Researchers at Memorial University may have found a food supplement to prevent fatty liver disease in humans, a condition that can lead to insulin resistance, fibrosis, cirrhosis and even liver cancer.
Dr. Sean Brosnan, a biochemistry professor who co-authored a research paper published recently in the Journal of Nutrition, says creatine supplementation showed promise in lab rats that were fed high-fat diets.
The creatine was added to their drinking water and, during the experiment, the rats didn’t develop fatty liver disease, despite their poor diets.
Brosnan said he’s worked at MUN for about 40 years and “a passion of his life” is amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, but also synthesize neurotransmitters used by the brain.
“One of the other big things that amino acids do is synthesize a molecule called creatine,” which is abundant in all types of fish and dairy products, Brosnan said.
He said creatine has been studied for some time and it was suggested that it might be useful to prevent fatty liver disease, which is when the liver accumulates excess fat. There are two known types of fatty liver disease, caused by excess alcohol intake and high-fat diets.
The condition is fairly common in Newfoundland, Brosnan said, because of the traditional diet in the province being high in fat.
On its own, he said, it isn’t terribly damaging, but it can lead to other things, including insulin resistance, which is associated with diabetes, fibrosis, cirrhosis and, in a small number of people, even liver cancer.
“Knowing what we know about how fat is synthesized and deposited in the liver, and knowing what we know about creatine and how it’s synthesized in the liver, we thought that there might be a sort of connection between them, such as if we fed the animals a lot of creatine and placed them on a diet where they would normally get fatty liver, it wouldn’t occur,” Brosnan said. “And, wonderful to behold, that’s what happened.”
What’s particularly interesting, he said, is creatine seems to have a pretty good safety profile and is a compound the body already makes.
While it hasn’t been used as a drug, Brosnan said, hundreds of thousands of young athletes use creatine monohydrate to increase their strength.
In high intensity, short duration exercise, like weight lifting, he said, it “absolutely works” and isn’t a banned drug at the Olympics.
Brosnan said he would caution, however, that this is one experiment in rats and it won’t be known if it applies to humans as well without proper clinical trials.
“So, I absolutely must caution, I’m not saying go out and take creatine for this purpose,” he said.
Rats are very useful in many ways, Brosnan said, but a rat’s lifespan is only about three years.
So while they would develop disease quicker, he said, fatty liver disease develops in humans over 10 to 20 years.
Brosnan said he wouldn’t be able to do clinical trials himself because he’s not a clinician, but he will be talking to clinicians interested in fatty liver research.
Creatine is not expensive itself, he said, but doing any study like this on humans would be expensive and require experimentation approvals, the enrolment of patients and a research grant.
If such a trial is undertaken, he said it would take a couple of years before it could begin.
Brosnan said this project was a “great joy” involving a whole team of researchers, including a student, Rafael Deminice from Brazil, who came to MUN to get some experience in modern research techniques.
Robin da Silva of St. John’s, who’s finishing a PhD at MUN was also part of the team and Brosnan said they collaborated with Rene Jacobs, a Fogo native who studied at MUN and is now an assistant professor at the University of Alberta.
“So we brought together all of these talents and produced a really interesting paper, which has potential for human medicine,” Brosnan said.