Emu oil: wonder drug or quack medicine?

08/01/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON Sun Staff

LOWELL It could be a wonder drug, able to cure arthritic pain and heal wounds.

Or it could be of little value, another loser in the hit-or-miss world of medicinal research.

At the center of it all is the emu, a large, ostrich-like bird known for its odd stare and unfriendly nature.

Believers say oil from the fat of emus has anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe wounds and prevent blisters from burns. In fact, products are already on the market touting the healing powers of the Australian bird's fatty oils.

But scientists aren't so certain. Researchers at UMass Lowell are undertaking studies to determine whether the properties tied to emu oil are fact or fiction.

So far, nothing has been proven.

"I really think there's something there," said professor Robert Nicolosi, who is heading the research project at UMass Lowell. "But we don't know where it is or what it is."

Nicolosi is optimistic about the oil's potential, but he is so concerned about the unsubstantiated marketing claims that he recently taped a segment for "Good Morning America" that highlights his research and the uncertainties surrounding emu oil.

Nicolosi and his team of researchers are conducting studies funded by the American Emu Association, which is hoping to prove once and for all that emu oil works.

"It's never been scientifically proven," said Pat Sauer, director of the American Emu Association. "That's what the association is trying to do now scientifically prove those things."

What the UMass Lowell researchers have discovered so far is that emu oil does have some anti-inflammatory properties when used on mice. But that, stresses Nicolosi, is very different from use on humans. The research by Nicolosi's team will be the third performed on laboratory mice. Their paper is being submitted to a peer-review journal.

When the American Emu Association first called Nicolosi to ask if he would research the compound, he was somewhat wary.

"You immediately think it's snake oil, and you don't want to take their money and you don't want to waste your time," Nicolosi said. "I didn't think this stuff was going to work."

Then he began running experiments with mice. And the researchers discovered that not only did emu oil reduce inflammation, but it worked even better than fish oil, a known anti-inflammatory agent.

In their experiment, fish oil reduced the thickness caused by inflammation in mice by 55 percent; emu oil by 70 percent.

The next step in the process is to vary the amount of emu oil used to see how much is required to have the same effect. Then researchers will partition out different components of the emu oil to see which part of the oil contains the active ingredient.

Human clinical trials, while far off, are also a necessity if the oil is to be scientifically proven to work.

"The science is great insofar with what we've done with mice," Nicolosi said. "But mice are not patients."

The possible uses of emu oil extend beyond arthritic pain and soreness. Researchers in Australia are also looking into the cholesterol-reducing aspects of the oil and its use as a delivery device for other drugs.

If found to be effective, an arthritis drug like Celebrex could be applied directly to the skin using an emu oil cream. Rather than ingesting the drug and suffering side effects, patients could simply apply it directly to where it hurts.

"If we have our way about it, we'll go through our trials and make it available to the public," Nicolosi said. "But that's a ways away."