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March 2007 Issue
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Cancer breakthrough from shellfish discovery

 Animal Science

A New Zealand shellfish has given University of Adelaide scientists a breakthrough in the treatment of gastrointestinal diseases.

Experiments by Associate Professor Gordon Howarth and his team show that extracts of the Green-Lipped Mussel can help combat inflammatory bowel disease and intestinal mucositis - a side effect of chemotherapy.

The extract, Lyprinol, is a recognised anti-inflammatory product used to treat asthma and arthritis, but this is the first time that researchers have found evidence that it can also be used in the fight against an inflamed gastrointestinal tract.

Mucositis is an inflammation and ulceration of the lining of the mouth, throat or gastrointestinal tract, commonly associated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer.

Dr Howarth, from the Agricultural & Animal Science Discipline, said experiments with rats endorsed anecdotal evidence from hundreds of years ago, when Maoris and Polynesians consumed molluscs to help ward off disease.

"It looked like they may have been on the right track, judging by our laboratory results," he said.

Dr Howarth is half way through a three-year SA Cancer Council Research Fellowship to develop new strategies to combat mucositis, and new approaches to decrease inflammatory bowel disease.

Both projects involve the combined resources of the University of Adelaide and the Women's and Children's Hospital Gastroenterology Department.

He has a team of Honours and PhD students working on the projects, with some impressive results to date.

"The primary focus of my research, using proven animal model systems, is looking at the damage that chemotherapy can cause to the intestine and ways to mitigate this," he said.

Early tests show that positive bacteria known as probiotics can provide a drug-free form of controlling infection in the bowel.

"People tend to think of bacteria as negative micro-organisms, because we normally hear about it in terms of salmonella, or pathogens such as E coli, but there are also positive bacteria which help counteract the bad bacteria in the bowel.

"We have established that a member of the streptococcus family of bacteria is a new probiotic which can help treat mucositis in the bowel, along with the marine extract, Lyprinol."

Another probiotic, BR11, has been identified by Dr Howarth's team as a therapeutic agent to treat colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine which can lead to colon cancer.

The project team has also established that certain zinc supplements can help reduce the severity of both colitis and intestinal mucositis, Dr Howarth said.

Emu oil is another novel bioactive product being tested by the team for its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.

"Aborigines have used it for centuries to help heal wounds and muscle soreness. Like the Maoris and New Zealand mussel, its healing properties are mainly anecdotal, but we are now testing these beliefs in a scientific way and the early results are encouraging."

The team has now received ethical approval to use pigs for some of their scientific experiments, providing them with a better animal model than rodents for their research.

"Humans have a lot in common with the pig, certainly in terms of our intestine," Dr Howarth said.

Story by Candy Gibson

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Dr Gordon Howarth (left) with Women’s and Children’s Hospital cancer patient, 11-year-old John Nicholls, who is receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy for a head and neck tumour. John is highly susceptible to mucositis, the focus for 
Dr Howarth’s research.
Photo by Candy Gibson

Dr Gordon Howarth (left) with Women's and Children's Hospital cancer patient, 11-year-old John Nicholls, who is receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy for a head and neck tumour. John is highly susceptible to mucositis, the focus for
Dr Howarth's research.
Photo by Candy Gibson

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