Spinach holds hope for diabetics
Diabetics may soon be encouraged to take a leaf out of Popeye's book and chow down on more spinach or become happy little Vegemites with the news folic acid may help protect them from heart attacks.
Tests on lab rats by researchers in NSW and China have uncovered a new and potentially vital therapeutic role for folic acid in protecting the heart muscle from the onslaught of high glucose levels experienced by diabetics.
Folic acid is best known as a supplement taken by pregnant women to protect unborn babies from developing neural tube defects like spina bifida.
But the team conducted experimental trials on diabetic rats and found that the vitamin has a new role - significantly reducing the rate of cardiac cell death.
The 11-week course of supplements also enhanced the expression of cell-death-prevention genes and suppressed cell-death-inducing genes in heart muscles, said lead researcher Professor Lexin Wang, of Charles Sturt University.
"These are extremely exciting discoveries because for a very long time we did not have much of success in steering the heart away from the insult of high levels of blood glucose, in particular in the early stages of the cardiovascular disease process," Prof Wang said.
"Now, with a short course of folic acid treatment, we see a clear cut reduction in the death rates of cardiac cells.
"More importantly, the biology of the surviving cardiac cells is also improved, making these cells and muscles more resistant to future injuries from diabetes."
Diabetes is one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease in Australia and internationally.
Diabetics have an increased risk of heart failure largely due to the development of diabetic heart muscle disease or diabetic cardiomyopathy.
Up to a third of the cardiac cells can be destroyed or damaged as a result of high blood glucose levels experienced by diabetics.
"Therefore, the development of new preventative strategies for cardiac muscle injuries in diabetics is extremely important in terms of reducing the overall cardiac complications and improving the clinical outcomes for patients," Prof Wang said.
He called for a large trial to test the clinical effectiveness of folic acid in diabetes to see if the find can be translated into improved patient care.
"We may just end up with a big winner," Prof Wang said.
The study, in collaboration with Guangzhou Red Cross Hospital, is published in the international journal Cardiovascular Drugs and Therapy.