B vitamins and homocysteine in cardiovascular disease and aging.


Wilcken DE, Wilcken B




Ann N Y Acad Sci


The sulfur-containing amino acid, homocysteine, is formed from the essential amino acid methionine, and a number of B vitamins are involved in methionine metabolism. Pyridoxine, vitamin B6, is a cofactor for cystathionine beta synthase, which mediates the transformation of homocysteine to cystathionine, the initial step in the transsulfuration pathway and the urinary excretion of sulfur. In a normal diet there is conservation of the carbon skeleton, and about 50% of the homocysteine formed is remethylated to methionine via steps that require folic acid and vitamin B12. A deficiency of any of these three vitamins leads to modest homocyst(e)ine elevation, as does diminished renal function, both of which are common in the elderly. It is also established that homocyst(e)ine elevation of this order is associated with increased cardiovascular risk but is also associated with most established risk factors, although it is thought to be an independent contributor. In the inborn error of metabolism homocystinuria due to cystathionine beta synthase deficiency there is greatly increased circulating homocyst(e)ine and a clear association with precocious vascular disease. In about 50% of these patients there is a vascular event before the age of 30 years. The homocysteine-induced adverse vascular changes appear to result from endothelial and smooth muscle cell effects and increased thrombogenesis. We have documented a highly significant reduction in the occurrence of vascular events during 539 patient years of treatment in 32 patients with cystathionine beta synthase deficiency (mean age 30 years, range 9-66 years) by aggressive homocyst(e)ine lowering with pyridoxine, folic acid, and B12 (p = 0.0001). The 15 pyridoxine nonresponsive patients also received oral betaine. Although a cause and effect relationship is postulated for the increased cardiovascular risk associated with mild homocysteine elevation, a common cause of this elevation is the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase C677T mutation. Homozygotes occur in about 11% of Caucasian populations. However, the mutation is not associated with increased coronary risk. Since mild homocysteine elevation is easily normalized by B vitamin supplementation, usually with folic acid, it remains for controlled clinical trials of this inexpensive therapy to determine whether normalizing mild homocyst(e)ine elevation reduces cardiovascular risk.