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PhD graduate Jamie Kok on using seaweed to fight skin disease

Friday 16 December 2022 3:18pm

Jamie Kok image

Could seaweed be a part of the next treatment for eczema? PhD graduand Jamie Kok has spent the last few years researching the potential implications of seaweed  for treatment of skin diseases. 

Based in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and graduating from the School of Biomedical Sciences, her journey began after she reached out to Associate Professor Lyn Wise for support, and their promising discussion prompted her to leave Malaysia and come to New Zealand.

“For some reason, perhaps the influence of The Lord of the Rings, New Zealand had always been at the top of my list for studying abroad and, after seeing how beautiful the campus was and being blown away by the calibre of academics like Associate Professor Lyn Wise, I knew this would be the place for me,” Kok says.

“I contacted her via email with a research proposal and, by fortunate coincidence, she had recently received a grant for a similar project and encouraged me to come and complete my studies in Dunedin. The postdoctoral scholarship I subsequently received was the icing on the cake.”

This sparked what would be a rewarding research journey into skin diseases, specifically eczema, and how the pharmacology of seaweed could help with this.

Kok’s main motivation is to help the three million people who are globally affected by eczema, a disease that affects 15 per cent of children and nine per cent of adolescents in New Zealand. There is also a higher prevalence among young Māori and Pacific New Zealanders’, with the symptoms of the disease including itchy, red skin on various parts of the body.

“It is a painful and uncomfortable condition that can have a significant impact on a person, and especially a child’s, well-being,” Kok says.

She goes on to share how current treatments, like topical steroids, often have intolerable side effects and so she wanted to contribute towards new therapies that are safe, effective and comfortable for children.

Kok adds that, in the early 1800’s, seaweeds were an important part of the Māori diet, particularly the Karengo (red seaweed), which was traditionally used as food due to its high nutritional mix of proteins, fibres, and minerals, and that seaweeds were also used to treat dermatitis.

The popularity of this as a food dwindled over time but she believes that “seaweed remains an untapped natural source of new medicines that is more than just sushi wraps.”

“My research began by identifying and characterising a seaweed extract of interest, followed by testing its ability to improve skin barrier function and help reduce eczema flare-ups,” Kok says.

“Without using animal models, I developed a laboratory-made skin equivalent model to test our seaweed extract, and we discovered that it has similar anti-inflammatory and barrier integrity properties as our other models.

“My goal is to turn these seaweed extracts, or the fascinating compounds contained within them, into a superior eczema treatment.

“I am adamant about restoring the ‘glory of seaweed’ and transforming it into a medicine that will benefit children throughout the world.”

- Kōrero by the School of Biomedical Sciences Communications Adviser, Kelsey Schutte.