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Gene-Altered Tomato Among Heart Therapies Showing Benefit

November 05, 2012

Gene-Altered Tomatoes Among New Tools to Fight Heart Disease

Genetics researchers are trying to learn more about the tomato's shape and color while also increasing its nutritional value. Photographer: Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo

Tomatoes genetically engineered to unclog arteries and a strain of a bacteria in yogurt 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 may 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 (85079MF:US)

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.

Heart Disease

More than half a million Americans die from heart disease annually despite advances in drugs 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.

Medicines to lower LDL, such as Lipitor made by New York- based Pfizer Inc. (PFE:US), 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.

High Cholesterol

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, 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.

Its product is a specific strain of a species of bacteria called lactobacillus reuteri, which is found in the stomach and in foods, like sourdough bread and yogurt, the company said.

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.

Infused Proteins

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 Melbourne-based 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 said the treatment, known as CSL112, may be most beneficial to people who have recently had a heart attack and need a quick way to clear their cholesterol to prevent another.

“Very clearly, infusions of CSL112 actually remove cholesterol from the plaque, and we can demonstrate that,” said Andrew Cuthbertson, CSL’s chief scientific officer, in a telephone interview. “In addition, they reduce a number of biomarkers associated with inflammation in the plaque.”

CLS plans another study next year with at least 1,000 heart patients to determine the treatment’s ability to prevent subsequent heart attacks, stroke and death, he said. The drug is in the second of three stages of testing typically needed to get U.S. marketing clearance.

“The hypothesis is that the drug should take the cholesterol out rapidly and reduce the inflammation, and that’s really what we’re seeing,” Cuthbertson said. “The big question now is, can those observations translate into preventing second heart attacks and sudden death?”

To contact the reporter on this story: Shannon Pettypiece in New York at spettypiece@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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