UCL Division of Biosciences


CDB Seminar - Barry Halliwell, National University of Singapore

18 April 2024, 1:00 pm–2:00 pm

Photo of Barry Halliwell

Title: Antioxidants and Free Radicals in Human Health and Disease

This event is free.

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Michael Wright – Cell and Developmental Biology

Talk abstract: The field of free radicals, reactive oxygen species (ROS, a widely-used but very vague term) and antioxidants is an enormous one. My interest in them began during my D.Phil. in Botany at Oxford in 1971-73, during which I identified considerable production of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) by plant organelles, and its involvement in leaf metabolism. H2O2 is often argued to be a cytotoxic molecule, but actually it is widespread in the environment, including in human urine, water, cell culture, and some of the beverages we drink, especially coffee. Indeed, ROS and related species play key roles in Biology: they helped drive human evolution and they shape human development from fertilization onwards. H2O2 is an important molecule in many biological processes in vivo, especially in signalling. It becomes problematic when it encounters “catalytic” transition metal ions (especially iron), whereupon much more reactive and cytotoxic species such as hydroxyl radical (OH) are formed. Indeed, one essential antioxidant defence is to sequester iron and other transition metal ions in non-redox-active forms. Increased damage by ROS plays a role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias, and diets rich in antioxidants (high intake of fruits and vegetables) seem neuroprotective (as well as being protective against many other age-related diseases). However, attempts to treat / prevent such diseases by giving high doses of antioxidants such as vitamins E and C and carotenoids have, overall, been unsuccessful. Reasons for this will be discussed. A major focus of our work is a unique diet-derived thiol/thione with antioxidant properties, namely ergothioneine (ET). Low blood levels of ET are a risk factor for the development of neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases, frailty, eye disease, pre-eclampsia and age-related diseases generally. We have identified “adequate levels” of plasma ET in humans, levels below which are associated with increased disease occurrence, and the reasons leading to these low levels are under investigation. In animal studies, ET has exhibited the ability to modulate inflammation, scavenge certain ROS, protect against acute respiratory distress syndrome, decrease brain damage in models of Parkinson and Alzheimer diseases and stroke, prevent endothelial dysfunction, protect against ischemia-reperfusion injury, counteract iron dysregulation, hinder lung and liver fibrosis, and mitigate damage to the lungs, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, and testis. ET may also influence the gut microbiome. There is evidence that ET is specifically accumulated at sites of tissue injury, so we have called it an “adaptive antioxidant” that may not interfere with the normal physiological roles of ROS. But does low ET predispose to age-related diseases or is it a spurious correlation? Extensive cell and animal studies strongly suggest the former. Caveats in the use of ergothioneine supplements to prevent / ameliorate aged-related diseases include its potential to generate trimethylamine-N-oxide by the action of ergothionase enzymes in gut bacteria and its ability to be taken up by many bacteria, a few of which are pathogenic (e.g. H. pylori, M. tuberculosis). These caveats will be discussed.

Key References:

Halliwell B, Tang RMY, Cheah IK. (2023) Diet-derived antioxidants: The special case of ergothioneine. Ann. Rev. Food Sci. Tech. 14, 323-345 Halliwell B. (2024) Understanding mechanisms of antioxidant action in health and disease. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 25, 13-33.

Halliwell B and Gutteridge JMC. (2015) Free Radicals in Biology and Medicine. Clarendon Press, Oxford (fifth edition), UK.

Halliwell B. (2020) Reflections of an aging free radical. Free Radic Biol Med. 161, 234-245.

Zoom: https://ucl.zoom.us/j/94815766389 

Host: Claudio Stern, UCL CDB

About the Speaker

Prof Barry Halliwell

Professor at National University of Singapore

More about Prof Barry Halliwell