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New rice type that could prevent dementia to be tested in clinical trial

Professor Kenichi Otsubo, far left, and students are seen researching rice that could prevent dementia. (Photo courtesy of professor Kenichi Otsubo)

NIIGATA -- A university professor and a company that specializes in food products have managed to develop a new kind of rice that could help prevent dementia, it has emerged.

Professor Kenichi Otsubo, 66, of the Niigata University of Pharmacy and Applied Life Sciences, and Echigo Seika Co. are now planning to test their special rice in a clinical trial starting as early as February 2018.

Looking ahead, Otsubo and Echigo Seika are hoping that the rice will prove to be scientifically effective in the clinical trial, and go on to become the first ever marketed rice product with a "functional food" label, that has the potential to prevent dementia.

Experts believe dementia is an illness that is caused by an accumulation of amyloid-beta protein in the brain in tandem with advancing age.

In earlier research, Otsubo discovered that bran in "black rice," which is a traditional type of rice, is able to suppress the function of certain enzymes that form amyloid-beta protein -- representing a breakthrough discovery.

His research into "preventative rice" was selected as part of the Cabinet Office's Cross-ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP) in 2014. In his research, Otsubo mixed black rice, that still contained bran, together with "ultrahard rice" in packages.

A mixture of black rice and ultrahard rice that could prevent dementia is seen. (Photo courtesy of professor Kenichi Otsubo)

Ultrahard rice was chosen as it is considered to be a good way of preventing diabetes, and dementia is a common concomitant illness in diabetes patients. Experiments were later conducted in cooperation with Niigata University's Brain Research Institute in Niigata, and the mixture was found to be fairly effective.

However, black rice has certain unique qualities, and ultrahard rice is too hard to eat when prepared normally in a rice cooker, so Otsubo decided to call on rice-processing expert Echigo Seika for help. Together, the professor and the food company succeeded in creating rice that had both the softness and tastiness of white rice, by preparing it in a high-pressure container.

The taste resembled that of cereal-heavy rice, and could be eaten normally after being heated in a pack in a microwave. It is hoped that the product would sell for a price similar to that of conventional rice packs, if effective mass-production can be achieved.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there were 4.62 million people in Japan with dementia, as of 2012. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 50 million dementia patients across the world, and that this figure could rise to 82 million people by 2030.

"Half the world's staple food is rice. If we can add additional medical value to rice, then we can open up a promising new sales avenue for domestic rice exports," Otsubo says.

Meanwhile, professor Noboru Noguchi of Hokkaido University's Research Faculty of Agriculture, who supervises agricultural SIP projects, says, "Having a 'functional food' that makes use of Japan's main agricultural product is extremely significant."

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