Thinking Big About a Small Berry to Treat Cancer

Undergraduate chemistry major Caroline Killian mashed berries and performed extensive tests in Pharmacy Professor Navindra Seeram’s laboratory last summer to find the degree of anti-cancer activity that the Eugenia jambolana berry produced.

Also known as Jamun, the vibrant purple berry is traditionally used as a pre-insulin treatment for diabetes, but Killian and Seeram wondered what kind of healing power the berry might have against cancer.

Killian was one of 80 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows from URI and seven other Rhode Island colleges who participated in a program funded by federal grants awarded to URI’s College of Pharmacy and College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

Killian and Seeram tested extracts of the berry on two breast cancer cell lines: a common type of breast cancer and a more aggressive form called “triple negative”, for which there is limited therapy.

In collaboration with a breast cancer researcher at City of Hope Hospital in California, Killian tested the berry’s effects on the growth of these cancer cells in cell cultures. Results showed the berry had inhibited the growth of cancer cells on both cell lines.

What’s so special about these berries? Apparently, the purple color. “Violet has the shortest wavelengths of all the colors in the visible spectrum, which means it oscillates the fastest, and has the most energy of all the colors we can see,” said Killian.

The project has been deeply rewarding. “As a student of science, I find ideas powerful in the sense that I can ask big questions and answer them too. What can we do to prevent and cure cancer? Using non-toxic, naturally occurring plant compounds already present in our diet to develop targeted treatments that show specific action on preventing and halting tumor growth is very exciting. Our University’s motto is ‘Think Big, We Do.’ Since coming on board at the Seeram lab and getting involved in science, my motto has become ‘Think Big, AND Do.’”