Toxic weed found to harbor anti-aging and anti-inflammatory compounds

Fruits extracts in the cocklebur plant were found to reduce damage from UVB exposure, increase the production of collagen, and speed wound healing.
Deena Theresa
A cocklebur plant.
A cocklebur plant.

gchapel/iStock 

New research has found that a toxic weed has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components, ironically, that could make it an essential skin protectant.

The compounds in the cocklebur plant were found to reduce damage from UVB exposure and influence the production of collagen, known for the elasticity of the skin. The spiky fruits even sped wound healing in laboratory tests using cells and tissues.

Often found in roadside ditches and riverbanks, cocklebur is native to Southern Europe, Central Asia, and China but has spread worldwide. Its spiky fruits are covered in stiff husks and burrs and have been used in traditional medicines for headaches, stuffy noses, disorders of skin pigmentation, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer.

However, this new study is the first to examine the fruit's properties as a wound-healing agent and skin protectant.

"We found that cocklebur fruit has the potential to protect the skin and help enhance the production of collagen," Eunsu Song, a doctoral candidate at Myongji University in South Korea, who conducted the research with Myongji University Professor Jinah Hwang, said in a statement.

"In this regard, it could be an attractive ingredient for creams or other cosmetic forms. It will likely show a synergistic effect if it is mixed with other effective compounds, such as hyaluronic acid or retinoic acid, against aging," Song added.

An attractive and efficient ingredient for use in cosmetic

First, researchers explored the molecular properties of cocklebur fruit extracts and isolated particular compounds that could contribute to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Using cell cultures and a 3D tissue model which had similar properties to human skin, they studied how the fruit compounds impacted collagen production, wound healing, and damage from UVB radiation.

The results were highly positive and ticked all the aforementioned boxes. The researchers also compared the plant grown in various parts of the world and found that the fruits in South Korea had slightly higher antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and greater wound-healing activity than those grown in China.

However, cocklebur is a noxious plant, and high doses of fruit extract can be harmful.

"In its burrs, cocklebur fruit also has a toxic constituent, carboxyatractyloside, which can damage the liver," said Song. "Cocklebur showed potential as a cosmetic agent by increasing collagen synthesis; however, it showed negative results with higher concentrations. Therefore, finding the proper concentration seems very important and would be key to commercializing cocklebur fruit extracts in cosmetics."

Further research is needed to explore safe ways to adapt cocklebur fruit extracts for use in cosmetic products.

The research will be presented at Discover BMB, the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, March 25–28 in Seattle.

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