New research suggests that tomatoes contain a cancer-fighting component known as lycopene. Lycopene is what gives tomatoes their red pigment, and researchers from the University of Illinois found it was effective in reducing the size of prostate tumors in animal models.
John W. Erdman Jr., Ph.D., lead researcher, said, “Our team has learned to grow tomato plants in suspension culture that produce lycopene molecules with a heavier molecular weight. With this tool, we can trace lycopene’s absorption, biodistribution, and metabolism in the body of healthy adults. In the future, we will be able to conduct such studies in men who have prostate cancer and gain important information about this plant component’s anti-cancer activity.”
Ten years ago the research team began yielding heavier, traceable carbon molecules from tomato cultures. From this the researchers began growing the best lycopene producers with non-radioactive carbon-13 sugars, which allowed it to be integrated into lycopene. Heavier carbon is easier to follow within the body.
In the first study lycopene was followed in eight individual’s blood. Blood was drawn every hour for 10 hours. Follow-up blood was taken one, three and 28 days later.
Dr. Erdman explained, “The results provide novel information about absorption efficiency and how quickly lycopene is lost from the body. We determined its half-life in the body and now understand that the structural changes occur after the lycopene is absorbed.”
Nancy Engelmann Moran, Ph.D., said, “Most tomato lycopene that we eat exists as the all-trans isomer, a rigid and straight form, but in the bodies of regular tomato consumers, most lycopene exists as cis isomers, which tend to be bent and flexible. Because cis-lycopene is the form most often found in the body, some investigators think it may be the form responsible for disease risk reduction.”
“We wanted to understand why there is more cis-lycopene in the body, and by mathematically modeling our patients’ blood carbon-13 lycopene concentration data, we found that it is likely due to a conversion of all-trans to cis lycopene, which occurs soon after we absorb lycopene from our food,” she added.
Plant guru, Randy Rogers, added, “Our most recent project involves producing a heavy carbon version of lutein, found in green leafy vegetables and egg yolks. Lutein is known to be important for eye and brain health. In this case, we began with carrot suspension cultures and have already produced small quantities of ‘heavy-labeled’ lutein for animal trials.”
Dr. Erdman concluded, “In the future, these new techniques could help us to better understand how lycopene reduces prostate cancer risk and severity. We will be able to develop evidence-based dietary recommendations for prostate cancer prevention.”
The findings were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.