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Year : 2012  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 167-170

Role of lycopene in the prevention of cancer

Department of Surgery (Gen.), CSM Medical University, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India

Date of Web Publication8-Aug-2012

Correspondence Address:
Ankita Johary
Department of Surgery (Gen.), CSM Medical University, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2231-0738.99468

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Cancer is a major public health problem in many parts of the world. There are over 100 different types of cancer, affecting various parts of the body. Oxidative stress is an important contributor in cancer. If oxidative damage is left unrepaired, it can lead to mutations and changes in cell biology, which can lead to neoplasia (unregulated accumulation of cells). Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables has been recommended to reduce the incidence of cancer. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals that mitigate the damaging effect of oxidative stress. They play an important role in the prevention of cancer and maintenance of good health. Recently, there has been a lot of interest in the role of lycopene in cancer prevention. Lycopene is one of the dietary carotenoids and a potent antioxidant. It is present in tomatoes (including processed tomato products) and other fruits such as grape, watermelon, orange, and papaya. Dietary intake of tomato and tomato products containing lycopene has been shown to be associated with decreased risk of cancer. The antioxidant properties of lycopene have been documented as being primarily responsible for its beneficial effects. In this article we outline the possible mechanism of action of lycopene and review the current understanding of its role in cancer prevention.

Keywords: Antioxidants, cancer, lycopene, oxidative stress, tomatoes

How to cite this article:
Johary A, Jain V, Misra S. Role of lycopene in the prevention of cancer. Int J Nutr Pharmacol Neurol Dis 2012;2:167-70

How to cite this URL:
Johary A, Jain V, Misra S. Role of lycopene in the prevention of cancer. Int J Nutr Pharmacol Neurol Dis [serial online] 2012 [cited 2022 Oct 4];2:167-70. Available from:

   Introduction Top

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 20% of all deaths. [1] In the year 2008, approximately 2.7 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed and 7.6 million deaths were reported due to cancer worldwide. [2] Cancer is a large, heterogeneous class of diseases in which a group of cells display uncontrolled growth. The human body is made up of millions of cells and these cells are constantly refreshing themselves. The old cells die, by a process known as apoptosis (programmed cell death), and are replaced by new cells; this occurs in all multicellular organisms [Figure 1]. [3] When the process of apoptosis is influenced by mutations there is deregulation of the growth of cells, and cancer may result. There are many etiological factors in the development of cancer. Among these, inappropriate diet, physical inactivity, and obesity have been implicated in approximately 30%-35% of cancer cases. [4] Diets that contain little vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and relatively more of processed foods and red meat have been linked with a number of cancers. Oxidative stress induced by reactive oxygen species is one of the areas that has drawn a lot of interest recently in cancer research. Reactive oxygen species are highly reactive oxidant molecules generated endogenously through regular metabolic activity, lifestyle activities, and diet. [5],[6] Antioxidants are protective agents. They inactivate the reactive oxygen species and thereby significantly delay or prevent oxidative damage.
Figure 1: Oxidative stress, antioxidants, and chronic diseases

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There are number of enzymatic antioxidants present in human cells, such as superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase. In addition, antioxidants such as vitamins E and C, polyphenols, and carotenoids are available in food. The carotenoids belong to the family of pigmented compounds that are synthesized by plants and microorganisms but not by animals. Fruits and vegetables constitute the major sources of carotenoids in the human diet. [7],[8],[9] They are present as microcomponents in fruits and vegetables and are responsible for the yellow, orange, and red colors. Carotenoids are thought to be responsible for the beneficial properties of fruits and vegetables in preventing many diseases including cancers. [10],[11] More than 600 carotenoids have so far been identified in nature. However, only about 40 are present in a typical human diet. Of these 40, about 20 carotenoids have been identified in human blood and tissues. Close to 90% of the carotenoids in the diet and human body is represented by beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and cryptoxanthin. [12]

The antioxidant properties of carotenoids have been suggested as being mainly responsible for their beneficial effects. Recent studies also show that carotenoids may mediate their effect via other mechanisms such as gap functions communication, cell growth regulation, modulation of gene expression and immune response, and modulation of phase 1 and 2 drug metabolizing enzymes. [13],[14],[15] Apart from combating oxidative stress, dietary constituents like lycopene, tocopherol, and ascorbic acid also have other effects (e.g., the neuroprotective effect of γ-tocopherol in neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson disease) [Figure 3].[16]

The aim of the review is to examine the role of dietary lycopene in the prevention of cancer.

   Discussion Top

Lycopene is a member of the carotenoid family, which is synthesized by many plants and microorganisms. It is a highly unsaturated open straight chain hydrogen compound consisting of 11 conjugated and 2 unconjugated double bonds. [17],[18],[19] The red color of many fruits and vegetables is due to the presence of lycopene. Because of the presence of double bonds in the structure of lycopene, it can exist in both the cis and trans isomeric forms. Lycopene is present in foods primarily in the all-trans isomeric form. [20] However, it can undergo mono- or poly-isomerization by light, thermal energy, and chemical reactions to the cis isomeric form [Figure 2],[Figure 3]. It is highly stable at high temperatures and can be stored. [21] Tomatoes and tomato-based foods account for more than 85% of the dietary sources of lycopene. [22] The antioxidant property of lycopene has been the main focus of research to date. However, it has also been shown to exert its effect via other mechanisms such as gene function regulation, gap junction communication, hormone and immune modulation, carcinogen metabolism, and modulation of metabolic pathways involving phase 2 drug metabolizing enzymes. [23],[24],[25]
Figure 2: Chemical structure of lycopene

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Figure 3: All-trans and cis isomeric forms of lycopene

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Agarwal and Rao, in 2006, have clearly documented the role of lycopene in the prevention of chronic diseases, including cancer. [26]

Tomatoes are the best source of lycopene. [27],[28] Importantly, cooked tomato products have higher available levels of lycopene than tomato in the raw form. Cooking breaks down cell walls to release lycopene, resulting in better absorption. Processing makes the lycopene more bioavailable by increasing the surface area available for digestion. More significantly, the chemical form of lycopene is altered by the temperature changes involved in processing and becomes more easily absorbable by the body. Also, because lycopene is fat soluble (as are vitamins A, D, and E and the provitamin beta-carotene), absorption is improved by the presence of the oil in the diet. The bioavailability of lycopene increases if the tomatoes have been cooked in olive oil. [29] Oil and fats are known to improve their spectrum for application by hydrogenation, fractionation, blending, and interesterification. [30] Other plant products have also been reported to show variations in their effect on the human body following processing. [31]

Lycopene enhances cell-to-cell communication by increasing 'Gap junctions' between cells. [32] Two major mechanisms have been proposed to explain the anticarcinogenic activities of lycopene: nonoxidative and oxidative mechanisms. Lycopene is hypothesized to suppress carcinogen-induced phosphorylation of regulatory proteins such as p53 and Rb antioncogenes and to stop cell division at the G0-G1 cell cycle phase. [33] Astorg and colleagues proposed that lycopene-induced modulation of the liver metabolizing enzyme cytochrome P4502E1 was the underlying mechanism of its protection against carcinogen- induced preneoplastic lesions in rat liver. Preliminary in vitro evidence also indicates that lycopene reduces cellular proliferation induced by insulin-like growth factors-which are potent mitogens-in various cancer cell lines. [34] Regulation of intrathymic T-cell differentiation (immune modulation) was suggested to be the mechanism for suppression of mammary tumor growth by lycopene treatments in SHN retired mice. [35],[36] This is an important mechanism by which cells communicate with each other, and helps to ensure proper cell and organ functions. It also prevents uncontrolled growth of cancer cells and modulates cell-cycle progression. The cell cycle is a highly ordered set of events that culminates in cell division. The use of lycopene appears to be a potential anticancer strategy of regulating the cell cycle by inhibiting abnormal cellular growth. [37] Lycopene has been hypothesized to prevent carcinogenesis by protecting critical cellular biomolecules, including lipids, lipoproteins, proteins, and DNA. [38],[39],[40]

The consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants has generated interest in the role of lycopene in disease prevention. However, the evidence thus far is mainly suggestive, and the underlying mechanisms are not yet clearly understood. Further research is critical to elucidate the role of lycopene and to formulate guidelines for healthy eating and disease prevention. Areas for further study include epidemiological investigations based on serum lycopene levels, bioavailability and effects of dietary factors, long-term dietary intervention studies, metabolism and isomerization of lycopene and their biological significance, interaction of lycopene with other carotenoids and antioxidants, and mechanism of disease prevention.

   Conclusion Top

Lycopene is an important chemical substance for moderation and modulation of cancerous growth. Its role in cancer prevention is well documented. Lycopene can be absorbed more efficiently by the body after it has been processed into juice, sauce, paste, or ketchup. In fresh fruit, lycopene is enclosed in the fruit tissue. Therefore, only a portion of the lycopene that is present in fresh fruit is absorbed. Processing fruit makes the lycopene more bioavailable by increasing the surface area available for digestion and thus aids better absorption. More significantly, the chemical form of lycopene is altered by the temperature changes involved in processing and it assumes a more absorbable form. Also, because lycopene is fat-soluble (as are vitamins A, D, and E and the provitamin beta-carotene), absorption is improved in the presence of the oil in the diet. Although lycopene is available in the market in supplement form, it is likely that natural sources like whole fruit are better as the other components of the fruit enhance the effectiveness of lycopene.

Antioxidants play an important role in protecting cells and cellular components against oxidative damage. Additionally, study results highlight the importance of how a food is prepared and consumed in determining the bioavailability of dietary carotenoids such as lycopene. It can be concluded that tomato-based foods products are beneficial in cancer prevention.

   References Top

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