Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 2005, 6, 373-379 373
1389-2010/05 $50.00+.00 © 2005 Bentham Science Publishers Ltd.
Nutritional and Therapeutic Potential of Spirulina
Zakir Khan, Pratiksha Bhadouria and P.S. Bisen
Department of Biotechnology, J.C. Bose Institute of Life Sciences, Bundelkhand University, Jhansi 284128, U.P., India
Abstract: Spirulina, a filamentous cyanobacterium, possesses diverse biological activities and nutritional significance due
to high concentration of natural nutrients, having bio-modulatory and immuno-modulatory functions. Different Spirulina
preparations influence immune system viz. increase phagocytic activity of macrophages, stimulating the production of
antibodies and cytokines, increase accumulation of NK cells into tissue and activation and mobilization of T and B cells.
Spirulina have also shown to perform regulatory role on lipid and carbohydrate metabolism by exhibiting glucose and
lipid profile correcting activity in experimental animals and in diabetic patients. Preparations have been found to be active
against several enveloped viruses including herpes virus, cytomegalovirus, influenza virus and HIV. They are capable to
inhibit carcinogenesis due to anti-oxidant properties that protect tissues and also reduce toxicity of liver, kidney and testes.
Key Words: Spirulina platensis, Ca-Sp, Sulpholipid, Cyanovirin-N, Phycocyanin, Beta-carotene, HIV, Immunomodulatory.
Spirulina, a planktonic blue green alga, is a traditional
food of some Mexican and African people. They are one of
the oldest forms of life growing in warm water alkaline vol-
canic lakes on earth for the last 3.5 billion years or so. The
cellular structure of this alga is spiral shape and similar to
that of a simple prokaryote. The most commonly used spe-
cies of Spirulina for nutritional supplements are Spirulina
platensis (S. platensis) and Spirulina maxima. This alga has
a long history of use as a food and can grow in many places
around the world . The alga possesses an amazing ability
to thrive in conditions much too harsh for other algae. Habi-
tats with sufficient Spirulina growth include the Pacific
Ocean near Japan and Hawaii, large fresh water lakes, in-
cluding Lake Chad in Africa, Klamath Lake of North Amer-
ica, Lake Texcoco in Mexico, and Lake Titikaka in South
America. It has a soft cell wall made of complex sugars and
protein . Increasing interest is being shown in S. platensis
by commercial firms because of its global market potential.
Several species contain very rich unusual nutritional profile
and the bioavailability of various nutrients is very high.
Moreover, Spirulina species exhibit anti-viral, anti-bacterial,
anti-fungal, anti-parasite activities. Spirulina preparations
contribute to preservation of resident intestinal microbial
flora, especially Lactobacillus and Bifidus that’s why it re-
duces potential problems from opportunistic pathogens like
E. coli, and Candida albicans .
Millions of people eat Spirulina cultivated in scientifi-
cally designed algal farms. Current world production of S.
platensis for human consumption is more than one thousands
metric tons annually. The USA leads world production fol-
lowed by Thailand, India, Japan and China. Several multina-
tional companies cash the nutritive and therapeutic value of
Spirulina and is marketed as different trademarks in the form
of powder or tablets (Table 1). They are being used for
*Address correspondence to this author at the Department of Biotechnology,
J.C. Bose Institute of Life Sciences, Bundelkhand University, Jhansi
284128, U.P., India; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
different purposes like weight loss,fitness, bodybuilding and
The Spirulina species contain significant amount of valu-
able proteins, indispensable amino acids, vitamins, beta-
carotene, mineral substances, essential fatty acids, polysac-
charides, glycolipids and sulpholipids etc [6-9, 45, 67]. The
addition of Spirulina to the diet can give a wide range of
vital nutrients. Certain features are common to all edible
Spirulina. They are accepted as functional food, which are
defined as products derived from natural sources, whose
consumption is likely to benefit human health and enhance
performance. Spirulina contains high level of various B vi-
tamins, and minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium,
manganese, potassium and zinc [6, 13]. They also act as a
suitable matrix for biotechnological incorporation of new
food trace element preparation. It is a good source essential
fatty acid , gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) [9, 45]. 10 gm of
Spirulina contains over 100mg of GLA [44, 57]. Protein
contents of Spirulina are very good. It contains up to 70%
protein of dry weight  which is ten times more than soy-
bean and three times to that of beef protein. It provides full
compliment of nine essential amino acids . Spirulina is
also known to contain high percentage of glycolipids and
sulpholipids . It contains 5-8% lipid, from which 40%
are glycolipids and 2-5% are sulpholipids which is of great
therapeutic value. Spirulina contains high amount of
bioavailable vitamin B
and this is particularly important for
vegetarians who often find it hard to get this nutrient in their
diet [10, 67]. Pigment content including chlorophyll and
beta-carotene and vitamin E level is also high . Pig-
ments, called phycobilins, include phycocyanin and allophy-
cocyanin [13, 20, 39]. Phycobilins are similar in structure to
bile pigments such as bilirubin. In Spirulina cell, phycobilins
are attached to proteins; the phycobilin-protein complex
called phycobiliprotein [4, 49]. Studies have shown that the
nutrients of Spirulina are readily absorbed by the body and
help to bring nutrient status up to normal level. This is espe-
cially true for minerals such as zinc and iron and vitamins
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374 Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 2005, Vol. 6, No. 5 Khan et al.
. In rats, Spirulina appears to be effective in improv-
ingthe iron status during pregnancy and lactation . Due
to easy bioavailability of nutrients including minerals, it may
be a good choice for women during pregnancy and lactation.
It is also beneficial for malnourished children . The
WHO has described Spirulina as one of the greatest super
foods on earth and NASA considers it as an excellent com-
pact food for space travel, as small amount can provide a
wide range of nutrients.
Table 1. Some Well Known Companies Marketing Spirulina
Name Industry/ Trading company Product name
MAF Group Company
73-4460 Queen Kaahumanu, Hwy, suit 102, Kailua, Hawaii 96740
3206, N. Wisconsin,Racine, WI 53402
Spirulina Tablet (200 mg, 500mg)
Jiangsu Cibainian Nutrition Food Co. Ltd.
New World Center, B Tower
40 floor, No.88, Zhujiang Road,
Nanjing City, Jiangsu Province, China
Spirulina Powder (Mod. No. 100, 112, 114)
Spirulina Tablet (Mod. No. 101, 108, 111, 113, 115)
Axem Agro, Food Pvt. Ltd.
House 197, Road-1, New DOHS,
Spirulina Energy Drink (200 ml pet bottle)
Spirulina Energy Drink (Powder form in sachet pack)
Spirulina Tablet (60’s pet bottle)
Spirulina-Garlic Coplet (60’s pet bottle)
Evolutionary Health Org. Ltd.
P.O. Box 8036
New Polymouth, New Zealand
Organic Spirulina powder
Organic Spirulina Tablet
Premium Spirulina powder
Premium Spirulina Tablet
Cosmetic & Pharmaceutical Industry,
Prits-Remy Str. 25, 63071, Offenbach, Germany
Nan Pao Pvt. Ltd.
Spirulina Tablet (200mg, 500mg)
Division of Health Genetics Corp.
9429 Harding Avenue, Unit 12,
Surfside, FL33154, USA
149 Valleyview Drive, China
Earthrise Nutritionals Inc.
Spirulina Green Super Food For Life
Spirulina Sunrise Bar
Nutrex Spirulina Pacifica
Quindao Binhua Industry Co. Ltd.
Biz Dimention Co. Ltd.
The Wolfe Clinic
Not For Distribution
Nutritional and Therapeutic Potential of Spirulina Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 2005, Vol. 6, No. 5 375
Spirulina used for the production of nutritional supple-
ments is either grown in outdoor tanks or harvested from big
bioreactors. Nutrient content depends on the location and
environment in which the alga grows. Harvesting procedures
may also influence the content of vitamins and antioxidants.
Percentage of specific components of Spirulina can be in-
creased or decreased according to need by growing under
regulated growth conditions.
BIOLOGICAL ACTIVITIES OF SPIRULINA
There is no doubt that Spirulina is a highly acknowl-
edged nutritious food. Beyond nutritional value, Spirulina
species possess specific therapeutic properties. Certain spe-
cies of Spirulina have shown to exhibit immunomodulating
and biomodulating properties. S. platensis has a positive and
regulatory effect on immune system. Studies indicated im-
muno enhancing properties of S. platensis in animals and
humans. Administration of this alga improved immunologi-
cal resistance in subjects with various types of cancer, AIDS
and other viral diseases.
EFFECTS OF SPIRULINA ON INNATE IMMUNITY
Spirulina showed specific positive effects on innate im-
mune functions and can affect the nonspecific immunity in
several ways. Novel sulphated polysaccharides isolated from
water extract of Spirulina, named as calcium-spirulan (Ca-
Sp) showed immunomodulatory and anti-viral activities [36,
Polysaccharides and phycocyanin from Spirulina in-
creased immunity in mice by enhancing bone marrow repro-
duction, thymus growth, and spleen [16, 19, 53, 55, 69]. It
was reported that Spirulina up-regulates key cells and organs
of the immune system improving their ability to function in
spite of stress from environmental toxins and infectious
agents. Studies on animal models documented that phyco-
cyanin of Spirulina stimulates hematopoiesis, especially
erythropoiesis by inducing erythropoetin hormone (EPO).
There is also evidence (Fig. 1-3) that c-phycocyanin and
polysaccharides of Spirulina enhance white blood cell pro-
duction [54, 55]. The percentage of phagocytic macrophages
increased when cats were administered water-soluble extract
of S. platensis . Increased phagocytic activity was also
observed in other animals such as mice and chicken [1, 17,
55]. The water-soluble extract of S. platensis induces secre-
tion of interleukines such as IL-1 from peritoneal macro-
phages . The activity of NK cells was also enhanced
significantly . Studies on chicken model showed in-
creased tumorcidal activity of NK cells [54-56]. Further
studies are needed to establish the exact biochemical mecha-
EFFECTS OF SPIRULINA ON SPECIFIC IMMUNITY
Experimental studies indicated that Spirulina products
buildup both the humoral and cellular arms of the immune
system Fig. 1-3 . Lymphocytes are key players of spe-
cific immunity. Spirulina stimulates mobilization of lym-
Fig. (1). Effects of spirulina on immune system. Spirulina enhance rate of production of RBCs and WBCs by enhancing hematopoeisis.
Spirulina also shows direct effect on both innate and specific immunity. Spirulina activate macrophage and NK cells. Spirulina induce pro-
duction of the antibodies. Spirulina also activate of T-cells.
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376 Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 2005, Vol. 6, No. 5 Khan et al.
phocytes and other immune cells in to the blood . It was
found that when mice were fed with Spirulina there was a
significant increase in splenic cells producing IgM antibody
[22,23]. Addition of water extract of Spirulina also increased
proliferation of spleen cells in culture. Several studies on
animal model indicated increased production of specific
classes of antibodies such as IgA and IgE [16, 44, 55]. It was
observed that Spirulina possess anti-allergic properties by
inducing IgA antibody against food allergens. Studies on rats
suggested mast cell inhibiting functions of Spirulina [32,
68]. Further studies revealed that phycocyanin of Spirulina
inhibit release of histamine and functions as anti-
inflammatory compound . Recently, it was observed that
phycocyanin enhances mucosal immunity . In a signifi-
cant contrast to its positive role on immune system, the Spi-
rulina products have be shown to exacerbate pre existing
autoimmune disease or precipitate autoimmune disease in
persons genetically predisposed to such disorder . In
mice, it is found that Spirulina induces the expression of bcl-
2 (an anti-apoptotic gene) in hematopoetic cells that may
inhibit apoptosis .
ANTI-VIRAL EFFECTS OF SPIRULINA
Spirulina exhibits a potent broad-spectrum anti-viral ac-
tivity. It protects human and monkey cells from viral infec-
tion in cell culture . Spirulina polysaccharides inhibit
replication of several enveloped viruses including herpes
simplex virus, influenza virus, measles virus, mumps virus,
human cytomegalovirus and HIV-1 [18, 22, 23, 36]. Ham-
sters treated with water-soluble extract of Spirulina showed
better recovery rates when infected with an otherwise lethal
herpes virus. Spirulina inhibits herpes virus infection at the
initial stage of viral cycle . Allophycocyanin neutralizes
the enterovirus 71 induced cytoplasmic effects in both hu-
man rhabdomyosarcoma cells and in African green monkey
cells . Spirulina extract can inhibit HIV-1 replication in
human derived T-cell lines and in human peripheral blood
mononuclear cells . Three compounds of Spirulina viz.,
Ca-Sp, Cyanovirin-N, sulpholipid have shown to exhibit
anti-HIV property [22, 23, 36]. However, the mechanism of
anti-viral activities of these compounds is poorly understood.
It is suggested that Ca-Sp and Cynovirin-N selectively inter-
fere at the initial stage of viral cycle to the host cells [22, 23,
36]; whereas sulpholipid interferes in the reverse transcrip-
tion of HIV-RNA (Fig. 2) . Thus Spirulina extracts may
become useful therapeutics that could help AIDS patients to
lead longer normal lives.
ANTI-CANCER PROPERTIES OF SPIRULINA
Spirulina preparations have shown to exhibit anticancer
activity in a number of experimental models. Spirulina-
Dunalilla extract significantly reduced the rate of tumor de-
Fig. (2). Effects of spirulina preparations on HIV infection to Target cell. Ca-Sp selectively interferes in the interaction of viral epitopes
and host cell receptor. Cyanovirin-N shows inhibitory activity during fusion. Sulpholipid interfere in the reverse transcription of HIV-RNA.
(RT = Reverse Transcriptase, a = HIV-ssRNA with RT, b = RNA-DNA hybrid, c = ds DNA).
Not For Distribution
Nutritional and Therapeutic Potential of Spirulina Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 2005, Vol. 6, No. 5 377
velopment in hamster buccal pouch  and a significant
recovery was observed in oral cancer patients . Spirulina
is the richest natural source of beta-carotene and phyco-
cyanin . Both β-carotene and phycocyanin contain anti-
cancer activity . Administration of phycocyanin to mice
with liver cancer significantly increased their survival rate.
Phycocyanin appears to possess hematopoietic function en-
hancing the thymocyte population, which in turn enhances
natural resistence against cancer, ulcer, bleeding piles and
other diseases (Fig. 1) [17, 54, 55, 69]. Phycocyanin may
also prevent cancer by scavenging DNA damaging agents
such as peroxynitrite . Recently, it is reported that c-
phycocyanin induced apoptosis of human chronic myeloid
leukemia cell line-K562 . The c-phycocyanin treatment
to K-562 cells resulted in typical apoptotic characteristics
including cytochrome-c release in to cytosol, cleavage of
PARP, cell shrinkage, membrane blabbing and DNA frag-
mentation. The c-phycocyanin treatment suppresses expres-
sion of bcl-2 with out affecting Bax (pro-apoptotic gene)
expression. Thus, the Spirulina seems to induce mitochon-
drial apoptotic pathway in tumor cells by tilting the bcl-
2/Bax ratio towards apoptosis . In an in vitro study, sul-
phated polysaccharides (Ca-Sp) appear to inhibit tumor inva-
sion and metastasis of B16-BL-6 melanoma. This anti-
metastasis activity is attributed to blocking the adhesion and
migration of tumor cells to laminin substrate and of the
heparanase activity . The Ca-Sp have shown to inhibit
proliferation of cancer cells including ascitic heptoma cells
and sarcoma cells by interfering in the synthesis of DNA and
RNA [34, 53]. The Spirulina is shown to possess a modula-
tory effect on hepatic carcinogen metabolizing enzymes that
may involve in anti-tumor .
METABOLIC EFFECTS OF SPIRULINA
Spirulina exhibits regulatory effects on lipid and carbo-
hydrate metabolisms . In addition to hypocholes-
terolemic effect, Spirulina also shows hypoglycemic effect
. Ninety per cent of diabetics are non-insulin dependent
and this syndrome can be effectively controlled with prudent
diet therapy. Diet with Spirulina supplementation signifi-
cantly reduces blood sugar levels and glycated serum protein
levels confirming the hypoglycemic effect of Spirulina .
In patients with type-2 diabetes mellitus, Spirulina diet low-
ered fasting blood glucose, postprandial glucose and reduc-
tion in the glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA-Ic) . Recent
studies revealed that Spirulina diet enriched with zinc had
beneficial effect on basal and postprandial glycaemia, con-
tent of cholesterol and triglycerides in type-2 diabetic pa-
Fig. (3). Therapeutically important compounds of spirulina and its effect.
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378 Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 2005, Vol. 6, No. 5 Khan et al.
In humans, Spirulina have shown to reduce the level of
cholesterol, triacylglycerol and LDL [31, 42]. The solvent
fraction of Spirulina suppressed cholesterol levels in the se-
rum and liver of rats [5, 24]. Spirulina diet in patients with
diabetes mellitus resulted in the reduction of atherogenic
indices . These findings indicate the beneficial effect of
Spirulina supplementation in preventing secondary compli-
cations in type II diabetics. Spirulina is also known to have
hypocholesterolemic effect in patients with hyperlipidemic
nephritic syndrome . The lipid lowering function may be
attributed to its ability to increase the activity of lipoprotein
lipase . Another important positive role of Spirulina in
alleviating heart diseases is its significant potential to lower
blood pressure .
OTHER EFFECTS OF SPIRULINA
The dietary intake of GLA can help in arthritis, heart
diseases, obesity, aging symptoms, manic depression, alco-
holism and schizophrenia . Spirulina is a good source of
GLA and exhibits good anti-oxidant properties [39, 50]. It
reduces kidney and testicular toxicity by heavy metals such
as mercury, lead and pharmaceutical drugs [59, 61, 62, 69].
Spirulina fugiformis significantly inhibits genotoxicity with
concomitant increase in the liver enzymatic and none-
enzymatic anti-oxidants and detoxification system [39, 50,
51, 62]. The inflammatory responses may partly be due to
accumulation of proinflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α,
and TNF-β and decrease of β-andergenic receptor function
and these functions are shown to be reversed by Spirulina
. Thus, Spirulina possess anti-inflammatory, anti-
oxidant, membrane stabilizing functions in various tissues
[15, 65, 66]. Spirulina preparations are widely used in cos-
metics and pharmaceutical compounds due to its anti-
bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-parasite and anti-oxidant activity.
Spirulina and its enzymatic hydrolyzates appear to promote
skin metabolism and reduce scars . Sodium-Spirulin
(Na-Sp) and Ca-Sp shows inhibitory effect on the progres-
sion of arteriosclerosis by inhibiting vascular smooth muscle
cell proliferation [27-28]. Studies also indicate that Spirulina
might help in weight loss and wound healing .
Several scientific findings suggested that Spirulina
proved to be a potential and ideal candidate for conjugative
therapy due to the possible synergetic effect of many phyto-
chemicals in whole cell. It has been demonstrated that the
use of Spirulina and its extracts may reduce cancer and viral
diseases. More research is needed to determine its usefulness
against AIDS and other killer diseases. Spirulina species also
have antibacterial and antiparasitic activity. Scientists in In-
dia, China, Japan, USA and other countries are studying this
remarkable food to unlock its potential. However, it is al-
ready clear that this safe and natural food provides concen-
trated nutritional support for optimum health and wellness.
The multifunctional role of Spirulina species makes it an
ideal natural drug with immense prophylactic and therapeutic
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