Food advertising tells us to eat foods high in anti-oxidants to help our body fight off damage from free radicals and carcinogens, but the anti-oxidant content of food is only part of the story, as Professor Christine Winterbourn, Director of the Free Radical Research Group in the Pathology Department at the University of Otago, will explain in her upcoming lecture tour.
“Our antioxidant defences are in part derived from diet, but most important are cellular enzymes that promote the breakdown of free radicals or repair the damage that they cause,” says Professor Winterbourn.
Interestingly, the food we eat affects the body’s anti-oxidant system. “When you eat certain foods, like red wine, chocolate or broccoli, there are compounds in these foods that trigger our own cells to mount an anti-oxidant defence by producing anti-oxidant enzymes.”
This means that the rush to promote foods with high anti-oxidant content is telling only part of the story to consumers.
One good example is dark leafy greens, like broccoli. While broccoli doesn’t show a high anti-oxidant response in a test tube, in the body it can act to increase cellular anti-oxidant enzymes. This is likely related to the compounds responsible for the bitter taste. So mum was right, we should eat our greens.
Professor Winterbourn was awarded the 2011 Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s top science and technology honour, and is the first women to have received the award in its 20 year history.
Professor Winterbourn’s work on free radicals began when it was just becoming apparent that they are produced as part of normal metabolism, when her team showed that radicals are generated from oxygen in red blood cells as it is transported around the body.
Since then she has worked hard on understanding the chemistry of the body’s anti-oxidant systems.
“You can put things in a test tube and understand the chemical reaction, but in the cell there are hundreds of reactions happening at the same time. Understanding how they all interact is a challenge, but it is key to understanding how the body works.”
Professor Winterbourn will also cover some of her work “taking chemistry to the clinic” in her lecture. One example is her research to understand oxidative stress and inflammation in chronic lung injury in premature infants.
Professor Winterbourn was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit – CNZM, for services to science in June 2012, and she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
The 2012 New Zealand Rutherford Lectures are free and open to the general public.
- Nelson – Tuesday 10 July, 7pm, The Suter Theatre, 208 Bridge Street
- Christchurch - Wednesday 11 July, 7pm, C1 Central Lecture Theatre, Arts Road, University of Canterbury
- Wanaka - Thursday 12 July, 6pm, Armstrong Room, Lake Wanaka Centre, 89 Ardmore Street
- Wellington – Thursday 19 July, 7pm, Soundings Theatre, Te Papa Museum, Cable St
- Napier – Tuesday 24 July, 7pm, Exhibition Hall, Wall Memorial Conference Centre, 48 Marine Parade
- Auckland – Wednesday 25 July, 7pm, Auditorium, Auckland Museum, The Domain, Parnell