Xavier searches for grains of truth
When St Paul said to St Timothy “take a little wine for the good of thy stomach,” he was guessing. A couple of thousand years later researchers like Deakin’s Dr Xavier Conlan no longer have to guess.
In fact they are able to recognise to the smallest degree just what it is in the wine that does the good to the stomach when you next raise your glass in a toast.
Or eat your toast.
Dr Conlan is part of a team of scientists at Deakin that has set out to identify the human health benefits caused by bioactives in grains, olives and wine – a search that will provide increased business opportunities for Australian primary producers as well as producing the next generation of cutting edge analytical equipment.
Bioactives are specific molecules that have useful, health-giving properties. Once recognised and even separated, they can be used in the development of medicines and functional foods.
Functional foods are those with components - including anti-oxidants - that provide a specific health benefit.
“What we are about at Deakin on this project is developing the instrumentation looking at screening these sorts of good compounds,” Dr Conlan said.
“We know the stuff is there. We are developing the instruments that, using chemiluminescence, can highlight that.”
Once highlighted, there are two potential steps forward.
They can be extracted and made into pharmaceuticals.
“The other thing that can be done is that we can say with certainty that if you eat a particular functional food, yes you will get half your daily dosage of whatever bioactive is in it,” Dr Conlan said.
“That’s important information for consumers to know and it’s also important information for the farmers, who can use that information to promote the healthy attributes of their product and increase their market share and profits.
“It’s one of the benefits industry groups can derive from working with us on projects like these. Farming groups are probably more interested in functional foods than pharmaceuticals because the benefits flow to a broader range of people.”
And you sense Dr Conlan has a bit of a soft spot for farmers.
He grew up on a 1000-acre sheep farm near Ballan in rural Victoria.
It was that childhood that has driven him to become one of the world’s leading chemists and instrument makers, but not in the way you might expect.
“I had too many years throwing hay bales around as a kid to know that I was not going to be a farmer,” he joked.
“My plan in life was to find something that never felt like going to work, to do something that I like.
“This sort of cutting edge research, well it’s too exciting to consider it going to work.”
Initially it might seem that working on Deakin’s Geelong Campus at Waurn Ponds and living in nearby Highton, Dr Conlan hasn’t ventured too far from the farm.
However, that ignores a three-year stint in Manchester where he was also involved in groundbreaking instrument development while completing his PhD.
“My background is in instrument design as much as raw chemistry,” he said.
“So my PhD was heavily involved in developing high-end instrumentation, looking at the fundaments of the chemistry behind these instruments and then seeing how they can be applied to real world problems.
“In Manchester we were able to use the data produced by our mass spectrometer to build chemical maps. Working with the drug companies, we could make a two dimensional chemical map.
“The key to our work was that we could getting a chemical map down to a cellular level, a chemical image of tens of microns.
“Some of the work was done on prostate cancer cells and they were able to isolate within the cell where certain molecules were. They found copper to be quite important in prostate cancer cells.
“We were also able to help people building semi-conductors or fine electrical components, making sure the metal they want is going to the right area of their microchip.
“Off the back of the work I did there, they are now able to build three dimensional maps.”
Dr Conlan’s personal map was always going to bring him back to Australia, and probably Geelong.
“My wife is from Geelong, we have three children now,” he said.
“And Deakin has a brand new mass spectrometer which essentially I am in charge of.”
And of course, there are all those bottles of wine that have to be examined.
“We only take a small amount from each bottle, so I guess we will have a barbecue soon and invite people to share the rest of it,” he quipped.
But only in moderation, and for the good of thy stomach!