Project leader Cathie Martin reveals her dream: plant scientists can contribute innovative ways of looking and understanding the benefits of food in our diets
Cardiovascular disease and tumors cause more than two thirds of deaths in the Western World, representing an authentic burden not only for individuals but also for society due to the high costs for therapies and health care and due to lost income.
In November 2007, a group of pre-eminent doctors, health-care specialists, policy makers and politicians published ‘Grand challenges in chronic non-communicable diseases’ highlighting the severity of the global chronic disease epidemic and the economic burden it will place on societies over the next 50 years. A significant proportion of chronic diseases are preventable and the Grand Challenge article outlined a number of policy changes and research initiatives necessary to remove critical barriers to solve this immense health problem.
Chronic diseases can be prevented by reducing sociobehavioral risk factors, the most significant of which are unhealthy diets.
The ATHENA project represents a focused and effective contribution to meeting this Grand Challenge by exploring the basis for dietary improvements to protect societies against chronic disease.
Anthocyanins and Health
Anthocyanins are pigments found in some plants that have been shown to protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity in preclinical studies with animals. The ATHENA project will address how well dietary anthocyanins protect against different chronic diseases.
ATHENA and FLORA: we are what we eat
The ATHENA project can be considered as the natural “daughter” of the FLORA project, a European FP6-funded study which investigated the relationship between flavonoid intake and chronic disease in animal models, as well as through targeted human trials aimed at evaluating the beneficial effects of prolonged flavonoid intake on parameters of coagulation and inflammation in human volunteers.
Flora provided results of enough interest to convince the EU to fund a further project with the objective of a deeper investigation on the promising relationship between dietary habits and chronic disease.
The principal achievement of the FLORA research project was to instate anthocyanins among the health promoting dietary polyphenols that are effective in offering cardioprotection, protection against cancer and limitation of weight gain from obesity-inducing, high fat diets, in preclinical studies with animals. The impact of this research is already being felt in terms of dietary recommendations and messages in the popular press. However, the progress made so far provides only the foundations of the understanding required for the role of dietary polyphenols in promoting health and combating chronic disease. ATHENA will further extend investigations through human studies, and a number of new questions will be addressed so that the understanding developed in FLORA can be formulated into effective, accurate dietary recommendations and preventive medicine strategies.