Acrylamide & Heart Surgery

09 December 2007

Interview with

Mark Peplow, Chemistry World

Chris - Well it's that time again where we catch up with Mark Peplow. He's the editor of Chemistry World, from the Royal Society of Chemistry; they're based in Cambridge and Mark's here to give us an update on what's hot this month in the world of chemistry.

What's this about food and acrylamide?

Bread and ToastMark - This is the next chapter of a really interesting story that's been running for 5 years. This week, scientists published the first study that's ever confirmed the long proposed link between a compound called Acrylamide and cancer. Now, acrylamide might sound like a scary thing but it's actually fairly common in very small amounts in an awful lot of foods. Its produces, whenever you make food that goes toasty. Anything you're making that has a nice brown crispiness to it, and tastes good unfortunately, then its got acrylamide in it. It's generated by this reaction called the Maillard reaction, and it's basically a reaction between certain types of amino acid and some sugars, and it really kicks into action above 120 degrees. You particularly find it in crisps, and biscuits and pastries and chips, and things like that.

This study basically involved 62,000 women that were monitored in Holland over 11 years. It's quite a substantial study, and what the scientists found was that if they had high levels of acrylamide in their diet, that effectively doubled their risk of developing womb or Ovarian cancer. Now that sounds a little scary, but the levels of risk for those cancers are extremely low, so even doubling the risk doesn't mean there's huge swathes of people dying from intaking fried foods and things like that.

Chris - But shouldn't that at the same time give the take home message 'Eat less of it' then?

Mark -   Well Cancer Research UK were very quick this week to reassure women that they shouldn't be scared by these findings. But ultimately the advice has to be, that if you are concerned by these sorts of things, it's yet another reason really to try and eat more fruit and vegetables and less fried foods.

Chris - Well lets hope so, because I quite like my fried foods. In moderation of course. Now, if you eat a lot of fried foods though, one thing it'll do is clog your arteries up and in recent years doctors have begun to unblock arteries with angioplasties. This is threading a catheter into a blocked artery and inflated a balloon to open it. And then they starting adding stents, these frames you can deploy inside the artery to keep it open. What's the story on that now?

Mark -   Well this is quite interesting. Like you say Stents have been used, their kind of like little bits of scaffolding that you put inside blocked arteries to hold them open. But, over the last year some concerns have been rising about stents and fears that they may increase the risk of clotting, although a lot of the stents are coated, the threads of metal are coated in a polymer which releases anti-clotting drugs when they're in the body. These don't last for very long, they tend to wear out and so in longer-term studies people are starting to see a problem with these things. We had a correspondent go to a material research society meeting in America a couple of weeks ago where there's two new developments in making stents. One of them effectively creates a rubber ball, rather than using this metal framework, it creates an elongated rubber ball with a metal spring inside it, and it's the polymer itself that the ball is made out of, which stops clotting and ensures that you can have the stents inside the body for much longer. These have been tested so far in pigs and rats and it seems to make a substantial difference in terms of their effectiveness.

The other research that came up is that, one of the problems with this is that you have to have a metal coil inside this, holding it into shape. Scientists are now working on 'shape-memory polymers' which will pack up tightly at room temperature, about 20 degrees, into a tiny thread, but when they actually get into the, the body temperature which is higher than room temperature makes them unfurl into their own scaffolding. So there's no metal required, and what that means is that it doesn't stretch the arteries quite as much when you're putting it in there. Ti expands to fit into the arteries a lot cleaner.

Chris - That sounds exciting, thanks Mark.

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