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Antioxidants Seem to Help Heart-Transplant Patients

They appear to protect against artery damage

THURSDAY, March 28, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The antioxidant vitamins E and C appear to help prevent the kind of accelerated artery disease that occurs in heart-transplant patients.

The finding, contained in a new report, offers some support to lingering hopes that the vitamins might do the same for many Americans for whom arteriosclerosis -- or hardening of the arteries -- is a major health risk.

The results of the study of 40 heart-transplant patients are preliminary and based on a short-term follow-up, acknowledges Dr. James C. Fang, lead author of the report in the March 30 issue of the British journal The Lancet. But they're worth pursuing, he adds.

"Our small study suggests that in heart-transplant patients, the benefits of these vitamins appear to outweigh the risk," Fang says. But he's cautious about applying that assessment to other people at risk of artery disease.

The stress of a heart transplant makes the recipient unusually vulnerable to arteriosclerosis, the thickening and hardening of the arteries. This results in narrowing and decreased blood flow through the arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke, says Fang, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Fang and his colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston did their study to see if vitamins C and E could slow the progression of arteriosclerosis in heart-transplant patients.

Half of the heart recipients were given 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C and 800 International Units of vitamin E every day for a year; the other half got a placebo, an inactive substance. The condition of their arteries was checked by specialized ultrasound tests.

"We could see that arteriosclerosis was less in those patients who got the vitamins after a year," Fang says. "That suggests that down the road, they are likely to do better. We now are in the process of trying to take this further, with a much larger and longer study."

Transplant recipients are obviously an unusual group of patients, Fang acknowledges, because there's "a very important immunological mechanism" that contributes to their arteriosclerosis. But their experience with the vitamins "opens a window onto an insight about the more common form of the disease," he says.

At most, Fang says, the hope that antioxidants can help prevent the common form of arteriosclerosis that affects the general population "is not completely dead in the water." He addds, however, that large studies of vitamin E, "as best as we can tell, now appear to offer no overwhelming benefit, at least in the short term."

Fang's study was done with the help of the Linus Pauling Institute, founded in 1973 in California by the Nobel Prize winner to advance his controversial ideas about the health benefits of micronutrients such as vitamin C.

The institute has been part of Oregon State University since 1996, says administrative officer Steve Lawson. It supports a number of research projects "with funding from government grants and company sponsorships, as well as public contributions," he says.

Should someone worried about artery disease take antioxidant vitamins?

"That is a question that arouses a lot of different opinions," Wang says. Moderate doses of vitamins might not help, but there is no downside in terms of risk.

"It all depends on you," he adds. "If you think it will help you and not hurt you, why not?"

What To Do

To learn about research on antioxidant therapy for heart disease and other conditions, visit the Linus Pauling Institute.

To learn more about arteriosclerosis, check The National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: James C. Fang, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Steve Lawson, administrative officer, Linus Pauling Institute, Corvallis, Ore; March 30, 2002, The Lancet
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