmful effect on healthy cells, but it does limit the growth capacity of neoplastic cells. She also stressed that this finding opens a door to biomedicine, to the design of new strategies to fight cancer based on the use of natural compounds, which are not harmful to the body.

Rare carotenoid pigment

Halophilic archaea are extremophilic microorganisms that require a hypersaline environment to thrive, so they are mainly found in coastal salt marshes, inland salt marshes or hypersaline lakes. These microorganisms synthesize a rare C50 carotenoid pigment called bacteriorruberin (BR) and its derivatives monoanhydrobacterioruberin (MABR) and bisanhydrobacterioruberin (BABR).

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Photo/University of Alicante Applied Biochemistry research group⁠

Based on this discovery, the researchers said there are several new lines of research to follow, starting with extending the study with different cell lines of other types of tumors, to continue with tests on tissue samples from biopsies or surgical specimens, in order to design possible treatment protocols using this salt flats pigment, and then move on to animal studies before reaching clinical use in patients.

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