A new pill that contains a potent version of the naturally occurring compound lycopene, a carotenoid found in tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, was launched today as a new approach to the treatment of high blood cholesterol and atherosclerosis.

The new pill, called Ateronon, is made by Cambridge Theranostics, a bio-technology spin-out of Cambridge University, in the UK, and was launched today, Monday, at a conference of the British Cardiovascular Society in London.

It is described by its manufacturer as a “one-a-day” natural supplement that is clinically proven to help inhibit the oxidation of LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

This is important, they said, because when LDL cholesterol is oxidized it causes atherosclerosis, where plaque builds up inside arteries and causes them to “fur up”.

The new pill contains lycopene, the naturally occurring and highly potent antioxidant red pigment that is found in tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables such as guava, rosehips, watermelon, pink grapefruit, and red chillies, but mainly from tomato and tomato products, which feature highly in the health-promoting Mediterannean diet.

In its raw form however, because it comprises large crystals, lycopene is not well absorbed by the human body, and it took the Cambridge scientists 7 years to develop a way to break down the large crystals so the body can absorb it more easily.

According to the manufacturer:

“Ateronon is the first and only lycopene-based supplement with proven levels of bioavailability for lycopene and proven effectiveness at helping to inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.”

Professor Anthony Leeds, a trustee of the Cholesterol Charity HEART UK, is quoted on the Cambridge Theranostics website as saying of the new pill:

“The naturally occurring compound lycopene (a carotenoid from tomatoes) has been rendered more bio-available and thus more potent.”

In a statement issued to coincide with the launch earlier today, HEART UK said they welcomed any and every new treatment for high blood cholesterol and atherosclerosis and that Ateronon:

“Represents an entirely new approach to the treatment of high blood cholesterol and opens up the exciting possibility of limiting the atherogenicity of LDL-cholesterol by preventing its oxidation.”

They said that the preliminary results of trials “look very promising” and the charity can see the “very great potential of using a naturally derived and safe anti-oxidant compound especially in children with hypercholesterolaemia”.

Delegates at the meeting heard how preliminary trials involving about 150 people with heart disease showed that Ateronon reduced the oxidation of LDL to almost zero inside 8 weeks, reported BBC News.

Neuroscientist Peter Kirkpatrick is about to start leading a further study based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge for Cambridge Theranostics. He said the product could be more effective than statins at treating high cholesterol.

However, some experts are urging caution and as with any new drug, no matter how “natural” the ingredients, heart patients should wait until proper clinical trials can replicate the benefits found in preliminary trials and in the meantime continue to rely on what their doctors are currrently prescribing them.

These were the sentiments expressed by Professor Peter Weissberg of the British Heart Foundation, who told the BBC that patients should “aim to get the benefits of a Mediterranean diet by eating plenty of fresh fruit and veg”.

The Cambridge scientists took a version of lycopene that was licensed to the new company by the food giant Nestlé and produced a refined version that is more easily absorbed by the body.

Researchers at Nestlé and other establishments had already determined other facts about the compound, such as it is more readily absorbed from tomatoes when they have been cooked, or if eaten with a source of fat such as olive oil.

The Nestlé healthcare nutrition website suggests several ways you can increase the amount of natural lycopene in your body:

  • Use cooked tomatoes such as in sauce, paste or soup.
  • Eat fresh tomatoes with fats such as olive oil.
  • Eat products containing lycopene with other antioxidant foods. For instance, eat tomatoes with salad vegetables, or some fruit.
  • Another way is to add a dressing made with olive oil and lemon juice.

While a number of studies have linked lycopene, and from tomatoes in particular, to reductions in LDL cholesterol, this is not the same as saying that this particular product, which is a particular form of lycopene, is safe and effective to the same extent.

New drugs have to pass rigorous clinical trials for safety and effectiveness before they can go to market, and indeed this is a large part of their development cost, but because this is a natural food supplement, it can go on sale more or less right away.

The Ateronon website suggests that the supplement be taken each day to “maintain effective levels of lycopene in the body, in order to continue to help inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and to reduce the risk of plaque build-up in the arteries”, and that because it is a food supplement it can be taken alongside prescribed medication and other supplements.

However, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and anyone suffering from food allergies should talk to their doctor first before taking the product, as they should with any food supplement.

Sources: Cambridge Theranostics, HEART UK, Nestlé HealthCare Nutrition, BBC News.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD