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.”