Understanding Diet and Kidney Health
Altering the impact of “bioactive lipids”
“They maintain the lining in the GI tract and they regulate sleep. They just do a lot of things.”
Dr. Harold Aukema didn’t realize it at the time, but growing up on a family farm in southern Ontario planted the seeds that grew into a rewarding career in medical research.
“On a farm you’re always fixing things and figuring things out,” says Dr. Aukema, Principal Investigator, Nutritional Lipidomics, Canadian Centre for Agri-food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM). “Looking back, I thought, ‘Well, what is it that draws me to research?’ You’re always problem-solving…and there’s always a solution. There’s always a way to figure something out. I think that’s what really appealed to me.”
His interest in research was solidified as a summer student in a University of Guelph lab when he observed his boss and thought to himself: “I want his job.” He fell in love with the idea of simply figuring things out.
These days from his labs at the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre and the University of Manitoba, Dr. Aukema and his colleagues are figuring out oxylipins, a complex and important set of bioactive lipids formed from fatty acids. Specifically, they are trying to determine how diet, nutrition, and functional foods affect the production of these bioactive lipids.
What role do these bioactive lipids play in our bodies?
“These bioactive lipids (oxylipins) are involved in everything from mediating pain and inflammation, to regulating blood pressure. They can actually lower blood pressure or elevate blood pressure, depending on which ones are there, and depending on which fat they came from,” explains Dr. Aukema. “They regulate kidney function, and are involved in the health of the gastrointestinal tract. They maintain the lining in the GI tract and they regulate sleep. They just do a lot of things.”
The goal of the work is to understand how what we consume could alter the production and improve the function of these bioactive lipids.
“Probably the easiest way to relate to all of these things that these bioactive lipids do is by thinking about aspirin,” explains Aukema. “Aspirin works by blocking some of these bioactive lipids that are involved in pain and inflammation. Basically, you block certain ones, your headache goes away, your inflammation goes down. That’s one way to do it using a drug like aspirin. If you eat different foods, and you eat different fats, you’ll also change the bioactive lipid profile.”
Dr. Aukema and team have looked at dietary interventions like fish oil, soy protein, dietary flax, and canola oil. By observing the behaviour of 150 different bioactive lipids, they have learned that plant oils high in omega-3 fatty acids (like flax oil) can slow down the progression of kidney disease. Another body of work has been studying the impact of high-protein diets on kidney health. The results seem to suggest that while high-protein diets offer some positive effects for body composition, they could pose risks for kidney health, particularly among obese people.
The discovery around flax oil could be especially important for rare polycystic kidney diseases where the patient can go into renal failure as early as their 20s. With proper dietary and drug interventions, it may be possible that failure could be delayed by changing the profile of the bioactive lipids in the body.
Much of the early work was conducted in partnership with a Japanese university that sent a visiting scientist to St. Boniface Hospital for three years. The universities are now looking for more ways to work together to advance this complicated, sometimes arduous research.
“We spend our lives trying to separate things that we can’t see. They’re very small. You’ll never see the molecule. They’re just tiny. We’re looking at things that weigh a billionth of a gram,” says Dr. Aukema. “These are things that are regulating what goes on in our body.”
The work requires patience and sophisticated equipment. It also takes a large team, and the funding to keep them employed for the long term.
“We definitely know how difficult it is to get the funding, so anytime someone steps up and says, ‘Hey, we recognize the importance of this,’ we’re thrilled. It helps grow our research enterprise,” says Dr. Aukema. “And when there are private donors who give research dollars and say, ‘Here it is. You’re doing good work in this area. Keep it up. I’m not going to tell you exactly what to do. I don’t want to tell you what results I want to see, but I just want to see that you do something, obviously.’ That’s fantastic. That’s a huge part of the way this institution works and the way public universities work. The public dollars are invaluable.”