Researchers from the Medical Univesity of Vienna in Austria have found that a peptide (a small protein molecule) found in beetroot may be able to treat certain inflammatory diseases, including neurodegenerative and autoimmune conditions.
The peptide is found in the roots of beetroot plants and belongs to a group of plant peptides called 'knottins'. In particular, it is used by the plants as a chemical defense against pests, including bacteria, viruses, and insects.
In medical usage, however, the researchers found that the peptide is able to inhibit prolyl oligopeptidase (POP), involved in breaking down protein hormones in the body, and thereby may be able to regulate inflammatory responses. If developed further, the peptide may be a potential drug candidate for neurodegenerative and inflammatory diseases such as Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.
The researchers say that the peptide doesn't only occur in the vegetables. It is also present in commercially-available beetroot juice, although in very small concentrations. As such, they say that while beetroot is a healthy vegetable, dementia can not be prevented by simply consuming it. This is because the peptide occurs in quantities likely too small to have any effect, and as it is so far unclear whether it can be absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract.
The research was led by Christian Gruber at MedUni's Vienna's Institute of Pharmacology. In his lab, Gruber and colleagues work to develop bio-inspired drug candidates. To do so, they search through large databases containing genetic information from plants and animals. They decode new types of peptide molecules to then be able to test them pharmacologically on enzymes or cellular receptors. Afterward, they analyze them in disease models, and, should they seem to be reasonable potential drug candidates, they chemically synthesize them in slightly modified forms for further testing.
Using this process, the research team has already generated a drug candidate from a synthesized plant peptide known as cyclotide. Known as T20K, it has just passed a Phase 1 trial for treating multiple sclerosis and is now waiting to enter Phase II trials.