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Separated by coma

UA Researchers Invest in Marine Molecules for Health and Cosmetics

The COMBO research project, which has received €4 million in funding from the European Commission, brings together 13 national and international partners, including the University of Angers, and seeks to develop new strategies for supplying marine molecules to the health and cosmetics markets. Nicolas Papon, professor of parasitology and medical mycology, and coordinator of this project at UA, explains the importance of the project.

Nicolas Papon, professor of parasitology and medical mycology at UA, and Vincent Courdavault, researcher at the University of Tours.
Nicolas Papon, Professor of Parasitology and Medical Mycology at UA admits that the project started as a "crazy idea" in the Summer of 2022. In the middle of a discussion with his former colleague Vincent Courdavault, a researcher in the Plant Biomolecules and Biotechnologies research unit at the University of Tours, Nicolas Papon mentioned the problem of access to drugs derived from marine products (corals, algae, sponges) used to treat cancer, and their "outrageous" price.

Bio-production using "factory cells", i.e. producing drugs using reprogrammed microbes, is an alternative that is being used more and more, replacing chemical synthesis, which is very costly and not very environmentally friendly.

This is a fast-growing strategy for the supply of plant-based treatments for cancer, a scientific field in which Nicolas Papon and Vincent Courdavault had been working for many years. They concluded: "Why not do the same for drugs derived from marine organisms?"

Understanding how molecules are produced

The research continued, leading to an initial publication in Biotechnology Advances with a New Zealand researcher. Following the  encouraging results, Nicolas Papon and Vincent Courdavault were joined by Olivier P. Thomas, a professor at the University of Galway (Ireland). They each called on their academic and industrial networks, and once the partners had been found, they brought them together for the first time in September 2022. "Very quickly, we were supported by the Universities of Tours (and Le Studium) and Galway. UA's Cap Europe unit also provided tremendous support. Less than six months after my discussion with Vincent, our 130-page application was sent out in March 2023 and we received a positive response from the European Commission at the end of July".

The COMBO project will start on 1 January 2024 and will allow knowledge to be transferred from terrestrial (plant and microbial) biotechnology to marine biotechnology using genomics and metabolic pathway engineering.

In practical terms, the researchers will be sampling marine species (algae and sponges) that synthesise small quantities of molecules with high therapeutic potential, known as secondary metabolites (terpenes and alkaloids). All the genes involved in the synthesis of these natural medicines will first be researched in the genomes of these marine species. They will then be transferred to microbial cells to reconstruct their biosynthesis pathways. The reprogrammed micro-organisms will consequently be able to produce large quantities of these precious marine medicines at low cost.

"By exploring a little further, we realised that it's not just the sea sponge that synthesises the molecule: it can be associated with a microalga, which itself is in symbiosis with a bacterium", sums up the director of the research unit SFR Icat. "This is what we call a holobiont, i.e. several organisms that contribute to thr functioning of the whole."

In Angers, researchers from the Respiratory Fungal Infections (IRF) laboratory will be tasked with characterising the biological activity (anti-infectious, anti-cancer) using controlled cellular models. "We want to understand why these molecules are active and how we can improve their performance."

Thirty-three pharmaceutical compounds of marine origin are currently undergoing clinical trials worldwide. This number is set to increase with the development of high-throughput activity screening technologies. It's an ambitious and innovative project that's also environmentally friendly since production will be carried out in a controlled process using micro-organism factories in confined environments rather than real marine organisms", concludes Nicolas Papon. "So it's also a way of protecting marine species."


  • Université d’Angers (France)
  • Université de Tours (France)
  • CNRS (France)
  • National University of Galway (Ireland)
  • Wageningen Université (Holland)
  • Tekniske Universitet (Denmark)
  • University of Cape Town (South Africa)
  • University of Utah (United States)
  • Universidad de Santiago de Compostela (Spain)
  • Mungo Murphy’s Seaweed Compagny (Ireland)
  • Fundacion Centro de Excelencia en Investigaciones (Spain)
  • Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant (Belgium)
  • Hortimare BV (Holland)