Brazilian berry destroys cancer cells in lab, UF study shows
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A Brazilian berry popular in health food
contains antioxidants that destroyed cultured human cancer cells in a
recent University of Florida study, one of the first to investigate the fruit’s purported benefits.
Published today in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry,
the study showed extracts from acai (ah-SAH’-ee) berries triggered a
self-destruct response in up to 86 percent of leukemia cells tested,
said Stephen Talcott, an assistant professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Acai berries are already considered one of the richest fruit
sources of antioxidants,” Talcott said. “This study was an important
step toward learning what people may gain from using beverages, dietary
supplements or other products made with the berries.”
He cautioned that the study, funded by UF sources, was not
intended to show whether compounds found in acai berries could prevent
leukemia in people.
“This was only a cell-culture model and we don’t want to give
anyone false hope,” Talcott said. “We are encouraged by the findings,
however. Compounds that show good activity against cancer cells in a
model system are most likely to have beneficial effects in our bodies.”
Other fruits, including grapes, guavas and mangoes, contain
antioxidants shown to kill cancer cells in similar studies, he said.
Experts are uncertain how much effect antioxidants have on cancer cells
in the human body, because factors such as nutrient absorption,
metabolism and the influence of other biochemical processes may
influence the antioxidants’ chemical activity.
Another UF study, slated to conclude in 2006, will investigate
the effects of acai’s antioxidants on healthy human subjects, Talcott
said. The study will determine how well the compounds are absorbed into
the blood, and how they may affect blood pressure, cholesterol levels
and related health indicators. So far, only fundamental research has
been done on acai berries, which contain at least 50 to 75 as-yet
“One reason so little is known about acai berries is that
they’re perishable and are traditionally used immediately after
picking,” he said. “Products made with processed acai berries have only
been available for about five years, so researchers in many parts of
the world have had little or no opportunity to study them.”
Talcott said UF is one of the first institutions outside
Brazil with personnel studying acai berries. Besides Talcott, UF’s acai
research team includes Susan Percival, a professor with the food science and human nutrition department, David Del Pozo-Insfran, a doctoral student with the department and Susanne Mertens-Talcott, a postdoctoral associate with the pharmaceutics department of UF’s College of Pharmacy.
Acai berries are produced by a palm tree known scientifically as
Euterpe oleracea, common in floodplain areas of the Amazon River,
Talcott said. When ripe, the berries are dark purple and about the size
of a blueberry. They contain a thin layer of edible pulp surrounding a
Historically, Brazilians have used acai berries to treat
digestive disorders and skin conditions, he said. Current marketing
efforts by retail merchants and Internet businesses suggest acai
products can help consumers lose weight, lower cholesterol and gain
“A lot of claims are being made, but most of them haven’t been
tested scientifically,” Talcott said. “We are just beginning to
understand the complexity of the acai berry and its health-promoting
In the current UF study, six different chemical extracts were
made from acai fruit pulp, and each extract was prepared in seven
Four of the extracts were shown to kill significant numbers of
leukemia cells when applied for 24 hours. Depending on the extract and
concentration, anywhere from about 35 percent to 86 percent of the
The UF study demonstrates that research on foods not commonly
consumed in the United States is important, because it may lead to
unexpected discoveries, said Joshua Bomser, an assistant professor of molecular nutrition and functional foods at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
But familiar produce items have plenty of health-giving qualities, he said.
“Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated
with decreased risk for many diseases, including heart disease and
cancer,” said Bomser, who researches the effects of diet on chronic
diseases. “Getting at least five servings a day of these items is still
a good recommendation for promoting optimal health.”
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