Tomatoes genetically-engineered to help unclog arteries and yogurt bacteria designed to lower cholesterol are among a new wave of alternative remedies showing promise in the fight against heart disease.
Scientists presented two studies today at the American Heart Association meeting in Los Angeles that suggest food may be altered in such a way that it offers benefits similar to traditional pharmaceuticals.
In one study, researchers fed mice pieces of tomatoes altered to produce a peptide that mimics effects of artery- clearing HDL cholesterol. In a second, people were given a twice-daily capsule of Micropharma Ltd.'s probiotic, made from yogurt bacteria. In both cases, the results showed significant heart-health benefits, and researchers said they could add to cholesterol-reducing drugs like statins in the fight against heart disease.
"As good as statins are, they haven't completely reduced the number of people still dying of heart attack and stroke and those numbers are still quite significant," said Alan Fogelman, the lead author on the tomato study and a cardiology researcher at the University of California Los Angeles
In the tomato study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the mice displayed reduced plaque and higher HDL. The experimental drug is the first of its kind made in a plant that can be eaten, the researchers said. Separately, the probiotic trial, done in 127 people, found the yogurt bacteria helped cut total cholesterol by 9.1 percent.
More than half a million Americans die from heart disease annually despite advances in drugs called statins and procedures to prevent heart attacks and strokes. When the body has too much LDL, or bad cholesterol, it can build up in the arteries, blocking blood flow. HDL or good cholesterol can help ferry plaque out of the arteries.
Drugs to lower LDL, such as Lipitor made by New York-based Pfizer Inc. (PFE), can cause side effects in 10 to 20 percent of patients. Attempts by Pfizer Inc. and Roche AG (ROG) to come up with new drugs to raise HDL have failed.
In the NIH study, mice were served the genetically- engineered tomatoes freeze-dried, ground and added to high-fat, calorie-filled food. The tomato additive represented 2.2 percent of their diet. The result was lower blood levels of inflammation, higher levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of plaque build-up in their arteries.
Researchers decided to put the peptide in a food because it would be too complex and difficult to make into a chemical form that could be made into a pill, Fogelman said. He chose tomatoes because he likes them, though the peptide could likely be put in other fruits and vegetables, like lettuce, he said.
All participants in the Micropharma probiotic study had high cholesterol. After nine weeks, those taking the probiotic had levels of LDL, also known as bad cholesterol, of about 12 percent lower than those on placebo. There was no change to HDL cholesterol.
Micropharma, which focuses on researching probiotics and has no products on the market, plans to start selling capsules of the supplement next year in the U.S. and Canada in large retail stores, pharmacies and health food stores. It is also studying a version that can be added to food. The company is based in Montreal.
Fogelman said he is hoping a company or research lab will take his tomato treatment into human testing since his lab isn't designed to do clinical studies of drugs.
In another study testing an experimental alternative to cholesterol pills, patients were infused with the proteins found in HDL particles that transport the bad form of artery-clogging cholesterol out of the arteries. A 57-patient study funded by CSL Ltd (CSL) showed that the infusion, derived from human plasma, caused an increase in cholesterol extraction cells, a signal the drug is working, researchers reported today at the heart meeting.
CSL, based in Victoria, Australia, said the treatment could be most beneficial to people who have recently had a heart attack and need a quick way to clear their cholesterol to prevent another.