It's not a huge newsflash that green tea has some pretty impressive health benefits, but a new study, from scientists at Lancaster University and the University of Leeds, has identified a specific compound found in the tea that could be recruited to dissolve the plaques that accumulate in blood vessels and lead to heart attacks and cardiovascular disease.

The compound in question is epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). A great deal of research has focused on this promising polyphenolcompound, revealing its impressive anti-inflammatory effects as well as its compelling quality to act as a protective element against neuronal damage. Some Alzheimer's research has focused on EGCG's ability to inhibit the formulation of amyloid plaques in the brain.

This new study set out to examine how EGCG affects the amyloid deposits that can build up in arteries. Atherosclerosis is a cardiovascular disease that involves formations of amyloid deposits in blood vessels that can lead to heart attack or stroke. These deposits are similar to those that are associated with Alzheimer's disease.

The research found that EGCG can alter the structure of amyloid fibrils formed by a protein called apolipoprotein A-1 (apoA-1). This protein is fundamental to the development of amyloid deposits seen in both Alzheimer's and atherosclerosis. The hypothesis in this new study is that EGCG can effectively alter the form of these amyloid fibrils, making them less toxic.

"The health benefits of green tea have been widely promoted and it has been known for some time that EGCG can alter the structures of amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease," says one of the researchers on the project, David Middleton. "Our results show that this intriguing compound might also be effective against the types of plaques which can cause heart attacks and strokes."

At this stage the research comes with a load of caveats. The most significant is that the concentrations of EGCG necessary for the effects demonstrated in the study are much higher than one can glean from drinking a few cups of green tea. In fact, green tea has been found to confer some negative health effects when consumed in high volumes, including kidney stones, so the research does not suggest it's wise to drink more than five cups a day.

Jeremy Pearson, from the British Heart Foundation says the research is promising but doesn't suggest switching to green tea just yet.

"Our bodies are very good at breaking down EGCG so swapping your cuppa for green tea is unlikely to make a big difference with respect to your heart health," says Pearson. "But by engineering the molecule slightly, we might be able to make new medicines to treat heart attack and stroke."

Tim Chico, from the University of Sheffield, is a bit more skeptical of this new study. He notes that while the research is certainly interesting, it is too early to suggest it will lead to any real future treatment in humans.

"The researchers have not yet looked at whether EGCG makes any difference to any form of disease in animals or humans, and there was some suggestion that high concentrations of EGCG might reduce survival of important human cells," says Chico.

This research may very well still be in its early stages, but it is an undeniably encouraging piece of work. Whether EGCG can be effectively modified and turned into a human treatment is yet to be shown, but at the very least this is another insight into the exciting effects of molecules that are still being discovered in simple age-old remedies like green tea.

The research was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Source: Lancaster University