Muscle atrophy could see a green enemy


Maybe spinach wasn’t the only thing Popeye the Sailor should have eaten — green tomatoes can strengthen muscles too.  

According a team of University of Iowa scientists, a compound found in green tomatoes can boost muscle strength and protect against muscle atrophy.  

The group of research assistants led by Christopher Adams, UI associate professor of internal medicine and molecular physiology and biophysics, discovered the compound tomatidine and its ability to strengthen muscles within patients suffering from muscle atrophy.  

“After we found tomatidine, we tested its effects on cultured muscle cells from people, and we found that it caused human muscle cells to grow,” said Adams.  “We then tested tomatidine in mice and found that it increases muscle mass, strength, and exercise capacity, and it prevents and treats muscle atrophy.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, muscle atrophy is defined when muscle wastes away because of inactivity or a major injury or illness causing inactivity of legs or arms.  

According to the CDC, people suffering from atrophy become weak, which could dramatically influence their quality of life and possibly make them more prone to injury due to falls and fractures.  Nearly 50 million Americans are affected annually, and almost 30 million of those are over the age of 60 and are forced into nursing homes and rehab facilities.  

Adams said researchers also found that tomatidine decreases fat, which is a beneficial side effect of muscle growth.  However, Adams said while tomatidine can prevent muscle atrophy in mice, he is working to determine if the compound is safe and effective in humans.  

“Tomatidine appears to be safe in mice, but more studies are needed because many things are unsafe when taken in high doses for a long time,” he said.  “Thus, I don’t recommend that people eat tomatidine until further studies definitively prove that it is safe.”

Adams said the study began with a search for small molecules whose effects on cellular gene expression are opposite to the gene expression changes that happen in people when they suffer from muscle atrophy. 

Scott Ebert, a UI postdoctoral research scholar, used a system-based approach to identifying different compounds that correlated with gene expression. 

“During graduate school, I and a couple of other students identified new molecular pathways involved with skeletal muscle atrophy,” Ebert said. 

Michael Dyle, a UI graduate student in molecular physiology and biophysics, said he has been working roughly 60 hours a week on research with Adams.  

“It was a very valuable experience to understanding how the research addresses issues that are important to understanding human disease, and what we can do as researchers to eliminate some of those issues,” Dyle said.  

Adams said Dyle has been a major help during the few years since the study began.  Dyle has been conducting experiments, planning and analyzing data, and feeding and administering compounds to mice.

“The most interesting thing about this research is that it is a natural compound that could potentially have a physical impact on humans,” Dyle said.  

Adams said the next step of research will be done through his biotech company which he recently started called Emmyon.  He said funding will be received from the National Institutes of Health, which will help expand techniques and research for preserving muscle mass for patients suffering from aging and muscle atrophy.  

The company is also studying the effects of ursolic acid — a natural chemical that can be used for new medicines targeting muscle atrophy and obesity.  

“We set up this company to try to develop something for age related muscle atrophy, trying to develop a nutritional product to help these patients,” Adams said.  “This new compound can lead to some tremendous new medicines.”

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