Tiny purple lozenges that look and taste like candy are part of the latest cancer-prevention strategy under study at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center - James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSU CCC-James).
Surprisingly, the lozenges are nothing more than freeze-dried black raspberries.
Scientists at the OSU CCC-James have been studying the cancer-fighting properties of black raspberries for years and have discovered they can slow the growth of oral, esophageal and colon cancers in animals.
Now, a two-year, $365,000 grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, is enabling OSU scientists to launch a new study of the berries in humans.
Chris Weghorst, PhD.
Chris Weghorst, PhD, an associate professor in the OSU School of Public Health and a member of the OSU CCC's Molecular Carcinogenesis and Chemoprevention Program, is interested in the berries' impact on patients with oral tumors.
Earlier research from Weghorst's laboratory showed that an extract of black raspberries reduced the growth rate of human oral cancer cells cultured in Petri dishes by 40 percent in just one week. As a part of those studies, researchers identified 54 genes that appear to be altered by the extract – alterations they believe are responsible for inhibiting the growth of the tumor cells.
No one has yet identified which chemical compounds in the berries are responsible for this inhibitory effect, but Weghorst says simply understanding the pathways involved – the complicated chain of signals that proteins and enzymes use to control cell growth or death – may help scientists find new ways to fight cancer. "If we can identify these pathways," he says, "maybe we can find ways to manipulate them and make their beneficial effects even stronger."
Weghorst is teaming with physicians at The James to identify patients with oral cancer who will help evaluate the lozenges as a way of slowing tumor growth.
As part of the study, clinicians will biopsy participants' tumors at the point of initial diagnosis and identify their molecular and biological profiles. During a one- to three-week period before surgery to remove the tumors, patients will take two of the berry lozenges after each meal and at bedtime daily, holding them in their mouths until the lozenges dissolve. After surgery, researchers will conduct a second biopsy to see if any changes occurred in any of the 54 genes identified earlier as "berry responsive."
The lozenges may be only the first of many forms that the novel cancer prevention strategy could take. Researchers are already tinkering with another version of the berries, a configuration that may appear even more enticing. Engineered by a local compounding pharmacy, the berry extract on a stick looks like a lollipop.
Weghorst says the resemblance is not problematic; in fact, he adds, it may be ideal. He says the berry extract is perfectly safe and healthful. He also notes that the lollipops, like the lozenges, merge form and function.
"As researchers, we are just as interested in how people use the berry delivery system as we are in defining its cancer-prevention properties," says Weghorst. "Lollipops and lozenges both can extend the berries' contact time with oral tumors, and that's something we want to happen."
Researchers have tried the lozenges and observed how they and others have responded to them. Weghorst, for example, knows that it takes approximately 15 minutes for one of the lozenges to dissolve. He admits that he has to fight the urge to chew it, rather than let it melt away. That's important behavioral information for designing any new cancer- prevention strategy, he says.
The study may be especially meaningful for the 30,000 Americans who are expected to develop some form of oral cancer this year. Oral cancer can be very stubborn and aggressive. Statistics show that 20 percent of patients diagnosed with the disease this year will see their cancers recur within 18 months after surgery. And with current treatments, only about half of the people diagnosed with oral cancer today will be alive in five years.