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Abstract

Wild marine organisms have been used in the discovery and development of traditional and allopathic medical treatments for a long time. Seahorses, a syngnathidae fish, are one of the important candidate organisms which have been used in Chinese traditional medicine from time immemorial. It is believed that seahorses have the potential to cure infertility, baldness, asthma and arthritis. An authentic research work on the biomedical validation of seahorses proved that they have the ability to cure arthritis and its associated inflammation. A Cathepsin-derived peptide from the seahorse species of Hippocampus kuda proved to be effective in chondrocyte cells and its associated impaired arthritis inflammation. Apart from this, seahorses have a putative free radical scavenging effect in controlling the ageing process. More authentic research is needed in order to validate the biomedical potential. This article highlights the role of seahorses’ value in traditional medicine and their biomedical properties.
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Seahorses – A source of traditional
medicine
K. Kumaravel a , S. Ravichandran a , T. Balasubramanian a &
Leonard Sonneschein b
a Department of Marine Biotechnology, Centre of Advanced Study
in Marine Biology , Annamalai University , Parangipettai – 608502 ,
Tamil Nadu , India
b World Aquarium Conservation , St Louis , MO , USA
Published online: 24 Feb 2012.
To cite this article: K. Kumaravel , S. Ravichandran , T. Balasubramanian & Leonard Sonneschein
(2012) Seahorses – A source of traditional medicine, Natural Product Research: Formerly Natural
Product Letters, 26:24, 2330-2334, DOI: 10.1080/14786419.2012.662650
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14786419.2012.662650
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Natural Product Research
Vol. 26, No. 24, December 2012, 2330–2334
REVIEW ARTICLE
Seahorses – A source of traditional medicine
K. Kumaravel
a
, S. Ravichandran
a
*, T. Balasubramanian
a
and Leonard Sonneschein
b
a
Department of Marine Biotechnology, Centre of Advanced Study in Marine Biology,
Annamalai University, Parangipettai – 608502, Tamil Nadu, India;
b
World Aquarium
Conservation, St Louis, MO, USA
(Received 29 July 2011; final version received 3 November 2011)
Wild marine organisms have been used in the discovery and development of
traditional and allopathic medical treatments for a long time. Seahorses, a
syngnathidae fish, are one of the important candidate organisms which have been
used in Chinese traditional medicine from time immemorial. It is believed that
seahorses have the potential to cure infertility, baldness, asthma and arthritis.
An authentic research work on the biomedical validation of seahorses proved
that they have the ability to cure arthritis and its associated inflammation. A
Cathepsin-derived peptide from the seahorse species of Hippocampus kuda proved
to be effective in chondrocyte cells and its associated impaired arthritis
inflammation. Apart from this, seahorses have a putative free radical scavenging
effect in controlling the ageing process. More authentic research is needed in
order to validate the biomedical potential. This article highlights the role of
seahorses’ value in traditional medicine and their biomedical properties.
Keywords: seahorses; traditional medicine; ageing; asthma; arthritis
1. Introduction
Intensive research since 1970s has proved that marine organisms are magnificent sources
of bioactive compounds. Marine organisms are collected for the discovery and develop-
ment of pharmaceutical drugs used in allopathic medicine (western medicine, evidence-
based medicine, and biomedicine). In recent years, many bioactive compounds have been
extracted from various marine animals such as tunicates, sponges, soft corals, sea hares,
nudibranchs, bryozoans, sea slugs and marine organisms (Donia & Hamann, 2003;
Haefner, 2003). Extracts from the collected organisms are tested for their effectiveness
against particular disease targets in a series of automated screens. If active, the compound
responsible is isolated and its molecular structure is determined by secondary testing done
on efficacy before the decision is made to subject the compound to preclinical and possibly
clinical trials. Very few compounds succeed in becoming commercial products; the process
can take 10–15 years (or longer) and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars (Munro et al.,
1999). Whilst tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of marine species have likely been
sampled, only about 20 marine compounds are currently in clinical trials. Removal of
marine organisms to supply this process can be broken into two types: primary collections
and secondary or re-collections. Primary collections are typically broad and speculative in
order to maximise the possibility of discovering bioactive compounds during screening
*Corresponding author. Email: sravicas@gmail.com
ISSN 1478–6419 print/ISSN 1478–6427 online
ß2012 Taylor & Francis
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14786419.2012.662650
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(Cragg, 1998; Munro et al., 1999), whereas secondary re-collections are focused on supply-
ing a particular ‘bioactive’ species of interest to later tests during the drug development.
Hence, this article emphasises the biomedical properties of seahorses in a review aspect.
2. Biology of seahorses
Seahorses are bony fish (Teleosts) belonging to the family Syngnathidae. The family
Syngnathidae also includes pipefishes, pipehorses and seadragons. The primary taxonomic
groupings within this family reflect the location and development of the male brood
pouch, head/body axis, development of the caudal fin, and prehensile ability of the tail
(Herald, 1959; Kuiter, 2003; Wilson, Vincent, Ahnesjo, & Meyer, 2001). All seahorses
belong to one genus, Hippocampus. According to Lourie, Foster, Cooper, and Vincent
(2004), there are 32 known species of seahorses present world wide. Seahorses are found in
both temperate and tropical shallow coastal waters (5150 m depth), with a latitudinal
distribution from about 50north to 50south and with the greatest species diversity in the
Indo-Pacific (Lourie et al., 2004; Perante, Pajaro, Meeuwig, & Vincent, 2002).
3. Traditional medicine
Traditional medicine or complementary and alternative medicine (TM/CAM) is important
to the health care of millions of people worldwide (World Health Organization (WHO),
2002). TM/CAM comes in at least 125 recognised forms, including the codified systems of
traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, Unani and the unwritten ‘folk’ medicines
of the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region (WHO, 2002). The
majority of these were consumed in Asia, representing the practices of TCM, Hanyak,
Kanpo, Ayurverda, Unani, Jamu and other folk medicines, which is an absolute global
minimum, and identified several areas absent from the analysis such as the Middle East
and North Africa (Perry, 2000).
Relatively little is known about the status of many marine medicinal populations or
indeed the size and biological significance of the TM/CAM component of mortality. Due
to its vulnerability, 23 species of seahorses were listed in either Appendix I or II of the
Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). At present, all 13
seahorse species (genus: Hippocampus) identified in TM/CAM trade (Lourie et al., 2004)
are included in the IUCN Red List (six vulnerable and seven data deficient) and CITES
Appendix II (IUCN, 2003; CITES, 2004). Seahorses have been used in TCM for a long
time in various forms, such as dried seahorses.
3.1. Seahorses as a medicinal source
Seahorses are used as an ingredient in traditional medicine, particularly in Southeast Asia
where traditional Chinese medicine and its derivatives (e.g. Japanese and Korean
traditional medicine) are practised and have been used perhaps for about 600 years
(Vincent, 1996). Seahorses are credited with having a role in increasing and balancing vital
energy flows within the body, as well as a curative role for ailments such as impotence and
infertility, asthma, high cholesterol, goiter, kidney disorders, and skin afflictions such as
severe acne and persistent nodules (Moreau, Hall, & Vincent, 2000). They are also
reported to facilitate parturition and act as a powerful genital tonic and as a potent
aphrodisiac (Vincent, 1995, 1996). In Brazil, whole seahorses, H. reidi, are an important
medicinal resource used to treat asthma and gastritis (Alves & Rosa, 2006). According to
Vincent (1996), the Chinese generally regard the historical use of TCM as a testimony to a
product’s efficacy, and clinical trials are rare; but there have been 10 publications relating
to medicinal properties such as anti-ageing effects (Yu, He, & Chen, 1995), arthritis (Shi,
Natural Product Research 2331
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Yao, Bei, Zhu, & Wang, 2006) and improved immune responses (Qu et al., 1991; Zhang
et al., 2003). In the Philippines aquarium trade, ‘yellow’ seahorses are usually more
valuable than ‘black’ seahorses (Vincent, 1996). Until at least the eighteenth century,
seahorses were also utilised for their medicinal properties in many western countries, with
applications recorded back to 342 B.C. where they were reputed to have medicinal
properties with regard to baldness, leprosy, urine retention and rabies (Bellomy, 1969;
Vincent, 1996). Traditional Chinese medicine is recognised by the WHO as a valid form of
medicine and is accepted by more than one-quarter of the world’s population (Moreau
et al., 2000). Dried seahorse species that are predominantly used in TCM are Hippocampus
histrix, Hippocampus kelloggi, Hippocampus kuda, Hippocampus spinosissimus and
Hippocampus trimaculatus (Lourie et al., 2004; Vincent, 1996).
Seahorses proved to be a source of controlling aging process by possessing immense
antioxidants that are much evaluated from the seahorse species of H. kuda Bleeler (Qian,
Ryu, M.-M. Kim, & S.-K. Kim, 2008). The report shows that seahorses play a vital role in
scavenging activities in ageing phenomenon. In addition to these, seahorses have an
immense anticancer, antifatigue compound in them (Zhang et al., 2003). Recently, an in-
depth molecular analysis of an anticancer compound from seahorses was identified by
synthesising a novel phthalate derivative from the seahorse sp H. kuda Bleeler, which
immensely inhibits the Cathepsin-B – a lysosomal cysteine protease which is responsible
for the cause of many cancer cell growth and neurogenerative disorders.
In addition to this, an innovative class of anti-inflammatory peptide, isolated from the
seahorse H. kuda, exhibits characteristic effects against arthritis, which is a major
chondrocytic degenerative disease characterised by the degradation of articular cartilage
involving excessive degradation of extracellular matrix (ECM) and synovial inflammation
(Ryu, Qian, & Kim, 2010a). A peptide from the seahorse inhibits TPA-induced MMP, iNOS
and COX-2 expression through MAPK and NF-activation, and induces human
osteoblastic and chondrocytic differentiation (Ryu, Qian, & Kim, 2010a). SHP-1, a novel
peptide isolated from seahorses, inhibits collagen release through the suppression of
collagenases 1 and 3, and regulates nitric oxide products by NF-kB/p38 kinase (Ryu , Qian,
& Kim, 2010a). Seahorses tend to be a very good nutritional supplement as these possess
essential amino acids and fatty acids. A nutritive analysis and proximate composition of six
seahorse species was done from the Chinese coast, and it reveals that the seahorse contains
medically important nutrients in the form of proteins and poly unsaturated fatty acids that
prevent cardiac problems (A. Lin, J. Lin, Lu, & Li, 2008). Apart from this, seahorses have an
efficacy of antimicrobial potence against some dreadful microorganisms, especially against
Klebsilla pneumonia (Kumaravel, Ravichandran, Balasubramanian, Siva Subramanian, &
Bhat, 2010). Hence, the traditional system of seahorse consumption is authentically proved
to have a biomedical value highly supported by this research outcome.
4. Conclusion
Seahorses are a leading drug candidate species for numerous diseases. They are a phar-
macological mine for various diseases such as cancer and impotence. Hence, a broad-based
analysis of seahorses should be done for evaluating the biomedical potential to come up
with an active drug compound from them.
Acknowledgements
The authors are thankful to the Ministry of Earth Science and Ocean Science Technology (MoES-
OASTC), Government of India, for extending their financial support for this research work.
2332 K. Kumaravel et al.
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