Science boss: Omega-3s could get boost by aping pharma doses

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags: Fatty acid

It was has a huge challenge for Nils Hoem, Aker Biomarine’s chief scientists, to understand the specifics of nutraceuticals when he first arrived at the Norwegian krill oil manufacturer in 2008 after a career in pharmaceuticals.

He says that researchers tend to think that pharmaceuticals carries the gold standard for how to carry out clinical research, adding that this is a correct viewpoint. 

But it’s not the case for nutra research, which requires you to know what people eat to a much larger degree than pharma​. 

In pharma, food is seen as an annoyance and you try to control for it, while in nutra, food is at the very centre of our attention. You could make a lot of mistakes in clinical research for nutra if you forget about this​.”

In one of the most researched substances on any scale, this shouldn’t really surprise us. Omega-3s are just one iteration away from fats, but we tend to forget that we are made out of it. 

Our cells are defined by their cell membranes, which are made of phospholipids. It shouldn’t surprise us that the precise composition of these membranes has consequences for our wellbeing. Any disfunction—such too much stiffness in the membrane—means that it will not accommodate the proteins or the enzymes or the machinery that goes in there.

If I were to vote for the molecule of life, it would be for phospholipids​,” Dr Hoem says. “We know that fluidity of the membrane is important, and fluidity is a direct consequence of what type of lipids go in there​.”

And then there’s lipid signalling, which researchers are becoming increasingly aware of. Cells need to talk to other cells as conversational traffic builds up between a cell and its neighbouring cells. The means for that communication is in fact by transformed lipids that are cannibalised out of this membrane. 

We are not even close to fine-tuning our research​,” says Dr Hoem. “There is a lot that we do not know. It used to be believed that fats are just digested and taken out. Now we know that is not the case and our bodies react differently to triglycerides and phospholipids​.”

This doesn’t mean that either one is more important, though it’s better to have a good mix of both. But research on lipid signalling has so far only scratched the surface. Research on the importance of lipids for cognitive health is only beginning. 

There is still much to be done by Dr Hoem and his colleagues. “Research in these fields is very demanding. We need many more long-term prospective studies to get under the hood of what’s going on​.

For the last few years we have begun to realise that certain types of food will influence your health, and now we are going back to try to understand what we can do with our food to influence our health. Doctors will be back on that track soon​.”

Dr Hoem’s employer, Aker, is one of the lead backers of the omega-3 index test pilot project in Australia. As chief scientist, he hopes that widespread use of the blood spot test kits will demonstrate to practitioners the efficacy of omega-3 products. 

Distributed to pharmacists and sold for A$70 (US$53), the kits include a simple finger pricking test which is to be sent to the commercial laboratory of William Harris, an eminent omega-3 researcher in America.

The lab emails the results as a percentage through a formula devised by Prof. Harris to represent the level of omega-3s in cells compared to all other fatty acids in them. Average levels range from an ordinary 4% for most people through to an ideal 8%. The Japanese weigh in at a well-oiled 10%.

The data from the tests will be used to build a picture of omega-3 levels across Australia before Prof. Harris and his partners extend the project to Europe and America, though there is no working timeframe yet.

By being able to link the effect of a nutraceutical compared to its dose size, the study takes Dr Hoem back to his pharma roots. It is one of the reasons why, he believes, the pharmaceuticals industry has been so successful over the years.

In pharma​, a specific dose gives a specific effect. Now we can start on that journey once again with the omega-3s​.”

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