A traditional medicine used by Australia’s Aboriginal people for thousands of years may help treat the clinical symptoms of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease estimated to affect more than 33,000 people in Australia alone.
New research by recent PhD graduate Lauren Chartier at the University of Adelaide showed that emu oil, given orally to a mouse model of ulcerative colitis, could reduce gut inflammation, disease symptoms and the development of cancer, which is a devastating complication of the disease.
Emu oil – previously discarded by farmers as a by-product – has, over recent years, been investigated for its medicinal properties. The new pre-clinical study, supported by the AgriFutures Ratite Program, has given the green light for a clinical trial that will test emu oil as a potential supplementary treatment for ulcerative colitis patients.
“Ulcerative colitis is usually diagnosed in children or adolescents, and unfortunately there is no cure,” said Dr Chartier. “Our pre-clinical evidence suggests that emu oil, taken orally as a supplement, may help reduce some of the clinical symptoms and potentially improve the quality of life for patients.”
New use for traditional medicines
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease that affects the inner lining of the large intestine. For those affected, the condition can be debilitating, with symptoms including diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and in more severe cases fever and weight loss. The condition can also lead to serious life-threatening complications, including colorectal cancer.
“New approaches to managing ulcerative colitis are urgently needed. Individuals affected by the condition are on life-long treatments, such as immunosuppressants and steroids, which have varying degrees of effectiveness and significant side effects,” said Dr Chartier.
Meanwhile, emu oil, extracted from the fat tissue of the native Australian Emu, has long been used medicinally by Australia’s Aboriginal people for its anti-inflammatory effects for thousands of years – albeit applied to the skin to help heal wounds and reduce pain.
Dr Chartier’s research team, led by Dr Suzanne Mashtoub and Prof Gordon Howarth, was the first in the world to investigate emu oil for its anti-inflammatory properties in the gut.
“My group previously demonstrated emu oil’s beneficial effects in mouse models for a number of gastrointestinal conditions, including chemotherapy-induced mucositis,” said Dr Chartier. “I wanted to take this research to the next stage during my PhD, and investigate whether emu oil could be potentially beneficial for the chronic inflammatory disease, ulcerative colitis and prevent cancer development.”
In a mouse model of ulcerative colitis, Dr Chartier found that orally-administered emu oil partially prevented some of the common symptoms, including bodyweight loss and diarrhoea, and improved other clinical indicators of disease, including colonic inflammation and behaviour. Crucially, mice receiving emu oil presented with fewer small colorectal tumours than untreated mice.
“We saw that the efficacy of emu oil could even be slightly improved by administering it in combination with plant extracts. These included grape seed extract, which has previously been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogen properties, and Kampo, a traditional medicine used in Japan,” Dr Chartier adds.
A path to improved colitis therapy
Dr Chartier’s encouraging pre-clinical data has provided the evidence required to start trialling emu oil in ulcerative colitis patients. Dr Chartier’s supervisor, Dr Mastoub and her research group have received approval and funding for a clinical trial that will test the potential benefits of emu oil in children and adolescents with ulcerative colitis, which are most at risk of long-term complications.
“Emu oil is not going to cure cancer, but if it can improve the patients’ quality of life and reduce side effects of other medications, that would be a huge benefit,” said Dr Chartier.
Further to the clinical trial, Dr Chartier is interested in exactly what makes emu oil so effective at reducing inflammation. The profile of lipids found in emu oil is for the most part not unusual and contains a high percentage of omega-9 fatty acids, she said.
“However, there is a fraction which makes up just two percent of the emu oil, which we know is high in antioxidants and flavones, but which we have not yet been able to analyse,” she adds. “I suspect this portion of emu oil may hold unique components, which could give us insight into what is really driving the emu oil efficacy.”
If the active components could be pinpointed, isolated and given to patients in a concentrated form, emu oil’s beneficial effects could potentially be enhanced, she adds.
“Emus used to be farmed mainly for their meat and feathers; their fat tissue was considered a by-product and discarded,” Dr Chartier said. “Today, emus are now more likely to be farmed for their oil than anything else – and that demand is only likely to grow.”
You can find a summary of Dr Chartier’s research here.