A naturally occurring chemical found in extra-virgin olive oils is anon-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent, report scientists from theMonell Chemical Senses Center and collaborators at the University ofPennsylvania, The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, andFirmenich, Inc.
Named oleocanthal by the researchers, the compound inhibits activityof cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes, a pharmacological action shared byibuprofen.
The finding is significant because inflammation increasinglyis believed to play a key role in a variety of chronic diseases. "Someof the health-related effects of the Mediterranean diet may be due tothe natural anti-COX activity of oleocanthal from premium olive oils,"observes Monell biologist Gary Beauchamp, PhD.
The findings are described in the September 1 issue of the journal Nature.
The scientists were led to the discovery by the serendipitousobservation that fresh extra-virgin olive oil irritates the back of thethroat in a unique and unusual manner. "I had considerable experienceswallowing and being stung in the throat by ibuprofen from previousstudies on its sensory properties," explains Beauchamp. "So when Itasted newly-pressed olive oil while attending a meeting on moleculargastronomy in Sicily, I was startled to notice that the throatsensations were virtually identical."
Taking their lead from the cues provided by olive oil'sthroaty bite, the scientists systematically evaluated the sensoryproperties of an unnamed chemical compound thought to be responsiblefor the throat irritating property of premium olive oils. When resultsconfirmed that the irritating intensity of a given extra-virgin oliveoil was directly related to how much of the chemical it contained, theresearchers named the compound oleocanthal (oleo=olive; canth=sting;al=aldehyde).
To rule out the possibility that any other compound wasinvolved, chemists at Monell and Penn created a synthetic form ofoleocanthal identical in all respects to that found naturally in oliveoil, and showed that it produced exactly the same throat irritation.Co-author Amos Smith, PhD, explains, "Only by de novo synthesis couldwe be absolutely certain that the active ingredient was oleocanthal."
The sensory similarities between oleocanthal and ibuprofen ledscientists at Monell and the University of the Sciences to investigatepotential common pharmacological properties. Studies revealed that,like ibuprofen, oleocanthal inhibits activity of COX-1 and COX-2enzymes. Because inhibition of COX activity underlies theanti-inflammatory actions of ibuprofen and other non-steroidalanti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the new findings suggest oleocanthalis a natural anti-inflammatory agent.
Monell sensory scientist Paul Breslin, PhD, who directed theresearch together with Beauchamp remarks, "The Mediterranean diet, ofwhich olive oil is a central component, has long been associated withnumerous health benefits, including decreased risk of stroke, heartdisease, breast cancer, lung cancer, and some dementias. Similarbenefits are associated with certain NSAIDs, such as aspirin andibuprofen. Now that we know of oleocanthal's anti-inflammatoryproperties, it seems plausible that oleocanthal plays a causal role inthe health benefits associated with diets where olive oil is theprincipal source of fat."
Beauchamp said future research will aim to identify howoleocanthal inhibits COX enzymes and how this is related to throatsting.
According to Breslin, "This study is the first to make thecase for pharmacological activity based on irritation and furthers theidea originally proposed decades ago by Fischer that a compound'sorosensory qualities might reflect its pharmacological potency."
The Monell Chemical Senses Center is a nonprofit basic researchinstitute based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For 35 years, Monell hasbeen the nation's leading research center focused on understanding thesenses of smell, taste and chemical irritation: how they function andaffect lives from before birth through old age. Using amultidisciplinary approach, scientists collaborate in the areas of:sensation and perception, neuroscience and molecular biology,environmental and occupational health, nutrition and appetite, healthand well being, and chemical ecology and communication. For moreinformation about Monell, please visit www.monell.org.
CITATION: Beauchamp, G.K., Keast, R.S.J., Morel, D., Lin, J.,Pika, J., Han, Q., Lee, C-H, Smith, A.B. III, Breslin, P.A.S.Ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil. Nature, 2005, 437,45-6.
FUNDING: National Institutes of Health
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