Co-ordinator of the Mary Emily Clinical Nutrition Research Unit, Catherine Vanstone, with subjects Bill Mahon and James Vanstone (Fenny Ismoyo is serving).


Sound science that tastes good

BRONWYN CHESTER | Appropriately enough, the name of this unassuming house on a tree-lined street on the Macdonald Campus is a mouthful: The Mary Emily Clinical Nutrition Research Unit, Walter and May Stewart House. And mouthfuls are just what its occupants get: three times a day, sometimes for weeks on end. Mouthfuls of food that is, carefully regulated and sometimes laced with some nutrition-altering substance.

For the raison d'être of "Seven Maple (Street)," as the long-time users of the turn-of-the-century house fondly call it, is to provide a state-of-the-art nutrition research facility with all the comfort and amenities of home. Why? Because, unlike anywhere else in Canada, Mary Emily is a facility for research on humans, as opposed to the more usual type of nutrition research conducted on animals.

As Peter Jones, director of the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, put it last May at the opening of the new and refurbished unit: "The approach to scientific research is changing. In the past, we relied on animal models; we would feed laboratory rats higher concentrations of fat to see how it would affect their metabolism. Now nutritional research is more sophisticated and allows us to look at the human being itself."

The unique character of Mary Emily -- named in memory of the wife of G. Stewart Brown, whose support helped save the turn-of-the-century house from literally falling down -- is attracting a lot of attention from all manner of food companies, foundations for different diseases and researchers. Nutraceutical firms -- companies that use food products for therapeutic purposes -- have taken an interest in the facility as well.

At the moment, for instance, there are 15 men and women being fed three meals per day for a period of three weeks. Then they get a five-week reprieve, then return for a further three weeks and repeat the cycle one last time. Why? Because for each three-week period, the group receives a different supplement in the margarine used in meals -- some are placebos, but two might help reduce the subjects' blood cholesterol level. The latter are known as phytosterols and phytostanols, both of which are vegetable-derived cholesterols that seem to hinder absorption of animal-source cholesterols.

One nutraceutical company that has commissioned research by the unit has found a way of extracting phytosterols from the oils left over from the pulp and paper process. If phytosterols prove to reduce the cholesterol in butter, for instance, it will be good news for those at risk for heart disease, says Jones, on the phone from Vancouver where he is meeting with companies to discuss possible research contracts. "That would be turning a sow's ear into a silk purse."

Members of the School of Dietetics and Nutrition also use the facility to do research funded by granting agencies. Getting grants isn't always easy, though. Jones believes that his fellow researchers will reap rewards from having access to a facility that can attract a great deal of interest from corporations.

Major food and nutraceutical companies, not to mention farmers' organizations and foundations for various diseases, have expressed interest in contracting research on various subjects and substances. There's a fat, for instance, called "olestra," that's calorie-free. In the United States it's already in use, says Jones, but not here. "So there's interest in testing it here."

The subject of olestra raises a question, though. Used in things like potato chips, olestra is a source of controversy in the U.S., where critics say the fat has unwelcome side effects for some -- diarrhea, for instance. What if McGill researchers turn up something unpleasant about the products they're examining? What about the potential for a conflict of interest?

Jones says it's non-existent because the contracts stipulate that the McGill researcher may publish the study results regardless of the study's conclusions. "We're an independent contractor. We have no interest in the results."

Research subjects like Gord Bingham, however, are not the least bit indifferent to the results. Bingham, senior technician at the Institute of Parasitology at Macdonald Campus, has been very pleased by the decrease in his blood cholesterol levels since he began participating in cholesterol-related research trials three years ago.

"It's come down significantly without any weight loss," says the lean Bingham, just finishing lunch at the unit. Furthermore, he adds, "the food is good, it's a learning experience and I've made some friends."

Subjects also get thorough medical attention. Depending on the nature of the study, they may only eat at Mary Emily or take pre-packaged meals from the facility to eat lunch at work or supper at home, or they may stay overnight. The top floor is equipped to receive 12 and the unit can accomodate subjects for 24 hours or up to eight months.

Musing about the history of the facility, the unit's co-ordinator, Catherine Vanstone, says it's ironic how things have turned out. Back in the 1940s, young female students used the home to hone their skills for their household science programs -- when they came down from their top floor dormitory, it was to learn to cook and keep house downstairs.

Residents in the 1990s, on the other hand, come downstairs to be fed, to take exercise in an impressively equipped gym room or to relax with a video or a book on the veranda. And, depending on the study, they get paid, to boot.