Scientists studying pectins that inhibit a protein called galectin-3 - elevated levels of which are associated with a higher risk of heart failure - say their work could create a completely new category of cardiovascular health foods and supplements.
Pectacea, a start-up company emerging from Wageningen University and University Medical Centre Groningen in the Netherlands, is setting up a small office in Massachusetts, and sees the US as its “primary target”, chairman Dr Pieter Muntendam told FoodNavigator-USA.
“One of the very unusual characteristics of galectin-3 is that the protein has a built-in ‘on-off’ switch that is modulated by certain natural carbohydrates. Not usual dietary sugars, but specific carbohydrates that are for example found in pectins.
“Our objective is to find these active ingredients and license the various rights to use and produce them to the major health food companies… If successful as we expect this may push the boundary for functional foods, medical foods and supplements.”
Interest from global food/health companies
“The companies that are interested in pursuing this are global companies”, added Muntendam, who developed a blood test for galectin-3 that was cleared by the FDA in 2010, a high-throughput version of which is expected to be introduced in the near future by healthcare giant Abbott.
“The moment we have identified and studied an effective inhibitor it will create new product opportunities for companies such as Danone and Abbott Nutrition”, he said.
“Many of the prominent experts in the area of heart failure who at first had a hard time believing that this could be true - eg. ‘key culprit protein in blood can be turned off by natural carbohydrates’ - have become excited and eager to participate in the project.”
A significant breakthrough in cardiovascular health?
“There is no doubt in my mind that the benefits will also be there in those at risk for galectin-3 elevation, such as those with chronic high blood pressure and those who had a heart attack.”
What is Galectin-3?
The authors of a high-profile paper just published online in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (The US government-backed Framingham Heart Study) conclude that elevated galectin-3 levels are “associated withincreased risk for new-onset heart failure and all-cause mortality”.
They also note that “directly targeting the Gal-3 pathway may represent a future preventive treatment strategy”.
The medical community is thereforevery eagerto test potential galectin-3 inhibitors, said Muntendam, noting that the above study’s authors argue that “Gal-3 levels can be modulated with modified citrus pectin, a soluble dietary fiber found in citrus fruit”.
Meanwhile, drugs given to high galectin-3 patients (eg. spironolactone and eplerenone etc) have “a pretty poor side effect profile and are not suitable for prevention”, he observed.
Pectins are biologically very important compounds
Although pectins have been used in food production for years for gelling, thickening and stabilizing, “they were generally considered as biologically inert, said Muntendam.
“The soluble fiber benefit of pectins was considered to be due to its gastro-intestinal effects. Our work and the work of many others has now demonstrated that these are biologically very important compounds. It is not the complex parent pectin compound, but certain small fractions that are active.
“Epidemiological studies have shown that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables reduce the risk for heart-failure by 37% after adjusting for everything. This means there is something active in these and it is not just eating healthier.”
How Pectacea’s screening process works
Pectacea is systematically screening diverse natural pectins to find the best galectin-3 inhibitors, he said.
“Over time we expect to get smarter and be able to zoom in on a particular class of fruits and vegetables. We are testing these using a test that involves particular blood cells.
“Galectin-3 activates these in a way that can be observed. If one adds the inhibitor this goes away. This is how we can test if the fruit/vegetable inhibits galectin-3 and how potent it is.”
High-throughput Galectin-3 testing is around the corner
But how do you know if you have elevated galectin-3 levels?
“Galectin-3 testing is just emerging”, explained Muntendam.
“The manual blood test is gaining popularity, but it is very labor intensive for a lab to perform. The waiting has been for the automated test. These should become available later this year or in 2013.”
He added: “Heart failure is a very serious medical condition with a 50% five-year mortality. It makes absolute sense to measure galectin-3 in all heart failure patients.”
Click here to read the new Framingham Heart study paper.