Dolphins with Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease May be Key to Finding Its Cure

Share Article

Studies by Seraphina Therapeutics support that C15:0, a newly discovered essential fatty acid, may stem the rise of fastest growing liver disease affecting 1 in 3 people

News Image

A decade ago, few people had heard of a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, also known as NAFLD. Fast forward to today and 1 in 3 people suffer from this chronic metabolic liver disease, including 1 in 10 children. And yet, there are still no FDA-approved drugs to treat NAFLD.

NAFLD is a leading cause of liver transplants and liver cancer, including in children. While there have been a decade of hypotheses as to how NAFLD emerged this rapidly, an unlikely population may be providing the answer – nutritional deficiencies in an essential nutrient called C15:0 (pentadecanoic acid).

While working to support the long-term health of Navy dolphins for over a decade, veterinary epidemiologist Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson and others noticed that there “were increasing cases of dolphins with elevated liver enzymes, detected during their routine health exams. When we looked at archived liver tissue samples under the microscope, we surprisingly found that more than 1 out of 3 dolphins had fatty liver disease.”

After publishing these findings in 2013, Dr. Venn-Watson, now co-founder and CEO of Seraphina Therapeutics, was contacted by Dr. Jeffrey Schwimmer, a gastroenterologist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, and the world’s leader in the understanding and management of pediatric NAFLD. For the past 10 years, Drs. Venn-Watson and Schwimmer have been working in parallel to understand the mechanisms of NAFLD in dolphins and humans, with the hope of finding a cure.

In her work, Dr. Venn-Watson discovered that the healthiest dolphins had higher levels of C15:0 compared those who had chronic metabolic conditions, including fatty liver disease, suggesting that C15:0 may be a key nutrient needed to protect dolphins' liver health. Dr. Venn-Watson’s surprising discovery of C15:0’s importance was recently highlighted in a New York Times Science feature article and is a TEDx talk.

To test her hypothesis––C15:0 as a liver-protective nutrient––Dr. Venn-Watson conducted eight studies over three years, in which her team demonstrated that C15:0 is a beneficial fatty acid that could slow the advancement of NAFLD. Specifically, Dr. Venn-Watson’s research showed that:

Concurrently, Dr. Schwimmer had completed an independent and extensive study including 237 children, which showed that patients with higher C15:0 blood levels had less fat in their liver. Along with Dr. Schwimmer, research teams from the MD Anderson Cancer Center have shown that higher C15:0 is linked to a lower risk of severe NAFLD.

While humans’ primary dietary source of C15:0 is whole fat cow’s milk and butter, intake of these foods has declined precipitously over the past 40 years as consumers have opted for plant-based milks, which contain no C15:0. As a result, population wide C15:0 levels have been declining. To add to this issue, the amount of C15:0 in whole fat cow’s milk is dependent on what cows are fed, and even types of grasses fed to cows can meaningfully impact whether their milk has adequate C15:0 levels. The risk of nutritional C15:0 deficiencies has increased further among aging populations, since C15:0 levels naturally decline with age, in both humans and dolphins.

In their landmark peer-reviewed publication, Dr. Venn-Watson and Dr. Edward Dennis, a leader in fatty acids and bioactive lipids, laid out evidence supporting C15:0 as an essential fatty acid, making C15:0 the first essential fatty acid to be discovered since omega-3, which was over 90 years ago.

“The timing of populationwide C15:0 nutritional declines coupled with the alarming rise in NAFLD do not appear to be coincidental,” said Dr. Venn-Watson. “The good news is that these nutritional deficiencies can be fixed.”

Today, Dr. Schwimmer is leading a clinical trial at the University of California San Diego to evaluate C15:0’s potential physiological benefits to young adults with a history of NAFLD. This clinical trial is nearing completion, and results are anticipated by the end of 2023. Dr. Venn-Watson is also funded by the Office of Naval Research to further evaluate the health benefits of C15:0 for dolphins with NAFLD.

“We have the Navy’s dolphins to thank for the discovery of C15:0 as an essential fatty acid and a potential means to stem the global rise in NAFLD,” said Dr. Venn-Watson. “It feels even better knowing that this discovery may help children, too.”


About Seraphina Therapeutics. Inc.
Seraphina Therapeutics, Inc. is a health and wellness company dedicated to advancing global health through the discovery of essential fatty acids and micronutrient therapeutics. Through rigorous breakthrough science, the company develops fatty acid supplements, food fortifiers, and nutritional interventions to strengthen cells, keep mitochondria working and advance cellular homeostasis to counter age-related breakdown. With its team of industry-leading scientists, Seraphina Therapeutics challenges long-held approaches to nutrition, enabling the creation of novel health products designed to support quality of life. For more information, please visit and

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

GR0 Agency
(310) 439-1887
Email >
Visit website