Phycocyanin - a marine anticancer agent

Phycocyanin - a marine anticancer agent

Phycocyanin, a protein derived from marine cyanobacteria, marine organisms, seaweeds, and algae, has significant anti-cancer properties as well as anti-oxidative properties, anti-inflammatory activity, immune enhancement function, and liver and kidney protection effects.

Many studies have now shown that phycocyanin has an anti-cancer effect, and can both block the proliferation of, and kill cancer cells (1). Phycocyanin exerts anti-cancer activity by blocking the tumour cell cell cycle, and inducing tumor cell apoptosis and autophagy. Phycocyanin is a promising anti-cancer agent.

While Phycocyanin is toxic to cancer cells, it is non-toxic to healthy cells (2). It is derived from algae such as chlorella or spirulina and is itself highly nutritious.

Phycocyanin is a photosynthetic protein which can capture light energy effectively. It cooperates with chlorophyll and algae boosting their oxygen and helping them absorb light energy.

Phycocyanin belongs to the phycobiliprotein (PBP) family, characterised by a deep and intense blue color. Phycobiliproteins can be divided into three categories: phycoerythrin (red), phycocyanin (blue), and allophycocyanin (bluish green). Phycocyanin is approved by the FDA as a blue food colouring.

While it can be found in spirulina, the safety of spirulina has come into question due to possible presence of microcystin, a toxin produced by the bacteria; the food may also contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. Phycocyanin can, itself, be found as a supplement.

Phycocyanin has numerous benefits, as shown in research:

  • It has antioxidant and antiinflammatory benefits and has been shown to protect the liver (3,4)
  • It can be activated by light and lasers and used as an agent in photodynamic therapy (5)
  • It can enhance cancer therapies by attaching to the scavenger receptors of Tumour Associated Macrophages (6)
  • It has in vitro and in vivo research showing effectiveness against breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma, leukemia, liver cancer and bone marrow cancer amongst others.

Marine-derived anticancer drugs:

Phycocyanin is not alone as a marine-derived cyanobacterial anti-cancer agent. There are now a number of marine anti-cancer drugs, some including the Phycocyanin peptide: -

  • Cytarabine (Cytosar-U®) - derived from a Caribbean sponge; approved for the treatment of leukemia
  • Trabectedin (Yondelis®) - derived from a toxic sea squirt; approved for the treatment of soft tissue sarcoma and ovarian cancer.
  • Eribulin mesylate (Halaven®) - derived from the marine sponge, it blocks microtubule formation - used in breast cancer.
  • Brentuximab (Adcetris®) - derived from marine cyanobacteria; approved for Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Plitidepsin (Aplidin®) - derived from a sea squirt; approved in 2018 in Australia for the treatment of multiple myeloma, leukemia, and lymphoma .
  • Polatuzumab vedotin (Polivy) - derived from marine bacteria; approved in 2019 for the treatment of B-cell lymphomas, non-Hodgkin lymphomas, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
  • Enfortumab vedotin (PADCEV) - a monoclonal antibody derived from marine cyanobacteria; approved in 2019 for the treatment of metastatic urothelial cancer.
  • Belantamab mafodotin (Blenrep) - monoclonal antibody derived from sea moluscs and cyanobacteria; approved in 2020 for the treatment of relapsed and refractory multiple myeloma.
  • Lurbinectedin (Zepzelca) - derived from marine cyanobacteria; approved in 2020 for the treatment of metastatic small cell lung cancer.
  • Ibrane - derived from a marine alkaloid; approved for metastatic breast cancer.

Phycocyanin supplements

You don’t have to buy Spirulina.

Phycocyanin as a stand alone compound is many times more active than spirulina. It is water soluble and non-toxic.

Phycocyanin is actually a derived peptide (a part of a protein) from the blue wall of spirulina.

C-Phycocyanin (CPC), a pigment-protein complex from the light-harvesting phycobiliprotein family can be derived from several different algae.

It is suitable for vegans.

It is unstable to heat, light and acid.



  1. Phycocyanin: A potential Drug for cancer treatment; J Cancer, 2017 8(17) 3416-3429; Lianggian Jiang et al -
  2. Ravi M, Tentu S, Baskar G, Rohan Prasad S, Raghavan S, Jayaprakash P. et al. Molecular mechanism of anti-cancer activity of phycocyanin in triple-negative breast cancer cells. BMC cancer. 2015;15:768.
  3. Romay C, Armesto J, Remirez D, Gonzalez R, Ledon N, Garcia I. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of C-phycocyanin from blue-green algae. Inflammation research: official journal of the European Histamine Research Society [et al] 1998;47:36–41.
  4. Bhat VB, Madyastha KM. C-phycocyanin: a potent peroxyl radical scavenger in vivo and in vitro. Biochemical and biophysical research communications. 2000;275:20–5.
  5. Li B, Chu X, Gao M, Li W. Apoptotic mechanism of MCF-7 breast cells in vivo and in vitro induced by photodynamic therapy with C-phycocyanin. Acta biochimica et biophysica Sinica. 2010;42:80–9.
  6. Wan DH, Zheng BY, Ke MR, Duan JY, Zheng YQ, Yeh CK. et al. C-Phycocyanin as a tumour-associated macrophage-targeted photosensitiser and a vehicle of phthalocyanine for enhanced photodynamic therapy. Chemical communications. 2017;53:4112–5.
2021 Research
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