Research on cells is showing that this vitamin E family member works on both the genetic and protein levels to produce firmer, fairer skin and larger muscles.
Their work is all at the cellular level – the smallest unit of living beings.
Their goal: to answer the fundamental question of ‘how does this work?’.
Oftentimes, we can see that something has an effect. For example, the use of vitamin E in skincare and cosmetics.
This essential micronutrient has been touted as having anti-ageing effects on the skin, including preventing wrinkle formation, protecting against ultra-violet (UV) rays, and having a whitening effect.
But how exactly does it produce these effects?
That is what researchers like Prof Datuk Dr Wan Zurinah Wan Ngah and Prof Dr Suzana Makpol are working to find out.
The two biochemistry professors with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) Faculty of Medicine have been researching the effects of tocotrienols for several years now.
Tocotrienols are one of two members of the vitamin E family, and until the past couple of decades, the much lesser known one.
Its “sibling”, tocopherol, was the one that received almost all the scientific attention during the initial several decades following the discovery of vitamin E in 1922.
As such, most of the applications using vitamin E today, including most commercial products, tend to utilise mainly, or solely, tocopherols.
However, the latest research has shown that tocotrienols are actually the ones with the much stronger anti-oxidant properties that characterise vitamin E’s manifold benefits.
Increasing the ‘healthspan’
Prof Wan Zurinah, who is also the UKM Medical Molecular Biology Institute’s deputy director for academic and international affairs, shares that their initial research into tocotrienols began with its effects on cancer.
In fact, part of this research was the subject of Prof Suzana’s PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis. At that time, she was Prof Wan Zurinah’s student.
However, about six years ago, they decided to explore the area of ageing.
Says Prof Wan Zurinah: “We moved into ageing because we thought that this is something people should be more aware of.
“With ageing comes the increased risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), for example, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, cognitive disorders, etc.
“So, if we could actually increase a person’s ‘healthspan’ – that is, the amount of time a person stays healthy – their quality of life would be improved and the onset of NCDs could be delayed.”
She adds that the benefits of this would be huge, not just in terms of individual quality of life, but also in terms of productivity and the economy.
“NCDs cost a lot of money because they are chronic diseases,” she notes.
Prof Suzana, who heads the medical faculty’s biochemistry department, explains that among the theories of ageing is one called the free radical theory of ageing.
This theory, originally proposed by American scientist Dr Denham Harman in 1954 (who coincidentally passed away on Nov 25 at the grand old age of 98), suggests that organisms age because free radicals cause oxidative stress to the body’s cells.
In this scenario, it can be surmised that anti-oxidants can slow down the ageing process as they react with free radicals to neutralise them.
More collagen, younger skin
Says Prof Suzana: “At the beginning, my focus was on setting up an ageing model in cells, that is, in vitro.
“This model is known as SIPS, stress-induced premature senescence.”
The cells she used were normal human fibroblasts, a type of connective tissue cell that produces collagen and extracellular matrix.
These cells are ideal for an ageing model as they are easily available and their ageing process has been well-established.
As Prof Suzana explains, fibroblast cells in the laboratory are known to divide and double their population up to a maximum of 30 times before stopping, as they have reached senescence or old age by then.
Oxidative stress is artificially induced in the cells by using hydrogen peroxide.
In a series of experiments, they examined the effects of both tocotrienol-rich fraction (TRF), comprising 70% tocotrienols and 30% tocopherols, and gamma-tocotrienol, on human fibroblasts.
Both tocotrienols and tocopherols have four types each: alpha (a), beta (b), gamma (g) and delta (d).
The four types are isomers, meaning that they share the same chemical formula, but the physical arrangement of their atoms differ from type to type. This results in each type having different chemical properties.
The tocotrienols themselves differ from the tocopherols by having three double bonds in their side chain, where the tocopherols only have single bonds.
They found that both TRF and gamma-tocotrienols had a significant effect on the presence of collagen produced by the fibroblasts.
Explains Prof Wan Zurinah: “One of the proteins that give our skin structure is collagen.
“As we age, collagen is produced less and is broken down more by the enzyme matrix metalloproteinase (MMP).
“What tocotrienols do is to increase collagen synthesis and also reduce collagen breakdown by MMPs.”
This dual effect is a result of tocotrienol’s action on both the genetic and protein levels.
The result at the organ level means firmer, more supple skin, and less wrinkles.
Less melanin, more muscle
Tocotrienols also have an effect on the production of melanin in our skin.
Melanin is a pigment that increases with prolonged exposure to sunlight – or more specifically, UV rays – and ageing.
This is due to the fact that melanin serves to protect our skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation by absorbing and dissipating these rays from our body.
However, it also causes our skin to darken, which is viewed as undesirable in the Asian concept of beauty and fairness.
Using keratinocytes – the dominant cell type in the epidermis, or outermost layer of our skin – Prof Suzana and her colleagues discovered that the TRF had a significant effect on the amount of melanin produced by those cells.
Explains Prof Wan Zurinah: “The way tocotrienols work is by inhibiting the enzyme that catalyses the creation of melanin, as well as the genes that are responsible for the synthesis of melanin, which is responsible for the pigment in our skin.”
In addition, Prof Suzana says that while tocopherols also perform the same functions, a head-to-head comparison with the TRF in the same study showed that the tocotrienols had a better effect, compared to tocopherols.
Her latest research is looking into the effects of tocotrienols on myoblasts – an embryonic cell that fuses together into myotubes that are the foundation for our muscle fibres.
So far, Prof Suzana shares that based on observation alone, the formation of myotubes are better when treated with tocotrienols.
“The size of the myotubes are bigger, and there are more myotubes that fuse together better,” she says.
This means that tocotrienols might also have an effect on promoting muscle growth.
She is currently researching the effects tocotrienols have at the genetic level on these myoblasts.
Prof Wan Zurinah shares that where their studies have compared effects based on age and time, those subjects – whether they be cells or humans – that were older, showed more significant benefits from taking tocotrienols, compared to those who were younger.
However, the older subjects took a longer time (six months versus three) to show the effects than their younger counterparts.
“Our theory is that the younger cells don’t need the tocotrienols as much because they have undergone less oxidative stress to date,” says Prof Suzana.
Prof Wan Zurinah also notes that the TRF they are using is from a preparation already available in pharmacies.
“We wanted to use something that was commercially available.”
The mixture consists of high-purity tocotrienols (70%) and alpha-tocopherols (30%) derived from palm oil, which is one of nature’s richest sources of tocotrienols.