Bob Gibson, Professor of Functional Food Science and Director of the FOODplus Research Centre at the University of Adelaide, has made a major contribution to the world's thinking on the benefits to babies of omega-3 fatty acids.
Next month he will become the first Australian to receive the Alexander Leaf Distinguished Scientist Award, an international honour for outstanding lifetime achievement in the study of fatty acids and lipids.
In the early 1980s Professor Gibson wrote a groundbreaking paper on the fatty acid composition of human breast milk, which sparked new research right across the globe into the role of both breast milk and formula in babies' health.
Professor Gibson and colleagues were the first to demonstrate that babies receiving breast milk - which naturally contains omega-3 fatty acids - showed improved brain development relative to babies fed on formula, which at the time did not contain the essential fatty acids DHA and EPA.
This led to further work showing the problem could be corrected by adding fish oil to infant formula, and another study that provided compelling evidence for the use of dietary DHA in ensuring the optimal healthy development in babies.
These findings led to changes in infant formula regulations, and as a result essential fatty acids are now included in all commercial infant formulas.
While this research sparked dozens of new studies world wide, Professor Gibson and his team have continued with research into the importance of essential fatty acids - in particular DHA - in babies' health and development and the health of their mothers. This includes the impact of DHA supplements taken by pregnant and breastfeeding mothers on allergy and asthma, body fat mass, and insulin sensitivity in children.
This year, Professor Gibson and his team published the results of the world's biggest study into the effect of omega-3 long chain fatty acids on allergies in babies' first year of life. The study showed that just one gram per day of long chain fatty acids is enough to prevent some allergies, such as sensitivity to eggs.
"Our work is aimed at improving children's health on a massive scale," Professor Gibson says. "We're demonstrating that omega-3 long chain fatty acids can have clinical benefits equal to some pharmaceuticals, offering new hope for many clinical conditions.
"Although I've been working in this field for more than 30 years, I'm constantly astounded by the discoveries we're making. Just when you think you've found everything there is to find, we realise there is more and more that science can uncover. We're discovering things now about omega-3 that we suspected but never had evidence for - and it's every bit as exciting to be working in this field today as it was 30 years ago," he says.
The Alexander Leaf Distinguished Scientist Award will be presented to Professor Gibson at the conference of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) being held in Vancouver in May. As part of his award, Professor Gibson will also present at the conference.