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Palm tocotrienols under scope

Malaysia started testing the benefits of palm oil vitamin E on humans, as early as 11 years ago. As the medical fraternity finds more evidence of this potent antioxidant having life-saving attributes, the Malaysian government decided to pump more money into such trials. OOI TEE CHING interviews the lead researchers.

HERE’S an interesting fact about vitamin E. It comes from palm oil and its Western counterparts namely soya, canola and sunflower.

But it is the ones that come from soyaoil and canola, known as tocopherols, that are the most commonly available form of vitamin E in the market. The other half of the vitamin E family is tocotrienols that come from palm oil and they are now beginning to gain recognition as the superior sibling.

Medical evidence shows that tocotrienols possess unique biological characteristics that protect body cells from damage and death. More importantly, early evidence shows that they may possess the warrior-like ability to zealously hunt down and kill cancerous cells.

It is this life-saving prospects from degenerative diseases that prompted the Malaysian government to boost funding for palm oil vitamin E clinical trials.

Performance Management & Delivery Unit’s (Pemandu) director of palm oil National Key Economic Area (NKEA) John Low said palm oil is rich in tocotrienols, with up to 800mg in one kilogramme. 

“This makes palm tocotrienols ideal for medical research. We’re allocating RM20 million to test the benefits of this super vitamin E on humans,” said the senior executive from the Prime Minister’s Department.

Low was speaking to Business Times on the sidelines of the RM20 million grant award ceremony officiated by the Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok.

The clinical trials, to be carried out in Malaysia, the US and Australia, will determine the effects of tocotrienols on adults facing high risks of stroke, cancer, diabetes and children suffering from attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

One of the grant recipients is Chandan Sen, who is professor of surgery at the Ohio State University Medical Center.

For the first time in the US, Sen and his team will embark on human trials after having studied stroke prevention effects of tocotrienols, using animal and cellular models in the last 13 years. So far, the studies have shown that tocotrienols help recovery from stroke by inducing growth of new brain arteries that bypass stroke-affected areas. 

Following these positive results, Sen will embark on a two-year trial, starting 2012 to study the effects of palm tocotrienols on 100 volunteers with high risk of contracting stroke.

At the recent Palm Oil International Congress (Pipoc 2011) held in Kuala Lumpur, Sen attracted a lot of attention when he said tocotrienols are the most potent of all known nutritional ingredients in protecting brain cells.

On the same note, he cautioned that smoking and vitamin E may not go well hand-in- hand. “It is this detrimental combination that we are excluding smokers from the tocotrienol clinical trial,” he said.

With more than 250 publications under his name, Sen is cited more than 900 times a year in scientific literature, particularly in those related to stroke.

While he sees promising prospects in consuming tocotrienols to reduce the risk of stroke, Sen stresses that vitamin supplementation is not meant to be magic bullets that can undo a lifetime of unhealthy habits. >”When consumed properly with a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, getting adequate exercise and not smoking, palm tocotrienols can play an important role in maintaining and promoting overall brain health,” he says.

Sen’s trials will source tocotrienols from Carotech Bhd, a subsidiary of Ipoh-based Hovid Bhd. Some of the volunteers under the trial will consume Carotech’s self-emulsifying vitamin E softgel capsules named “Tocomin SupraBio”, which are designed for optimal absorption into the body.

Another grant recipient is Dr Fong Chee Wai of Davos Life Science, Singapore. Together with Professor Y.C. Wong of Hong Kong University, they head a team of clinicians to find out if gamma-delta tocotrienols are able to prevent and delay the disease progression in men suffering from metastatic castration refractory prostate cancer (CRPC).

When a patient is diagnosed with CRPC, it is like being served a death sentence. “Current chemotherapy drugs such as Docetaxel have limited effects on prostate cancer stem cells, although they are currently the first-line drug given to patients with advanced prostate cancer,” Wong says. 

But there is hope on the horizon. Animal model studies have shown that gamma-delta tocotrienols can effectively inhibit CRPC growth by targeting both ordinary cancer cells and cancer stem cells.

“With such compelling results from the animal studies, we hope to see similar effects in delaying the progression of CRPC and prolonging survival in the upcoming human trials,” the professor says. 

The two-year trial will involve 50 prostate cancer patients at the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre and Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. Parallel trials at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia will also see participation of another 50 patients.

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