The health secret of the Mediterranean diet has been harnessed into a 'wonder pill' which could cut the risk of strokes and heart attacks and help fight cancer, scientists claimed today.
The Ateronon pill contains lycopene, a chemical found in tomato skin. It has previously been hailed for unclogging arteries but further trials have found it also boosts blood vessel efficiency, improves blood flow and softens arteries hardened with age.
It is believed to be the first time scientists have pin-pointed an explanation for southern Europeans living up to ten years longer than those in the north.
Health secret: The Ateronon pill contains the lycopene chemical found in tomato skin
The results have left researchers at Cambridge University hopeful that Ateronon can actually halt the damage caused by heart disease - Britain's biggest killer.
They say the breakthrough could change many millions more lives across the world than previously estimated - because of its potential to help fight other illnesses.
The preliminary results of the trial have been presented at this winter's American Heart Association meeting, in Los Angeles.
The natural tomato pill incorporates a newly developed version of modified lycopene compound and is easily absorbed into the blood to levels way above those naturally achieved by a Mediterranean diet.
Breakthrough: Scientists believe the new pill will save millions of lives around the world
Ian Wilkinson, director of Cambridge University's clinical trials unit, said: 'We think these results are good news and potentially very significant, but we need more trials to see if they translate into fewer heart attacks and strokes.'
Peter Kirkpatrick, a leading Cambridge neurosurgeon with an interest in strokes and circulatory disease and medical advisor to CamNutra, which has developed Ateronon, said the results had been promising.
He said: 'It is too early to come to any firm conclusions, but the results from this trial are far better than anything we could have hoped for.'
He added: 'This was a small group, and we now need to confirm the findings in a much larger study population.'
Natural remedy: The pill incorporates a newly developed version of modified lycopene compound
A two-month study supported by CamNutra compared the effect of the pill on 36 patients with pre-existing heart disease and already taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, against 36 healthy volunteers.
Both groups had an average age of 67 and comparable blood pressure readings, though those with heart disease already had demonstrable blood vessel damage.
Ateronon was shown to dramatically improve the function of the cells of the endothelium, the layer of cells lining the blood vessels, in the group of patients suffering from heart disease.
Increasing blood lycopene levels boosted the endothelium's sensitivity to nitric oxide, the gas which triggers the dilation of the blood vessels in response to exercise and demand for increased blood flow in healthy people.
'Very significant': Dr Ian Wilkinson, director of Cambridge University's clinical trials unit
Overall Ateronon, described as a modified lycopene 'nutraceutical,' was shown to improve flexibility of blood vessels by up to 50%.
Scientists believe if the same results can be demonstrated in more patients, it could offer an effective alternative to statins for heart disease sufferers who cannot take the existing remedy.
Further studies of Ateronon are already underway at Harvard University in Boston, and more research is to be carried out in Britain this year.
Plans are being drawn up for long-term trials involving hundreds of people to study a wider-ranging comparison of the effects of Ateronon on the endothelial function of healthy people and those with pre-existing heart disease.
David Fitzmaurice professor of primary care clinical sciences at Birmingham University, has been asked to recruit patients for the trial through the university's primary care research network.
He said: 'If this modified lycopene really does have an effect on endothelial function, then it could have a beneficial effect on virtually every inflammatory disease process, including things like arthritis or diabetes.
'It is all highly speculative at this stage, but this [modified lycopene] might even slow down the development of cancer, which is also linked to inflammation.'
Until now there has not been a way of improving the natural slow absorption of lycopene by the human body.
Ateronon is the product of research originally carried out by the food multinational Nestle, whose scientists discovered a way of modifying the lycopene compound to allow it to be readily taken up into the bloodstream.
Nestle has licensed the technology to CamNutra, with options to become a major shareholder in the Ateronon research project.
A spokesman said they are monitoring the findings with interest. Mediterranean populations have always enjoyed a protective effect against heart disease from their diet, and dozens of researchers have already suggested tomatoes may be the source of this protection.
Until now an explanation of the mechanism involved has remained elusive. Last year a team from Athens University published research indicating tomato paste consumption could improve blood vessel tone, and similar recent findings have come from Germany.
Trial: Ateronon was shown to dramatically improve the function of the cells lining blood vessels
Verena Stangl, professor of cardiology at Berlin University said: 'We think there could well be a benefit from lycopene on endothelial function.'
Heart and circulatory disease are the biggest causes of death and disease in Britain.
Every year 180,000 die from heart attacks and 49,000 from strokes. Medication for sufferers costs a further £2billion every year.
Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said the charity had funded some of the basic research that led to the development of Ateronon.
Under the microscope: Dr Wilikinson said more trials are needed to explore the health benefits further
He said: 'Although this small study showed that lycopene improved blood flow in people with heart disease, that's a long way from demonstrating that taking lycopene could improve outcomes for people with heart disease.
'We still say the best way to get the benefits of a Mediterranean diet is to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.'
The American Heart Association conference, held in November last year, is the world's largest gathering of specialists which is attended by 17,000 cardiologists and circulatory disease experts.
Joseph Cheriyan, a leading expert in cardiovascular medicine at Cambridge, who led the study, said the findings were 'very exciting indeed,' but requested not to comment further ahead of publication of the full study in a scientific journal.
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