Mark Henderson, Science Editor, in San Francisco
An antioxidant chemical found in tomatoes could be used to treat common causes of abdominal pain such as internal scarring after surgery and endometriosis, new research has suggested.
Lycopene, the bright red pigment that gives tomatoes their characteristic colour, can inhibit proteins that are linked to the formation of abnormal patches of tissue called adhesions, according to a study of cells in culture.
Though the findings are very preliminary, they hint that a diet rich in tomatoes and tomato products, or supplements containing lycopene, might be a promising way of controlling adhesions.
Adhesions are patches of scar tissue or fibrous strands that form on internal surfaces in the abdomen, often connecting two organs or parts of organs together. They are a common side effect of surgery, and they also occur in endometriosis, a condition in which tissue that normally lines the womb grows in other parts of the abdomen. These growths can cause pain, bowel obstructions, bladder problems and infertility.
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Abdominal adhesions are commonly associated with tissue damage caused by free radical oxygen molecules, leading a team headed by Tarek Dbouk, of Wayne State University in Detroit, to investigate lycopene because of its antioxidant properties.
The chemical, which is particularly abundant in cooked tomato products such as ketchup and pasta sauces, is already thought to have protective effects against cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
In the study, Dr Dbouk exposed human cells to lycopene in the laboratory, and measured its effect on proteins that serve as markers for adhesion formation. Levels of these proteins were substantially reduced, by as much as 80 to 90 per cent.
Dr Dbouk told the American Society for Reproductive Medicine conference in San Francisco that the results suggest that lycopene – and tomatoes that contain it – could be useful for treating post-surgical adhesions and other conditions such as endometriosis and uterine fibroids.
“What we found in our laboratory study is that lycopene can help with the adhesions that these conditions cause,” he said. “One of the major complications of endometriosis is that it causes inflammation which induces adhesions.
“The inflammation basically causes scarring. What we did was to look at protein markers that could help us trace the activity of the abnormal cells that cause these adhesions. The lycopene worked to reduce the abnormal activity of these cells.
“This means that you would not get the adhesions, which suggests that lycopene could work to mitigate the complications and ailments of endometriosis. So, hypothetically speaking, we might be able to reduce the adhesion effects of endometriosis.”
The study does not show whether lycopene absorbed through the diet would have the same effect on real cells in the human body, but Dr Dbouk said it could be practical to get it in this way. “It is certainly possible that you could get the amount you need from your diet,” he said. “Or if the patient did not like tomatoes, you could give them the lycopene as a supplement.”