MU professor finds plant oil could help to combat obesity

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 | 5:57 p.m. CDT; updated 9:10 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 13, 2011
James Perfield, an assistant professor of food science and nutrition and exercise physiology at MU, stands in front of a chemical hood in his lab in Eckles Hall on April 6. Perfield is studying the obesity-fighting powers of sterculic oil, found naturally in wild almonds.

COLUMBIA — Jim Perfield has scattered Post-it notes around his desk with scientific health questions he'd like to tackle. He's starting with obesity.

An MU assistant professor in the departments of nutrition and exercise physiology and food science, Perfield, 33, said he is trying to better understand the relationship between nutrition and obesity.

He has conducted research on a plant oil with the potential to reduce stomach fat by inhibiting an enzyme involved in the metabolism of fatty acids.

It could be used not only to achieve a tighter stomach but also to avoid a number of health issues associated with obesity, such as diabetes, heart disease and liver problems.

Sterculic oil was fed to rats as part of their diet, and Perfield found rats who consumed the oil ended up with less belly or "intra-abdominal" fat than rats who weren't given the oil.

Perfield and his lab conducted the experiments with a breed of Japanese rats prone to obesity. These rats don't have a hormone receptor that helps them regulate how much they eat, he said, so they eat large meals more frequently, making them ideal for this type of research.

After nine weeks with their adapted diet, Perfield said the rats had 10 percent to 20 percent less stomach fat than the control group. There was also an increase in insulin sensitivity — a positive result, given the link between obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

After someone eats a meal, blood glucose, or sugar, levels go up. This signals the pancreas to secrete insulin. In non-obese people, insulin directs fat and muscle tissues to absorb the glucose, which happens in a fairly short time.

In an obese individual, even though insulin might be secreted, cells don't use it as efficiently. Glucose, then, is removed from the blood less easily, and higher levels of insulin are needed and blood glucose levels are elevated. This is how obesity causes Type 2 diabetes.

After being fed a diet with sterculic oil, the rats' blood glucose was reduced, suggesting improved ability to take glucose up in tissues and improved insulin sensitivity.

They also showed reduced amounts of fat in the liver, Perfield said.

"Regardless of the reason, if you have an increased amount of fat in your liver, you're probably less healthy," he said.

Sterculic oil is extracted from the seeds of the Sterculia foetida tree, sometimes called the "wild almond tree" and found in India and surrounding areas.

Perfield said he's always been interested in obesity.

"I definitely approach it with scientific interest because these things interest me, but I also feel like it's a serious issue that needs to be addressed," he said.

He grew up in upstate New York and studied lipid metabolism in dairy cows in graduate school at Cornell University, which is where he first learned about sterculic oil. As a postdoctoral researcher, he studied adipose — fat — tissue and obesity. When he was hired at MU, he decided to study the effects of sterculic oil in a model of obesity.

Perfield has conducted the same experiment with a strain of mice prone to obesity, and the results of that experiment were released this week. Next, he said, he hopes the team will conduct research on trying to combat obesity and diabetes, rather than simply preventing them.

"Given the potency that we've seen of the oil so far, I don't see any reason why over time you wouldn't see a correction (of symptoms) also," he said.

Perfield said there is still plenty of work to be done.

"We also see some other things that are changing that may be secondary effects or indirectly related," he said. "So understanding the mechanism by which the oil works and what tissues are involved will better help us understand what therapeutic applications this oil could be used for."

In addition, the university is also in the early stages of determining if there is any commercial interest in the oil.

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