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Genetically Engineered Tomatoes Good for Arteries

A newly released study reveals a new method of producing good cholesterol.

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Genetically modified tomato

-- by Alexia Severson

The Gist

Organic fruits and vegetables have always been touted as the best option when it comes to staying healthy, but a first-of-its-kind study shows that genetically engineered tomato plants could actually reduce plaque buildup in the arteries, researchers reported at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2012.

In the study, researchers fed mice freeze-dried, ground tomatoes and found that the genetically engineered tomato plants produced a peptide that mimics the actions of good cholesterol when eaten, reducing inflammation and plaque buildup, or atherosclerosis, in their arteries.

When atherosclerosis occurs, plaque may partially or totally block the blood's flow through an artery, causing either bleeding into the plaque or formation of a blood clot on the plaque’s surface—both of which could result in coronary heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.

According to the National Black Nurses Association, two out of three Americans will have some degree of plaque buildup in their arteries before turning 35, and coronary heart disease and stroke kills more Americans each year than all cancers combined.

The Expert Take

Researchers genetically engineered tomatoes to produce 6F, a small peptide that mimics the action of ApoA-1, the chief protein in “good” cholesterol, and then fed these tomatoes to mice.

"We have found a new and practical way to make a peptide that acts like the main protein in good cholesterol, but is many times more effective and can be delivered by eating the plant," said Alan M. Fogelman, M.D., the senior author of the study and Executive Chair of the Department of Medicine and director of the Atherosclerosis Research Unit in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The mice that ate the peptide-enhanced tomatoes as 2.2 percent of their Western-style high-fat, calorie-packed diet showed significantly lower blood levels of inflammation, higher paraoxonase activity (an anti-oxidant enzyme associated with good cholesterol and related to a lower risk of heart disease), decreased lysophosphatidic acid (a tumor promoter that accelerates plaque buildup in arteries in animal models), and less atherosclerotic plaque overall.

"To our knowledge this is the first example of a drug with these properties that has been produced in an edible plant and is biologically active when fed without any isolation or purification of the drug," said Fogelman.

The Takeaway

According to the American Heart Association, atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that can affect people all stages of life, from childhood to people in their 60s. Scientists still do not know the exact cause of atherosclerosis, but many researchers believe atherosclerosis starts because the innermost layer, or endothelium, of the artery becomes damaged. The three possible causes of damage to the arterial wall are elevated levels of cholesterol and triglyceride in the blood, high blood pressure, and cigarette smoke.

While still in the beginning stages, this research may provide improved methods of prevention of plaque buildup in the near future. But until then, it is important to follow a nutritious diet, stay active, and continue with regular visits to your doctor. Some warning signs of atherosclerosis include high blood pressure, high low-density lipoprotein (or “bad” cholesterol), obesity, and diabetes.

Source and Method

Fogelman and his team fed the tomatoes to mice that lacked the ability to remove low-density lipoprotein from their blood and readily developed inflammation and atherosclerosis when consuming a high-fat diet.

Other Research

There is little research that has studied the effects of genetically engineered plants on plaque buildup, but several studies have looked at ways of reducing the risk of inflammation and atherosclerosis. In a study published in the National Medical Journal of India in 2012, researchers studied the effects of increased levels of adioponectin, a protein involved in regulating glucose levels as well as fatty acid breakdown, on arteriosclerosis, glucose, and lipid metabolism in Goto-Kakizaki (GK) rats with arteriosclerosis. Scientists found that the protein adiponectin improved blood glucose and lipid parameters and decreased atherosclerosis in the aorta of the GK rats.

Another study published in PLoS One in 2012, looked at the apolipoprotein (apo) E, best known for its ability to lower plasma cholesterol and protect against atherosclerosis, to examine the contribution of macrophage-derived apoE expression levels in diet-induced hyperlipidemia and atherosclerosis. Researcher in this study concluded that the macrophage-derived apoE raised plasma apoE levels in response to diet-induced hyperlipidemia and reduced atherosclerosis, proportionally lowering plasma cholesterol levels.

And in an article published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice in 2012, lipid lowering was established as a proven intervention to reduce atherosclerosis, stating that lipid-lowering drugs—which can help lower cholesterol and take care of fatty acids—“are likely to prove a fast-developing area for novel treatments as possible synergies exist between new and established compounds for the treatment of atherosclerosis.”

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Tags: Latest Studies & Research , Awareness

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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