With background in molecular medicine, biotechnology, digital health, open innovation, natural products, nutrigenomics and molecular pharmacology, Dr. Atanas G. Atanasov has led an international team of researchers who expertly analyzed the past, present and future of antioxidant research in an article published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity entitled ‘Antioxidants: Scientific Literature Landscape Analysis’.
Dr. Atanasov is the Head of the Molecular Biology Department at The Institute of Genetics and Animal Breeding (IGAB) of the Polish Academy of Sciences. We interviewed him to find out more about his experience with antioxidants and the importance of his research into the antioxidant landscape, as well as the direction this field is headed.
What is your background and current area of research?
My background is in biotechnology, biochemistry and pharmaceutical biology and my current research is focused on molecular mechanisms of health and disease. I am also involved in research on biological activities of natural products and food ingredients. Aside from this, I am also very interested in open innovation in science, being the founder of The International Natural Product Sciences Taskforce (INPST), an open innovation platform with a focus on collaborative work in the area of natural products, and in the application of digital tools for science communication and health literacy.
What are antioxidants and why are they important?
Antioxidants are natural or synthetic compounds with anti-oxidant action. They are particularly important as a wide range of common diseases and aging are associated with an increase in biological oxidative processes. Scientists and medical professionals hope to combat such diseases and to counteract aging by the application of antioxidants.
What do you think are the main reasons for the changing trends in antioxidant research between 1991, 2010 and 2018?
Our analysis of the scientific literature relating to antioxidants revealed that much scientific attention was focused on antioxidant vitamins and minerals before 2000. However, since 2000 there has been a transition in research focus reflected by the increasing number of studies examining the antioxidant effects of phytochemicals, such as curcumin from turmeric or resveratrol from red wine. A possible explanation for this change of research focus might be that clinical trials with many antioxidant vitamins and minerals did not yield the expected health benefits, especially in well-nourished populations.
Of course, such failures do not contradict the well-established beneficial effects of antioxidant vitamins and minerals in individuals that have deficiencies as a result of a specific disease or lifestyle.
Nevertheless, since on many occasions the use of antioxidant vitamins and minerals did not result in the expected health benefits in the general population, scientists now put more hope on the use of antioxidant phytochemicals to combat conditions associated with oxidative stress. Importantly, such phytochemicals are derived from foods that have a long history of safe use and are associated with health benefits in humans, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, spices or medicinal plants. By focusing more research on such phytochemicals, researchers hope to mimic or enhance the health benefits of the natural foods, spices, or phytotherapeutics from which they are derived.
Do you think that there is still significant research to be done on phytochemicals or are there other avenues that are now becoming more prolific in the field?
Yes, there is still much important research to be done. The biological activities of phytochemicals span beyond simple antioxidant action and these molecules have multi-faceted actions related to binding to specific receptors and enzymes, changing of gene expression profiles, modulation of cell signaling pathways and interacting with microbiota (microorganisms that inhabit the human digestive system and are increasingly recognized to be important regulators of health and disease status). Therefore, further research on molecular mechanisms of action of phytochemicals is very important to achieve better understanding on how to optimally use them for disease prevention or therapy.
Considering how technology is advancing and the needs of today’s population changes, how do you think the landscape will change?
Considering the advancements in both digital technology and our understanding of molecular mechanisms, I envisage that in the near future it will be possible to apply personalized medicine concepts to dietary supplements such as antioxidant vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Thus, digital tools will be developed that will process large amounts of data linked to the individual physiological status and genotype, in order to yield recommendations for the most optimal personalized supplements to enhance health and combat specific diseases.
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