June 5, 2015

“Black raspberries are wonderful things”: A group approach to preventing oral cancer

A transdisciplinary group of Ohio State researchers are poised for new discoveries into how black raspberries may prevent oral cancers thanks to a U01 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

U01s, or Research Project Cooperative Agreements, are awarded to academic groups working in very specific areas. When principal investigator Purnima Kumar, BDS, MS, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Dentistry, read this particular U01 announcement calling for the study of how bacteria is metabolized in products, she recalls, “it almost seemed like it had been written for us.”

“Us” is the Ohio State group of researchers representing various -omics, such as genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics and metabolomics—a systems biology approach that leads to an understanding of how things work at a minute level. These researchers have been collaborating for years on a number of projects, including those involving black raspberries.

“While the simplest thing may be to tell a smoker to quit, the question is: What if we can do something to lower their risk?”

“We have found that black raspberries are wonderful things,” says Kumar. “What they do to bacteria in the mouth we call a two-way street: The bacteria in your mouth breaks the black raspberries down into products that can be active ingredients, and black raspberry stem cells, when taken over a period of time, are capable of changing the type of bacteria that lives in your mouth.”

In an effort to prevent oral cancers before they begin, the U01 study is examining the impact black raspberries may have on smokers as well as non-smokers—and how bacteria in the mouth respond to the black raspberries as a trigger or cue. “Even in smokers who have no disease, their mouths are pathogen-rich communities,” says Kumar. “While the simplest thing may be to tell a smoker to quit, the question is: What if we can do something to lower their risk?”

During the study, both smokers and non-smokers will ingest black raspberry confections created by Ohio State food scientists, and then participants’ biological samples will be examined through data analysis. The data, hosted by the Ohio Supercomputing Center, is massive. “The data sequences from just one subject can take 19 hours to come back,” says Kumar, noting that she has almost six million bacterial sequences at baseline for one person.

As Ohio State’s Discovery Themes initiative brings more faculty focused on Personalized Food and Nutritional Metabolomics for Health and Translational Data Analytics and Decision Science to campus, this team-based, systems biology approach to problem solving will only increase.

In addition to the rich collaboration among the Ohio State scientists, the U01 also connects the group to NIH scientists and other researchers throughout the nation who have received U01 funding. “We constantly touch base with the NIH scientists and the other U01s,” says Kumar. “We have big meetings with other researchers and people say, ‘Hey, you could use this sample,’ or, ‘You guys are doing gene expression? Here’s an idea.’ It’s a very collaborative group.”