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  5. Eating Bilberry Fruit May Help Combat Leukemia

Eating Bilberry Fruit May Help Combat Leukemia

Affiliations : Lebanese University, Beirut, Lebanon

Journal reference: DOI: 10.1038/srep08996

Summary: Ever wondered whether non-medical treatments actually work? In this fascinating study the effect of eating bilberries – a type of berry – on a type of cancer of the blood called chronic lymphocytic leukemia is explored. Evidence shows that a certain molecule called polyphenols found in berries, wine, and green tea could potentially help treat cancer.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), is a type of blood cancer that affects mainly elderly and keeps evolving with the patient for a long period of time. In the blood stream of patients with blood cancer one specific type of cell among many others circulating in the veins and arteries reaches extremely high numbers. This abnormal increase in number will not boost the activity of this type of cell but on the contrary will produce a defective version of it, not being able to accomplish its normal role in the human body. 

Blood cells emanate mainly from one mother cell that divides (or differentiates) after maturation into two other categories: the myeloid and the lymphoid progenitors. These progenitors further differentiate by acquiring certain receptors (proteins located on the surface of a cell that bind to other proteins outside of the cell, generating responses inside the cell). These characteristic traits divide blood constituents into different subgroups: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. In the case of CLL, the blood cells that become sick or “malignant” are the lymphocytes, also known as the armed forces protecting our bodies from pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites. If lymphocytes become ineffective, the human body is weakened and exposed to attacks. Moreover, the bone marrow (the factory where the blood cells and other cells are produced) finds itself forced to bring out a huge amount of the defective lymphocyte cells to the detriment of other cells, lowering tremendously the number of the remaining “normal” blood cells.       

Cancer patients with CLL are usually treated with standard therapies such as radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy. They suffer however from painful side effects, relapses or even death. Most of the time and due to the advanced age of these given the patients’ ages, the therapies further weaken their bodies by killing normal cells and affecting normal physiology. Even if patients were able to pursue the treatment, they could face resistance to therapy, in which case the malignant cells would adapt to the treatment without undergoing cell death. This happens to be in fact the major problem in CLL patients: failure of malignant cells to undergo apoptosis (that is, cell death through signals inside the cell). One major goal for physicians treating CLL thus is to discover a medication that stimulates the death pathway of cancer cells with minimal side effects .

With the increase of health awareness promoted by wellbeing and healthy lifestyle campaigns, patients often try to cure themselves with natural compounds, complements and diet plans. Some claim efficient results after herbal medicine, intermittent fasting and other types of alternative medicine. 

In this publication we wanted to evaluate the impact of a bilberry extract on lymphocytic cells. To do so, we took blood samples from CLL patients and analyzed the modifications that occurred on defective lymphocytes after treating them with an extract of a dark colored type of berry, the “bilberries”. We then investigated the induction of apoptosis by bilberries. To do so we monitored the modulation in the expression of a major protein called “Bcl-2” that is highly expressed in malignant cells and that seem to prevent or slow apoptosis in malignant cells. 

Results showed a decrease of Bcl-2 induced by a certain type of molecules extracted from bilberry and called polyphenols. The decrease of Bcl-2 production was specific to the bad malignant cells and did not modify healthy cells, meaning we had managed to induce targeted apoptosis. More specifically, this effect was the consequence of a stress caused by reactive oxygen species that bilberries provoked selectively inside the cancer cells.

Take home message: Polyphenol extracts from bilberries seem to induce targeted apoptosis in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, leading to death of malignant cells all while preserving the healthy ones. Recent studies show similar results from different sources of polyphenols extracted from green tea, red wine or other dark berries and fruits. We expect such molecules to be prescribed in the near future in parallel with conventional therapies in order to lower their side effects and increase prognosis (positive outcomes). 

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