A compound found in tomatoes may offer a new way to fight diabetes, scientists have discovered.
Research funded by the French government has shown that lycopene, the substance which gives tomatoes their red colour, fights the inflammatory process that causes the condition.
Now a €500,000 research project is being planned to produce a modified lycopene pill to be used in human trials.
At least four million Britons and one in 10 of those over 40 suffer from diabetes which leads to heart disease, blindness, limb amputation and premature death.
A recent (April) NHS England report stated that treating the condition and its complications costs £10 billion a year.
Diabetes can affect slim people but the most common type 2 form of the disease develops as a result of an inflammatory reaction which occurs in the fatty tissue of people who are overweight.
This leads to a breakdown in the insulin signaling mechanism designed to prevent a toxic build up of glucose in the blood, which can have fatal consequences.
The French team led by Dr Jean-Francois Landrier, director of the French National Health Research Institute’s cardiovascular and nutritional health division at Marseille University, has shown that lycopene dampens down this inflammatory process and slows the development of resistance to insulin signaling.
“We know that inflammation in fat cells called adipocytes, is strongly linked to insulin resistance,” he said.
“After we found that lycopene activates an anti-inflammatory effect in adipocytes, we thought it could probably have an effect on insulin resistance and it does.
“We were one of the first groups to show this effect, and it has now been backed up by a number of other studies,” he said.
His group are now identifying which lycopene compound is most effective and most easily absorbed by the body with a view to setting up large-scale human studies using diabetic patients.
Dr Miriam Ferrer, in-house scientist for FutureYou Cambridge, a UK company which has already developed a lycopene supplement, Ateronon, said the discovery is “exciting”.
“From research with Cambridge and Harvard Universities, we are aware of the anti-inflammatory properties of our lycopene or ‘tomato pill’, as it is generally known, could be beneficial in treating diabetes which is one of the biggest drains on NHS resources,” she said.
“All the lycopene work so far has been in cells or pre-clinical settings. The prospect of now moving on to human trials is very exciting.”
Diabetes UK, the charity supporting sufferers of the disease, has also welcomed the research.
But Georg Lietz, professor of international nutrition at Newcastle University, said much more work is needed to prove that a lycopene supplement really can produce benefits.
“They have not yet shown a link between lycopene and diabetes development,” he said.
“It does potentially have an anti-inflammatory effect, there’s some evidence it can have an impact on the development of obesity and there is a clear link with its benefits in reducing the damage of cardiovascular disease.
“At the moment we don’t have much understanding of its impact on adipose [fat] tissue, and this research will be interesting.”