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Emu Oil(s): A Source of NonToxic Transdermal Anti-Inflammatory Agents In Aboriginal Medicine

By: Michael W. Whitehouse & Athol G. Turner, 

Dept. of Medicine, University of Queensland, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane Qld 

410px2, Australia, and Dept. of Biological Sciences, Sydney, Institute of Technology, 

Ultimo NSW 2007, Australia 

The emu (bush chook) is a free-roving large flightless bird indigenous to Australia, now farmed in Australia, Canada, Europe, and the U.S.A. The native Aboriginals and early white settlers in Australia rubbed on the liquid fat to facilitate wound healing and to alleviate pain and disability form various musculoskeletal disorders. 

An adult bird (15 months old) weighing 45 kg carries up to 10px kg of body fat, from which 7-8 litres of a thick oil is obtained by rendering at temperatures up to 90 degrees C. Filtering this semisolid fat at 25 degrees C yields 20-80% v/v of a clear oil (CO); the proportion varying with conditions of nurture and other factors (genetic stock, stress, ect.). 

The CO varies greatly in content of a) natural antioxidants (e.g., carotenoids, flavones), and b) skin permeation-enhancing (PE) factors e.g. unesterified oleic acid, sesquiterpenes. The content of alpha-linolenic acid (18:3) in total triglyceride fraction varies notably from almost zero (many farmed birds) to almost 20% (some feral birds), also reflecting significant differences in basal diet. So far, we have been unable to find any clear correlations between pigment or 18:3 content of a CO and its anti-inflammatory potency. 

Evidence for the variability in anti-inflammatory potency (AIP) of different emu oils was obtained using the rat adjuvant arthritis model (Snowden & Whitehouse 1997). To eliminate variations in PE content between clarified oils, 15% v/v cineole (eucalyptol) was added to all samples before testing. Olive oil was used as dilutent in dose-response studies with the maximum daily topical dose being 2 ml/kg of emu oil applied for four days to shaved dorsum of rats from the time of onset of arthritic symptoms. 

Some oils were equipotent with oral aspirin in the rat assay (ED50+300mg/kg) and showed analgestis activity in preliminary clinical studies. These active oils were fractionated to yield low-triglyceride concentrates with significant reproducible AIP (ED50+10pxmg/kg) when applied transdermally in bland oils (olive, lard, inactive emu oils). Remarkably these active concentrates (10pxmg/kg) effectively ablated arthritis development when co-administered with arthritigesic adjuvants (Ghosh et al 1995), a property shared with very few NSAIDs, e.g. nimesulide, oxindole, zinc monoglycerolate and Lyprinol (Whitehouse et al 1990, 1997). 

The best sources of active oils to date have been from Aboriginal owned farms in Western Australia and Queensland, with brood stock recently derived from feral birds and fed a mixture of grains with natural additives from the local bush. 

Ghosh P, Whitehouse M, Turner A, Dawson M, US patent No. 5,432,924. 

Snowden J, Whitehous M (1997) Inflammopharmacol (in press) 

Whitehoue MW, Rainsford, KD, et al (1990) Agents Actions 31, 47 

Whitehouse MW, Macrides TA, et al (1997) accompanying Abstract 

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