Pregnancy and child

Tomatoes and fertility

The Daily Express today claimed that “tomatoes could cure infertility in women”. The paper says the substance lycopene, found in tomatoes, may help treat the painful condition endometriosis, which affects around two million women in Britain. Endometriosis occurs when abnormal growths form around the womb, which can lead to fertility problems.

The study behind this story did not actually involve people eating tomatoes. It was actually a test on how lycopene affects cells taken from the lining of the abdomen, conducted under lab conditions. Also, as a full paper of this research has yet to be published, it is still difficult to fully assess the results of this study.

From the information available we cannot be certain how tomatoes affect the development of endometrosis in humans, and the claims made in the Daily Express seem premature.

Where did the story come from?

Dr Tarek Dbouk, of Wayne State University in Detroit carried out this research. Researchers report funding from National Insitutes of Health. The abstract is available from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine website and may appear in their Journal at a later date.  It is not clear yet if the full paper will be published or pass peer review.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This is a laboratory study in which the researchers wanted to explore if lycopene, thought to be a powerful antioxidant, reduces the “protein markers” that play a role in the function of adhesion fibroblasts. Fibroblasts are a common type of cell that produce the structural framework around cells, which can support the cells and play an important role in wound healing.

However, fibroplasts are thought to be overactive in inflammation and to be responsible for the adhesions or sticky bands of tissue that develop in endometriosis. Endometriosis is itself a painful condition in which cells that normally line the inside of the womb sit outside the womb in the abdominal cavity (peritoneum) and become inflamed, particularly during menstruation.

The protein markers that the researchers looked for were known as type I collagen, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), and transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-ß1).

The researchers developed their own genetic test to absolutely determine how many copies of messenger RNA (small bits of genetic code) there were for each of these protein markers in two sets of samples.

These two sample sets were taken from the same female patients at operation and tissue samples of normal peritoneum and adhesion tissue were collected before and after 24 hours of lycopene treatments.

What were the results of the study?

The researchers say that the lycopene treatment significantly reduced messenger RNA levels of type I collagen, TGF-ß1 and VEGF in normal peritoneal fibroblasts. Lycopene also significantly reduced mRNA levels of type I collagen, TGF-ß1 and VEGF in adhesion fibroblasts.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers made broad conclusions about their results. They said that “lycopene substantially reduces levels of adhesion-related markers in normal peritoneal and adhesion fibroblasts.”

They go on to suggest that this provides the molecular basis for a therapy to reduce fibrous growth. Thereby they imply that they now know the action behind potential treatments for this condition, but do not say that tomatoes are necessarily a cure.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

Without a peer-review of this research this pre-publication abstract should be treated with caution. The results and methods used by these researchers need to be assessed by experts in the field and their conclusions validated in other studies.

Also the research in question is not enough to support the claim that “tomatoes could cure infertility in women” made in the Daily Express .

Without much further research it is premature to conclude that eating tomatoes is seemingly a cheap, effective and simple treatment for endometriosis and associated fertility problems.

Sir Muir Gray adds...

For the moment women should stick to conventional treatment with specialised services, but tomatoes are a good food for many other reasons.

NHS Attribution