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Exploring the power of citrus fruits

Amy Burke

Amy Burke, BMSc'12, PhD Candidate, is working to prove the power of citrus fruits.

She’s researching the ability of grapefruits and tangerines to fight obesity and protect against heart disease.

“My project has been looking at two naturally derived molecules from citrus fruits,” Burke explained. “Nobiletin is derived from tangerines, and naringenin from grapefruits.”

With supervisor Murray Huff, PhD, these flavonoid molecules have been shown to prevent the onset of obesity-related disorders in vivo, if given at the same time as a high-fat diet.

“We termed it the ‘Western’ diet – it’s the equivalent of a McDonald's diet,” she said. “The molecules are then added to this diet, so the animal models are consuming them. They are eating the same high-fat diet, but it is supplemented with the flavonoids.”

Burke’s research has now shifted focus from prevention to reversing the effects of heart disease, using the two molecules to target the arterial lesions associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“Interestingly, with the addition of the flavonoids, obesity is corrected, insulin resistance is returned to normal and lipids are improved," she explained. "However, the arterial lesions don’t regress or shrink, but we’ve noticed that there may be a change in the morphology or the composition. This could contribute to a more stable lesion, which would reduce the disease burden.”

For Burke, the prevalence of disorders associated with obesity, such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, means her research has considerable potential.

“The implication is huge in our society, especially in North America,” she said. “Obesity rates and associated disorders are continuing to rise, and childhood obesity is a major concern.”

Burke, BMSc’12, is originally from British Columbia and completed her honors specialization in medical cell biology at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

It was during her fourth year undergraduate thesis project that she connected with Huff.

After interviewing for grad programs across the country, Burke decided to remain at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and join Huff’s lab. “I realized how good I had it, so I stayed here,” she said with a laugh.

She was accepted into the master's program with the Department of Biochemistry, soon transferring to the PhD track. And the decision to pursue her research career here has paid off.  

Burke recently received a three-year doctoral fellowship from the Canadian Diabetes Association, providing $21,000 of funding per year.

It’s funding that allows her the opportunity to be a part of ground-breaking discoveries, and move these discoveries toward clinical application.

“In theory, we would hope to bring these molecular supplements as a therapeutic complement to a patient’s treatment,” she explained.

Burke’s motivation comes from her ability to see the bigger picture and impact of her work.  “I’m emotionally and personally invested in what I do,” she said. “I feel a connection to people.”