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Thursday, 21 December, 2000, 00:07 GMT
Oral cancer attacked by tomatoes
Tomatoes contain lycopene in their red pigrment
Oral cancer could be added to the list of cancers which could be prevented or treated with an extract of tomatoes.

The chemical lycopene is forms the pigment which gives tomatoes their distinctive red colour and persists in tomato sauces and soups.

However, when this chemical was added to oral cancer cells in culture, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found the cells began to die.

In fact, the discovery was made by chance - biochemists were investigating the effect of orange carrot pigment on tumour cells.

Lycopene was only added to other cells to act as a control experiment.

Other research has already shown that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables appears to reduce the risk of oral cancer.

And lycopene has been linked to a reduced risk of many cancers, including breast, prostate, pancreas and colorectal.

Killing the neighbour

The Hebrew University team are not sure how the pigment might act against oral cancer cells, but they believe the chemical actually restores a natural process which helps the body kill off cells that are not developing properly.

Normally, there are junctions between neighbouring cells which seem to allow the cells to communicate.

Mouth cells appear to have the ability to both detect when something is going wrong next door and then order the dysfunctional cell to commit suicide.

Oral tumour cells have been found to lack the necessary junctions between themselves and other cells, allowing abnormal cells to grow and multiply.

Lycopene, according to the research team, can help re-establish these junctions.

'Precise mechanism'

Betty Schwartz, who is leading the research, now plans to test the chemical in people with oral cancer.

She said: "We know need to establish the precise mechanism of action of lycopene not only in cancer prevention, but also its possible role in reducing cardiovascular disease and nervous-system illnesses."

Lycopene is at high levels in concentrated tomato products such as ketchup and pizza topping.

Other research at the University of North Carolina suggested that lycopene in the diet could reduce the risk of heart attacks.

Dr Tim Key, senior epidemiologist and expert on diet and cancer, at Imperial Cancer Research Fund, told BBC News Online: "This study adds to the evidence that lycopene has some biological effects which might, in theory, reduce the risk for cancer.

"Studies of the association between the consumption of tomato products rich in lycopene and the risk for various cancers have produced encouraging but not conclusive results - some studies have shown a reduction in cancer risk with high tomato consumption, but others have not.

"At present, the best dietary advice for reducing cancer risk is to aim to consume several portions of fruit and vegetables every day.

"Tomatoes are a good choice, but, on the evidence currently available, I wouldn't recommend that people choose tomatoes in preference to other types of fruit and vegetables."

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