Palm oil vitamin E to prevent stroke

Hovid takes heart from palm tocotrienols trials

IT IS a little known fact, but Malaysia is the world's biggest producer and exporter of tocotrienols, a potent form of vitamin E found abundantly in palm oil.

More importantly, Malaysia is also making medical progress in using palm oil extracts to lower risks of stroke and heart attacks and eventually, treat these degenerative diseases.

Leading this global race in finding natural sources to stem and treat major killer diseases are Ipoh-based Hovid Group, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).

In an interview with Business Times, MPOB revealed that it is funding Hovid Group and USM to conduct clinical trials on the effectiveness of tocotrienols to prevent the onset of brain diseases like stroke.

The vitamin E family is made up of four variants of tocopherols and another four called tocotrienols.

"So far, there have only been animal tests. We're the first in the world to conduct human clinical trials on the neuroprotective properties of tocotrienols," MPOB director-general Datuk Dr Mohd Basri Wahid said.

"While our funds are limited, we see the potential of tocotrienols in protecting brain cells and easing clogged arteries. We managed to allocate RM4.48 million for this initiative," he added.

All in, there are 10 scientists conducting the clinical trials on 200 volunteers, which started in January 2008 and will conclude in January 2011. Since this trial is registered with the US National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Authority, it is mandatory for the results to be published, be it positive or negative.

MPOB director of product development and advisory services Dr Kalanithi Nesaretnam, who is part of the research team, said MPOB has been studying palm tocotrienols since the 1980s. Incidentally, MPOB was also the first in the world to discover that the lesser known vitamin E family member, called tocotrienols, is a far more potent anti-oxidant than tocopherols.

Preliminary studies proved tocotrienols can heal body cells and trigger cancerous cells to commit suicide.

USM Professor Yuen Kah Hay concurred with Kalanithi. In explaining tocotrienols' unique biological activities, he cited studies by Ohio State University that proved tocotrienols (but not tocopherols) can prevent programmed death of brain cells under stress by suppressing key cell signals.

Subsequent experiments on genetically-modified mice which are prone to stroke also showed the tocotrienols could minimise cell damage.In view of the promising neuro-and-vascular-protective effects, the present study in Malaysia is conducted on volunteers with white matter lesion (WML), or oxygen-starved brain cells.

"From the brain scans, we can tell if there is WML, a form of subclinical brain infarct. This means the volunteer's brain vascular network is already unhealthy and at high risk of contracting stroke," Yuen said.

In this clinical trial, the professor said the researchers have been using tocotrienols, which have neuroprotective properties compared to their lame sister, alpha-tocopherol.

The researchers have also decided to use palm tocotrienols brand named Tocovid Suprabio because its patented formulation ensures optimum vitamin E absorption into the blood stream.

If tocotrienols proved to be able to prevent or reduce the occurrence of WML, then it can lower the risk of stroke. "Prevention," Yuen added, "is better than cure".

He paused and sipped on his glass of water. With a solemn expression, he revealed brain scans of 200 volunteers at USM's facilities in Hospital Kepala Batas showed half of them had WML. This supports latest statistics that stroke is Malaysia's number three killer after heart disease and cancer, with an average of five people dying of it every hour. Every year, it is estimated that 52,000 people suffer from stroke.

While the numbers are daunting enough to inflict paralysing fear, there is no need to panic. Hovid Bhd, which is spearheading this clinical trial, is optimistic of a positive outcome.

When asked to estimate how soon Malaysia can find the cure to neuro and cardiovascular diseases and formulate medication from palm tocotrienols, Hovid managing director David Ho envisioned a series of capital-intensive clinical trials on a bigger sampling of volunteers over a decade or so.

"We're fortunate that MPOB agreed to fund this clinical trial in Penang. But we cannot rely fully on MPOB as its financial resources are limited," he said. "We definitely need more public funding support to come up with more convincing data that palm tocotrienols can prevent and treat stroke and heart attacks," he added.

So far, the process that led to the joint clinical trial with USM and MPOB has not been easy. It took six months to obtain ethics approval from the medical fraternity before MPOB made the allocation.

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