A start-up called Pectacea is making "solid progress" on a pioneering project that could create a completely new category of heart-healthy foods based on the ability of natural pectins to inhibit a protein called galectin-3.
Once they have identified the most promising natural inhibitor of the protein -elevated levels of which are associated with a higher risk of heart failure - they will seek to enter licensing deals with food and beverage firms to take it to market.
Chairman Dr Pieter Muntendam told FoodNavigator-USA: “We have screened a broad range of pectins, ranging from apples and cauliflower to rhubarb, okra and onion, and we are obtaining very interesting and promising results.”
Galectin-3 consistently shows up as a culprit for a range of pathological processes
He added: “We are on a solid path to identify good sources of natural inhibitors and then start the development of functional foods and supplements with a range of manufacturers.
“We have had preliminary discussions about the concept [with food manufacturers], which was very well received. We now need to wait until we have validated the research.”
The interest in galectin-3 continues to grow very rapidly
Pectacea - which is owned by Wageningen University and the University of Groningen (which has a top cardiac research center) in the Netherlands - recently set up an office in Massachusetts, and sees the US as its “primary target”, he said.
“The interest in galectin-3 continues to grow very rapidly. There were 208 papers in the scientific literature in 2012 and 55 year to date in 2013 putting this on a path to over 300 articles in 2013.
“Galectin-3 consistently shows up as a culprit for a range of pathological processes, which is promoting interest in pharmaceutical and natural inhibitors.”
Galectin-3 has a built-in ‘on-off’ switch that is modulated by certain natural carbohydrates
An unusual characteristic of galectin-3 is that it has a built-in ‘on-off’ switch that is modulated by specific carbohydrates found in pectins, said Dr Muntendam, who developed a blood test for galectin-3 that was cleared by the FDA in 2010.
Ultimately, Pectacea is hoping its work will lead to products that “may reduce the risk of heart failure for individuals with elevated galectin-3 (15-25% of population), may reduce the risk of heart failure hospitalizations and death in patients with chronic heart failure who have elevated levels of galectin-3”, he said.
“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 published last year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology concluded that elevated galectin-3 levels are “associated withincreased risk for new-onset heart failure and all-cause mortality”.
They also noted that “directly targeting the Gal-3 pathway may represent a future preventive treatment strategy”.
The medical community is therefore very eager to test potential galectin-3 inhibitors, said Dr 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 would never be considered 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.”
High-throughput Galectin-3 testing is around the corner
But how do you know if you have elevated galectin-3 levels?
“The first automated tests have just become available”, he said.
“BioMerieux has just obtained the license to commercialize in Europe and Abbott is also expected to obtain this in the near future. The US lags behind but is also expected in the near future.”
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.”