Background: Lycopene is the main carotenoid in tomatoes, where it is found in high concentrations. Strong epidemiological evidence suggests that lycopene may provide protection against cardiovascular diseases. We therefore studied the effects of lycopene on diet-induced increase in serum lipid levels and the initiation of atherosclerosis in New Zealand White (NZW) rabbits.
Methodology/principal findings: The animals, divided into four groups of 9 animals each, were fed either a standard diet, a high-cholesterol diet containing 0.5% cholesterol, a high-cholesterol diet containing placebo beadlets, or a high-cholesterol diet plus 5 mg/kg body weight/day of lycopene (in the form of lycopene beadlets), for a period of 4 weeks. We found significantly elevated lycopene plasma levels in the animal group treated with lycopene beadlets. Compared to the high-cholesterol and the placebo group, this was associated with a significant reduction of 50% in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol serum levels in the lycopene group. The amount of cholesteryl ester in the aorta was significantly decreased by lycopene. However, we did not observe a significant decrease in the extent of aortic surface lipid accumulation in the lycopene group. In addition, no differences in the intima-media thickness among groups were observed. Endothelial-dependent and endothelial-independent vasodilation in isolated rabbit aortic and carotid rings did not differ among any of the animal groups.
Conclusions: Lycopene supplementation for 4 weeks increased lycopene plasma levels in the animals. Although we found strongly reduced total and LDL cholesterol serum levels as well as significantly lower amounts of cholesteryl ester in the aortae in the lycopene-treated group, no significant differences in initial lesions in the aortae were detected.