Hyaluronic acid is a polysaccharide found in the joints, cartilage, skin and eyes of animals. It serves many purposes within the body and has been studied as a remedy for arthritis. It is known among cancer researchers as a tumor marker--that is, it is present in higher levels when cancerous cells are more active. It is sold commercially as a pill for a variety of ailments including arthritis and cancer.
Hyaluronic acid was first isolated in 1934 by Karl Meyer, from the vitreous fluid of a bovine eye. When in the body, it is referred to as hyaluronan, and takes its name in part from its main location in the body, the hyaline cartilage. Its many other applications were first hinted at in studies in the 1950s by Albert Dorfman at the University of Chicago. He discovered hyaluronic acid’s production by bacteria and much of its biochemical action and structure. It has also been developed for nonmedical purposes over the years, including as a water-binding agent in cosmetics and creams, and is marketed as a skin-smoothing injection under the names Restylane and Juvederm.
Hyaluronic acid does not naturally occur in plant life. It is made in the body processes of animals. There was, however, a patent granted in the United States in 2009 on a method of producing hyaluronic acid using genetically altered plant cells, filed by a group of Japanese inventors. This would presumably be a more efficient and less costly way of making the polysaccharide for biomedical or commercial purposes, compared to extracting from animal cartilage.
The strongest clinical use of hyaluronic acid is in injectable form to treat osteoarthritis. It is thought to help the condition by increasing the viscosity and elasticity of the joint, or synovial, fluid, on a short-term basis. A 2000 article in American Family Physician noted some success with this treatment, especially when arthritis symptoms persist after other treatments. Hyaluronic acid is also often sold along with chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, in pill or capsule form. It likely has no effect in this form, as it is a simple carbohydrate and is broken down by the body before it can be used by joints or cartilage. In 2004, however, a process was patented that polymerizes the hyaluronic acid, breaking it into many smaller parts that are still usable by the body and easily absorbed by oral ingestion.
Role in the Body
Hyaluronic acid is present in many tissues of the body and has been studied for its role in tissue development, wound healing and cancer development. It is thought to be crucial to proper cardiac tissue development, since studies in mice show that without it, embryonic mice develop abnormal heart tissue. Bacteria and viruses also use this long string of sugars to form a protective coating around themselves, making them more virulent. The acid appears to not only aid cell movement and development, but aids invasive cell behavior and transformation into cancerous cells.
There is little scientific information on whether the production of hyaluronic acid can be stimulated in the body by ingesting plant or animal food sources. Many nonscientific sources suggest magnesium- and zinc-containing foods such as starchy root vegetables can help your body increase production of hyaluronic acid. Others suggest the ingestion of soups or mixtures made with animal bones, joints and cartilage, although this presents the same problem as other nonpolymer ingested forms.