U. LEEDS (UK)—Steroids currently sold as “fountain of youth” supplements—so called because of their apparent ability to improve energy, vision, and memory—may help trigger the body’s natural defense against heart disease.

Biologists from the University of Leeds have identified a previously-unknown ion channel in human blood vessels that can limit the production of inflammatory cytokines—proteins that drive the early stages of heart disease.

This protective effect can be triggered by a molecule that is part of a family of steroids called pregnenolone sulphate. The defense mechanism can be switched on in diseased blood vessels as well as in healthy vessels.

This type of steroid is made naturally in the body, but levels decline rapidly with age, leading to a market for synthetically made options, such as pregnenolone and DHEA, that are promoted for their health benefits.

Pregnenolone sulphate is in the same family of steroids but it is not sold as a health supplement.

“The effect that we have seen is really quite exciting and also unexpected,” says  David Beech, who led the study, details of which are published in Circulation Research.

“However, we are absolutely not endorsing any claims made by manufacturers of any health supplements. Evidence from human trials is needed first.”

A chemical profiling study indicated that the protective effect was not as strong when cholesterol was present too, suggesting the expected benefits of “fountain of youth” steroids will be much greater if they are used in combination with cholesterol-lowering drugs and/or other healthy lifestyle strategies such as diet and exercise.

“These ‘fountain of youth’ steroids are relatively cheap to make and some of them are already available as commercial products,” Beech says.

“So if we can show that this effect works in people as well as in lab-based studies, then it could be a cost-effective approach to addressing cardiovascular health problems that are becoming epidemic in our society and worldwide.”

More news from the University of Leeds: www.leeds.ac.uk/news