Omega-3: the little fatty acid that could

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Touted as a ‘wonder drug’, Omega-3 supplements have been linked to lowering the risk of heart disease and delivering mental health benefits.

But to get at the oily goodness we currently harvest it from fish or krill and it loses potency as it comes into contact with oxygen.

To solve this problem, researchers at Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences are working on a process to synthesise the compounds that the body creates from Omega-3s and turn these into ground-breaking new treatments.

Delivering the benefits without harvesting

Using compounds that have been identified and synthesised in the lab, Deakin researchers may be able to cut out the middleman, delivering the health benefits of Omega-3s without the need to harvest fish for their oil.

Deakin’s Dr Jacqui Adcock, an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow, specialises in identifying anti-inflammatory compounds that could one day be used to treat a wide range of conditions including arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.

‘What I’m doing in the lab is taking some of the individual fatty acids from the fish oil and transforming them using plant enzymes that work in a similar way to the ones we have in the human body,’ Dr Adcock says.

By synthesising compounds that have been transformed by a process that mimics what would naturally take place in the human body, they have the potential to become more bio-active than the original fish oil. ‘This means that they could one day be used in pharmaceuticals,’ explains Dr Adcock, ‘but they can also be used as nutraceuticals.’

'What I’m doing in the lab is taking some of the individual fatty acids from the fish oil and transforming them using plant enzymes that work in a similar way to the ones we have in the human body.'

Dr Jacqui Adcock,
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

Nutra – what – icals?

Nutraceuticals are products that are derived from food sources and have extra health benefits. ‘In a similar way to the fish oil,’ says Dr Adcock, ‘you could take these as a preventative measure or they could be added to foods.’

One of the issues with taking fish oil as a supplement is that it doesn’t remain stable for very long. It is often transported across great distances, and by the time it hits the shelves in Australia the dosage has been significantly weakened by exposure to heat, light, and oxygen.

‘The nice thing about the synthesised compounds,’ says Dr Adcock, ‘is you would need much, much smaller doses than you do with fish oil. The compounds should be more stable than the fish oil itself because they are already partially oxidised and therefore less prone to oxidisation.’

From the lab to the patent office

At the moment, researchers at Deakin are synthesising a variety of compounds and testing their bioactivity. ‘If we get a lead compound that’s very effective then we’d be looking for a partner in the industry,’ says Dr Adcock.

Dr Adcock sees many potential real-world applications for her research once it reaches industry and is developed into products.

‘This could impact any disease with an inflammatory component to it and that has implications for a ridiculously wide range of diseases.’

Thanks to researchers at Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, compounds extracted from fish oil using plant enzymes today could be treating the arthritis and Alzheimer’s patients of tomorrow.

Find out more about research in Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

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Dr Jacqui Adcock
Dr Jacqui Adcock

ARC DECRA Fellow, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University
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