The SWC Award 1996 – or why fruit and veg are still A1 down under

by Professor Nicholas Hunt, University of Sydney The inaugural recipient of the Simon Wolff Contrarian Award is Dr Roland Stocker. He received the award (a print by Roy Lichtenstein, and an engraved tankard to be passed on to the next winner) at the VIII Biennial meeting of the Society for Free Radical Research in Barcelona in October 1996.

After completing his undergraduate studies in biochemistry in Switzerland, Roland spent 3 years on his doctoral work at the Australian National University, Canberra. He investigated some aspects of how the body responds to malaria infection. This was the start of his interest in free radicals and the mechanisms that the body uses to control their harmful effects.

Roland then spent almost 2 years working in Berkeley, California, with Professor Bruce Ames, a world expert on antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins A, C and E. During this period Roland did some very influential work on certain of the antioxidants that can be found in the blood. His next move was to the Institute of Virology in Berne, where he continued working on anti-oxidant vitamins and also studied influenza.

In 1990, Roland Stocker moved to the newly-established Heart Research Institute in Sydney, Australia. He was appointed head of the Biochemistry Group within the Institute. It is during the last few years, working in Sydney, that Roland has carried out the studies that led to the Contrarian Award. Up until that time, scientists had believed that vitamin E was beneficial to health because it acted as an antioxidant, preventing (or minimising) the damage caused by the free radicals that are produced in the body either naturally or as a consequence of disease.

It is thought by most scientists that vitamin E is important in preventing the oxidation of the low density lipoproteins (LDL – a form of cholesterol) that are found in the blood. This oxidation of LDL is believed to be an important early stage in the development of athero-sclerosis, which is the underlying cause of heart attacks and stroke. It is known that people who eat a diet rich in antioxidant vitamins (A, C and E), for example those in Mediterranean countries, are less likely to suffer heart attacks and stroke than those whose diet doesn’t contain the most important sources of these vitamins, namely fresh fruit and green vegetables.

There also is some evidence suggesting that a high dietary intake of vitamins A and E is associated with a reduced risk of developing cancer. Given this background, it was natural for doctors and scientists to suggest that boosting intake of vitamins by taking special supplements would be beneficial for preventing heart attacks and cancer. In fact, to date the results of dietary supplementation have been disappointing. It seems to be better to take these vitamins in the natural form, in food. There are quite a few reasons why this might be so, but his work on one aspect of this is what led the selection committee to give the Contrarian Award. During his work on the mechanism that leads to oxidation of LDL, he discovered that although vitamin E often does act as an antioxidant, under some circumstances it can actually enhance LDL oxidation. This was completely unexpected, and led to a furious debate in the scientific community. It is natural that someone turning accepted dogma on its head in this way will run into opposition and criticism, and this has been the case for Roland. However, he has continued to stick up for his ideas and many researchers have come to accept his theory.

What is the importance of Roland’s idea for human biology and medicine? Well, if there are some circumstances where vitamin E can cause harm we need to be careful about how we plan to artificially change the natural processes that lead to the body’s balance of free radicals and antioxidant vitamins. The idea that dietary antioxidants are good for you is still true, of course. So, if you had a parent or grandparent who kept nagging you about eating up your fruit and veggies, they were probably right that this is an important way to keep healthy.