Sun-damage, skin and Pycnogenol:
An interview with Dr. Antti Arstila

by Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.

As I mentioned in my last column, when my first column on Pycnogenol(R) appeared, and especially after my booklet on the nutrient was published, I received many letters from readers wishing to know more about this important nutritional supplement. So I set about visiting several researchers around the world to learn more about Pycnogenol and the latest research on its health benefits.

One of my most enjoyable visits was with Professor Antti Arstila of the University of Jyvaeskylae in central Finland during October, 1993. It amused me that I had to travel almost halfway around the world to meet Professor Arstila when after all, since 1971, he occasionally is in my back yard as an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, but yet our paths did not cross while he was in the U. S. Prior to that, he was an Associate Professor at Duke University from 1969 - 1971. Professor Arstila also lectured on Pycnogenol in the U. S. in 1992, but again, our schedules did not match. So, in Finland, a few miles from the Arctic Circle, we finally meet. It was well worth the trip.

Professor Antti Holevi Arstila, M.D. is a cell biologist, toxicologist, pathologist and antioxidant expert. He is the Chairman of the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Jyvaeskylae in Jyvaeskylae, Finland. Professor Arstila has authored 15 scientific and medical textbooks, in addition to six books for laymen on health and disease. He has also contributed to more than 200 scientific publications, congress abstracts and textbooks on subjects that include electron microscopy, neuroscience, cell injury, lipid peroxidation, free radicals and antioxidants.

In addition to discussing Dr. Arstila's research with him, I was privileged to attend the presentation and defense of one of Professor Arstila's doctoral candidates' dissertation. Finnish Universities have a strong reputation for excellence. They avoid becoming isolated or drifting away from the mainstream which could happen due to their relative geographical isolation. Doctoral candidates not only have to defend their research dissertation before their own faculty, but interrogators from foreign universities to "cross examine" them in a public forum.

Doctoral candidate Zhao Guochang had completed years of research on how Pycnogenol protected against ultraviolet radiation-induced oxidative stress in skin. This is a topic of considerable interest as we realize that our partial protection provided by the ozone layer is diminishing. Thus, in addition to the normal contingent of professors in full academic regalia and family, there were several members of the television and print media in the beautiful and historic University auditorium. Now Dr. Zhao Guochang is continuing his research at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Passwater: Professor Arstila, you have a great background to properly evaluate the role of nutrients in our health, not only in regards to their beneficial effects, but also their safety. How did your interest lead you into all of these fields of specialty?

Arstila: When I was at Duke University, we carried out many studies on iron toxicity which was a great problem in Central Africa because of their use of iron pans. Then we realized that iron toxicity is not only a problem of Central Africa, but throughout the Western World as well, especially with men. I became particularly interested in possible toxicity from nutrient excesses, and I became interested in antioxidants because they are protective against many toxicities, especially from pro-oxidants.

Passwater: Your department's research on the protection provided by pycnogenol against sun damage has received a lot of attention in both the scientific and general press. What led you to this area of research?

Arstila: There has been great scientific concern about the thinning of our planet's protective ozone layer and the possibility that our skin cancer rate will dramatically increase. In addition, these UV-B rays are thought to possibly be a factor in the decline in populations of frogs, toads and salamanders. This radiation reduces the hatching rates from their eggs because the amphibians can't repair UV damage to their DNA. Like the canary in the coal mine, this is a signal that something is wrong.

Passwater: Tell us a little about the background of the UV-B problem.

Arstila: Several scientists have been monitoring the ozone levels in the stratosphere and the UV-B levels reaching the ground for several years. The ozone level fluctuates with the season and the year, but there has been a trend of a five-to-ten percent annual decrease. Toronto scientists James Kerr and C. T. McElroy have noted that the amount of UV at ground level in Toronto has increased each year by 35% in winter and seven percent in summer.

UV radiation can produce a variety of dermatological effects in humans including erythema, photosensitivity, immunological alterations, photoaging, and carcinogenesis. UV-B is considered to be the portion of the UV spectrum primarily responsible for the deleterious effect of solar UV radiation.

Passwater: How does UV radiation damage skin?

Arstila: One possible mechanism underlying UV-B radiation-induced cell damage is oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a cellular situation characterized by an elevation in the steady-state concentration of free radicals and other reactive oxygen species. Oxidative stress occurs if the balance between the cellular antioxidant defenses and the mechanisms triggering oxidative conditions is impaired. Zhao Guochang and I thought that since skin fibroblasts (cells found in growing tissue) have important functions in skin dermis, that it would be important to study the effects of UV-B on skin fibroblasts and then find ways of protecting the fibroblasts.

Passwater: Does Pycnogenol protect skin from UV damage?

Arstila: Yes. Pycnogenol reduced UV-B radiation-induced cytotoxicity and lipid peroxidation in a manner proportional to the amount of Pycnogenol present. Our studies indicate that UV-B radiation induces oxidative stress in cultured human skin fibroblasts, that UV-B induced oxidative injuries are not reduced by dl-alpha-tocopherol but are reduced by Pycnogenol, and that Pycnogenol scavenges superoxide radicals in vitro.

Passwater: Isn't Pycnogenol a good nutrient for skin anyway because it facilitates the production of the skin protein collagen?

Arstila: Yes, through its protection and sparing of vitamin C, it does aid collagen development. But, perhaps of greater interest, is that it improves the beneficial cross-linking between the amino acids of the fibers that give skin its flexibility and strength, while preventing the undesirable cross-linking between the amino acids that ages skin like leather. The nutrients of Pycnogenol have a great affinity for skin proteins and that helps protect them against free radicals and other reactive oxygen species.

Passwater: You mentioned that vitamin E didn't provide the protection against the UV-B, were other antioxidants studied as well, and, if so, how did they compare to the protective effects of Pycnogenol?

Arstila: No. We were trying to test nutrients that had a good chance of working. Vitamin E had shown promise from in vitro studies, but it had failed human studies. We wanted to look at both vitamin E and Pycnogenol. Pycnogenol was protective whereas vitamin E was not.

Passwater: What distinguishes Pycnogenol from other antioxidants?

Arstila: Each antioxidant has a unique antioxidant profile. There are many types of free radicals and other reactive oxygen species that harm the body, and antioxidants vary in their ability to quench these various reactive oxygen species. In addition, some antioxidants are water-soluble and others are fat-soluble. Their solubility determines where they can travel and what they will be able to protect. Pycnogenol is very water-soluble and is more protective against some reactive oxygen species such as measured by the TBARS test than either vitamin C or vitamin E, and is more protective against at least one stable free radical than vitamin E and more protective against superoxide than vitamin C. There are other reactive oxygen species in which vitamins C and E are more protective than Pycnogenol. The best approach is to utilize many different antioxidants -- vitamins C and E, selenium, carotenoids, and Pycnogenol as they tend to be synergistic.

What is of particular interest about the nutrients of Pycnogenol is their affinity for the skin proteins such as collagen and elastin. This is why we chose Pycnogenol for our UV-B study.

Passwater: What distinguishes Pycnogenol from other bioflavonoids?

Arstila: Pycnogenol is a water-extracted mixture of monomers, dimers, and oligomers, plus other polyphenols and organic acid "building-blocks." Therefore all of the nutrients so extracted are water soluble, whereas the bioflavonoid rutin is not very water- soluble. In addition, the nutrients in Pycnogenol are very bioavailable, whereas rutin is not very bioavailable. The oligomers present in Pycnogenol are unique and have unique antioxidant profiles.

Passwater: You have written books on Toxicology, what can you tell us about the safety of Pycnogenol?

Arstila: Yes, I have written many research papers on toxicology and there is no question that Pycnogenol is a non-toxic natural product. Pycnogenol was well tested before it was introduced in Europe originally as "Pycnoforton," and it has been well tested throughout the years to keep up with the increased sophistication of toxicological tests. As an example, Pycnogenol has been subjected to tests for mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, teratogenic (birth defects), and acute and gross toxicities in several species of animals. Many clinical studies have been made and no adverse effects have been reported. Pycnogenol has received extensive toxicity testing in comparison to food supplements such as vitamins because of its widespread use by physicians in Europe.

Passwater: Where are your current research interests?

Arstila: I am now concentrating on the free-radical damage of our genetic material DNA. It may be that DNA damage by free radicals is by far more important than other forms of free radical damage. The DNA damage may be important factors in cancer and aging.

Passwater: Thank you Professor Arstila.

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