A single pill containing a chemical found in tomato skin could cut the risk of stroke and heart attacks and slow the progression of cancer, scientists claim. The pill, called Ateronon, contains a chemical known as lycopene which had previously been shown to help unclog blocked arteries, and which is thought to be one of the main health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
Now, a further trial has shown that the natural remedy also made patients' blood vessels more efficient, boosted their blood flow and softened arteries that had hardened with age. Researchers believe the pill may be able to limit the damage caused by heart disease, although further studies will be needed to determine whether the positive signals translate into fewer strokes and heart attacks.
It uses a lycopene compound that has been modified to become more easily absorbed by the blood than the natural version found in tomatoes. Preliminary results from the trial, in which the pill was given to 36 patients with heart disease and a control group of 36 healthy people, were presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association.
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, medical adviser to CamNutra, which has developed Ateronon, added: "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."
Results from the two-month trial showed that the pill helped cells of the endothelium, the layer of cells which lines the blood vessels, to function better. Scientists developing the pill hope it could be used as an alternative to statins for patients who cannot take the cholesterol-lowering drugs, and believe it may have wider health benefits. David Fitzmaurice, professor of primary care clinical sciences at Birmingham University, 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."
Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, 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."