Natalie Lefort

Researcher Natalie Lefort is studying if a plant oil can deliver high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. (CBC/Ian Bonnell)

A study is underway at the Université de Moncton to determine if a plant oil can deliver high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, comparable to those found in fish oil.

The research is important because of the role omega-3s play in human health, and the sustainability of the current supply.

Université de Moncton professor Marc Surette began the study began about 10 years ago. It involved the screening of hundreds of plants containing omega-3s.

Omega-3s undergo a conversion process in the body to produce many health benefits including controlling inflammation.

Traditionally, fish oils have been the chief source of omega-3s, but due to dwindling fish stocks, researchers have been working to find a more sustainable source.

Surette and his team have identified the seed of a plant known as ahiflower or corn gromwell as having an omega-3 strain similar to that found in fish oil. That strain can be converted more efficiently than flaxseed oil, a common replacement.

Researcher Natalie Lefort has been part of the team for two years and she says the potential benefits for health and the environment are enormous.

"If we realized the tonnes of fish that are swept away from our oceans every year simply to extract their oil and bottle it and add it to animal feed as well, it would probably shock most of us," Lefort said.

"The premise behind the research is to find a more sustainable source."

Lefort began the clinical trial a month ago. Trial subjects will consume the ahiflower oil over six weeks. They give periodic blood samples and the data is then collected for further study. The subjects cannot eat any fish during this time.

Lefort says geography and the calendar worked together to create a unique problem in the selection process.

"We probably refuse one out of every three individuals who approach us….the first study was in the summer and that  was more of a challenge to request our participants refrain from eating their weekly lobster," she said.

Health experts are aware of the study and are excited to see the results.

Moncton pharmacist Peter Ford says the health of people everywhere will benefit if the study proves successful.

"There's no prescription drug I can think of that does as much to your body as an omega-3 oil does," said Ford.

He also recognizes the importance of this type of research being performed in the Maritime region.

"It's a huge step forward and I'm proud it's being done here in the Maritimes, specifically at the University of Moncton."

Lefort says the researchers are still looking for participants and expect to have the results next summer.