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Researcher behind new cholesterol lowering substance

Researchers agree that plant sterols from e.g. fruit and vegetables are the keys to reduce blood cholesterol. But the natural content of cholesterol lowering substances in a normal diet is not enough. In the labs at Aarhus University, a young researcher has succeeded in producing a new, high concentration and easily-absorbed cholesterol lowering substance.

2013.02.05 | Kim Harel

[Translate to English:] Researcher plant sterols

After several experiments in the lab, Worawan Panpipat, PhD student at the Department of Engineering, has identified a new chemical super compound with a cholesterol lowering effect. She has just received the International AOCS award (American Oil and Chemists’ Society) for her research. (Photo: Henrik Olsen)

More than 400 tomatoes, 200 carrots or 150 apples - this is how much you need to get the optimal cholesterol lowering effect via the natural content of plant sterols in the diet. During the last decades, researchers have worked with the development of new chemical synthesis of plant sterol derivatives, and today all supermarkets in the Western World have a selection of good, functional food products that promise to reduce consumers' blood cholesterol. 

The problem is that these products can be expensive. The chemical production of plant sterols is often based on expensive chemicals, and a large energy input over a rather long reaction time is usually required.

To solve these problems a researcher at Aarhus University has developed a new, more effective, and industrially reasonable method to separate and purify plant sterols from natural sources.

"We decided to identify a substance that is much more efficient and cost-effective to produce. We started classically from scratch with lots of chemical reactions between different natural plant sterols, fatty acids and amino acids. Now, it looks as if our work has paid off", says Worawan Panpipat, PhD student at the Department of Engineering at Aarhus University.

She has just received an award  from the American Oil and Chemists’ Society (AOCS) for her research.

Better absorption in the body
Natural plant sterols have low resolution which makes them difficult for the intestine to absorb. The new substance has a high resolution which means that it is easier to add to different food products and for the body to absorb.

"A large part of the natural plant sterols are passing through the digestive tract. The new substance is merely synthesised plant sterol with a molecular structure that improves absorption in the body significantly", explains Worawan Panpipat.

She has developed the substance in two synthesised variations. One that is soluble in fat and one that is soluble in water. In this way, it is possible to enrich more types of foods such as soft drinks and dairy products.

And with a reaction time of only 12 hours, a very low use of activation energy in the production, and a utilisation factor of that substance that is created via this reaction of 90 percent, this is a remarkable result in the functional food industry.

One of the World's largest health problems
If this new substance is released on the market, it may become a real alternative to medical treatment of one of the World's largest health problems. Too much blood cholesterol results in cardiovascular diseases which today are some of the most common causes of death.

The Danish Heart Association (Hjerteforeningen) estimates that more than half of all grown-ups in Denmark have increased cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol is a lipid that is produced in the liver and transported in the blood stream.  It is a vital building block of the body, but especially animal fats can contribute to a health damaging blood cholesterol levels in humans.

"When the body has too much cholesterol, it is settled in the blood vessels and this leads to a significantly increased risk of blood clots and other heart diseases. The new substance seems to be able to prevent the so-called bad LDL cholesterol from being absorbed in the body", explains Worawan Panpipat.

Plant sterols have a chemical structure similar to cholesterol and are therefore able to bind to the limited number of cholesterol transporters in the cell walls of the intestines.

Studies have shown that two grams of plant sterols per day lower the content of the bad cholesterol in the blood with around 10 percent. This corresponds to a reduction of the risk of heart diseases of around 20 percent.

Thorough experiments on mice
Before the researcher are able to go on with this new cholesterol lowering substance, they must carry out several experiments on mice in order to identify possible side effects.

"During the next couple of years, I need to investigate the characteristics of the substance in details. How does it affect the cell membranes in the body when cholesterol is replaced with plant sterols?” Worawan Panpitat says.

She hopes that the substance can benefit people worldwide in the long term because it is cheap to produce and has a high utilisation factor.

Worawan Panpipat, ph.d.-studerende, Institut for Ingeniørvidenskab, Aarhus Universitet: 8715 5526; worawan@mb.au.dk


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