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Enlisting Blackberries in the Fight against Cancer

by Robin Roenker

Russell Mumper, vice chair and associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UK, likes to start his mornings with a bit of blackberry jam at breakfast. Beyond the simple fact that it tastes good, that dose of blackberries may help his body ward off cancer, fight inflammation, and—perhaps—prevent oxidative brain damage that may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.

Photo of Russ Mumper and Paige Shumate ShortRussell Mumper, vice chair and associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UK, talks with Paige Shumate Short of the Carlisle, Kentucky-based WindStone Farms, the state’s largest blackberry grower. It’s a Kentucky-grown partnership that may lead to new discoveries about the disease-fighting properties of the blackberry.

We all know that fruits are good for us, but only in the last decade or so have researchers begun to uncover the secrets of why and how fruits like the blackberry work their healthful magic—and exactly how far-reaching the benefits may be.

The blackberry’s disease-fighting properties may be energized by a class of compounds called anthocyanins, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, explains Mumper. “Anthocyanins are produced only in land-based plants, fruits and vegetables. They don’t occur naturally in our bodies. We think that vegetation and fruits produce these compounds to protect themselves from UV sun damage.” And while all fruits and vegetables contain anthocyanins, the concentration in berries—especially raspberries and blackberries—is particularly robust.

Mumper’s previous research focused on the anti-cancer properties of black raspberries to treat and prevent oral cancers, and that work is ongoing in clinical trials. But last April an invitation to collaborate from Paige Shumate Short of the Carlisle, Kentucky-based WindStone Farms, the state’s largest blackberry grower, caused him to think more broadly about berries.

It’s a Kentucky-grown partnership that Mumper is intensely proud of. A Wisconsin native, he adopted the Bluegrass State as his own during his years as both an undergraduate and graduate student at UK. What sets this research apart from other work to create plant-derived products, he says, is that “all of the intellectual horsepower as well as the berries come from one place: right here in Kentucky.”

A New Recruit in the Battle against Cancer
How powerful is the simple blackberry in battling cancer? To find out, Mumper introduced blackberry extract into colonies of colon cancer cells in vitro. “Under normal conditions, these cells grow at a steady rate, doubling almost every day,” Mumper explains. “So, the question we were asking was, can this blackberry extract inhibit the growth rate of these tumor cells?”

In Mumper’s preliminary tests, blackberry extract—formed by taking WindStone’s whole blackberries, removing the water, freeze-drying what remains, and then using ethanol and hydrochloric acid to target and pull out the anthocyanins—stopped the growth of colon cancer cells. Mumper and other scientists believe that the anthocyanins deter cancer growth by both acting as antioxidants to scavenge harmful free radicals and by inducing programmed tumor cell death.

Whether the blackberry extract can prevent cancer cells from growing in the body or treat already-formed cancer is not yet known. That’s one of Mumper’s next research questions.

Either way, though, the anthocyanin-rich blackberry extract clearly has promising anti-cancer potential. Mumper is developing both a blackberry extract oral capsule and a blackberry extract skin cream that he hopes will eventually receive FDA approval to treat or prevent colon cancer and skin cancer, respectively. He has developed a prototype of the skin cream and is testing its effectiveness in preventing sun-induced skin cancer in mouse models through research with John D’Orazio, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Markey Cancer Center.

Photo of Russ MumperBlackberry extract has promising anti-cancer potential. Russell Mumper is developing an oral capsule and skin cream that he hopes will eventually receive FDA approval to treat or prevent colon cancer and skin cancer, respectively.

But the blackberry’s potential applications don’t stop with cancer. Mumper’s team has been investigating uses for anthocyanins’ anti-inflammatory properties as well. Mumper will soon begin work to develop a blackberry capsule to treat inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, such as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, and inflammatory bowel disease. And in topical cream form, the blackberry extract could also be targeted to treat inflammation of the skin, such as psoriasis and eczema. Mumper is also working with Leslie Crofford, chief of UK’s Division of Rheumatology, to investigate the blackberry’s potential to prevent inflammation associated with arthritis and to accelerate wound healing. (For more on Crofford, see Reshaping Women's Health Research).

And Mumper has recently added another research partner at UK. He’s joined efforts with Allan Butterfield, director of the Center of Membrane Sciences, to determine whether the anthocyanin-rich blackberry extract, by blocking a particular type of oxidative stress and neurodegeneration in the brain, can prevent the onset of mild cognitive impairment, which can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Enhanced Delivery
While grabbing a bowl of blackberries or a spoonful of jam is one easy way to introduce the many benefits of anthocyanins into your system, it isn’t the most efficient way of doing so, Mumper says.

“When you eat a berry, its anthocyanins are digested quickly and relatively little is absorbed,” Mumper explains. “In contrast, the blackberry extract oral capsule we envision will offer targeted delivery to the gastrointestinal tract.” Encapsulated with a specialized polymer coating designed to dissolve only at a pH specific to the colon, the stomach, or the small or large intestines, the capsule’s anthocyanins will be delivered directly to a specific site, depending on the disease or condition being treated.

“We believe that success will be in the formulation and delivery of the blackberry extract,” Mumper says. “If you were to rub a scoop of WindStone Farms’ blackberry jam right into your skin,” he says, grinning, “the jam would just sit there and your skin would turn purple. But when the blackberry extract is formulated in a topical cream, the purple-red-colored anthocyanins are readily absorbed.”

FDA approval of the various medical applications for the oral capsule and skin cream will require lengthy additional testing and clinical trials, and still may be five to eight years away. But these products could be available over-the-counter as a dietary supplement and cosmetic much sooner—perhaps even within the next year or two, Mumper estimates. He and Short have formed a private company, Four Tigers LLC, to develop novel blackberry products and to promote the blackberry industry in the state. They also hope to have a blackberry extract chewing gum and lip balm on the market soon.

In the meantime, Mumper will keep reaching for his blackberry jam every morning. “I don’t want to sound like a commercial,” he says, “but the jam tastes great, and I know I’m doing something that’s clearly good for me.”

Sidebar: Kentucky’s Grape and Wine Industry Bursting with Potential

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