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Berry Good Health
Susan Thorpe-Vargas Ph.D.

Multiple studies have discovered that phytonutrients found in raspberries can protect us from cancer and can even shrink some types of cancer tumors. These substances can also act as an antibacterial and as an antiviral agent. Does this sound too good to be true? One particular substance found in this natural “medicine chest”, is a series of compounds called ellagitannins. The highest levels are found in raspberries, but the ellagitannins are also in certain types of grapes, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and some nuts too. Recent work (2001), published by Dr. Gary Stoner at Ohio State University, showed that components in the seeds and berry, but particularly ellagitannins, inhibited the initiation and promotion/progression stages of esophageal cancer. This is an extremely important finding, considering the potential benefits .In addition, edible berries, including raspberries also inhibit angiogenesis. This is a term used to describe the development of blood vessels needed for tumor growth.

We do not as yet know all of the functions of the ellagitannins in terms of cancer. A study at Hollings Cancer Center, Medical University of South Carolina has shown one of the ways they work is to "turn on" a normal cellular process called apoptosis. Apoptosis is "science speak" for something called programmed cell death. This natural cell death is just one of several ways our body protects us from cancer. As we age, cellular replication mistakes can occur. Cancer cells somehow become immune to the signals that cause cells to self-destruct, so they become virtually immortal and reproduce indefinitely.

The disease with a thousand faces

Cancer is not just one disease but is the general name for more than 200 different types of malignancies. Cancers are classified by the tissue type from which they arise. To illustrate:
· osteosarcoma-bone cancer
· melanoma-skin cancer
· lymphoma-cancer of lymph nodes
· leukemia – blood cancer

Every cellular type has its own form of cancer. The one thing all cancers share in common is uncontrolled growth. Cancer occurs when cells lose control over critical checkpoints during the process of one cell splitting and becoming two cells. This control over cellular replication is in the hands of several specific types of genes.

Two classes of genes are suspected of being associated with the occurrence of cancer. A mutation in a tumor suppressor gene is like having faulty brakes in your car. Just as their name implies, tumor suppressor genes function by making sure there are no mistakes in the genes that are replicated prior to one cell becoming two. In this "quality control" process, if errors are detected, the cell is instructed not to divide. Thus, tumor suppressor genes put the brakes on cellular division. The other class of genes thought to be involved with preventing cancer is called proto-oncogenes. Researchers have found that these genes "code" for proteins involved in mechanisms that regulate the social behavior of cells. Signals from those cells in the immediate environment induce their neighbors to divide, differentiate and even undergo apoptosis. So, this type of gene is involved in promoting the normal growth and division of cells and could be likened to your car's accelerator. A change in the genetic message - a mutation, can turn the proto-oncogene into an oncogene and cause your accelerator to become stuck, thus initiating "runaway" cellular replication. Nevertheless, there seem to be no pattern to these mutations. What is so frustrating for both researchers and clinicians alike is that different combinations of mutations are found in different types of cancer and even in cancers of supposedly the same type in different patients. What is most important to r emember is that cancer begins as a single abnormal cell that somehow is able to hide from the body’s defense system and begins to multiply out of control.

So, what causes most mutations?

We live in a polluted environment. For instance, the outgassing from asphalt on a hot summer day produces the deadly carcinogen benzo{a}pyrene, the same chemical found on meat that has been charcoal broiled. This is just but one example. Exposure to such chemicals in the environment can cause the mutations in our genetic material that lead to cancer. Even normal metabolic processes like breathing and exercise produce free radicals that can wreak havoc on our cellular DNA. We can protect ourselves from mutations caused by environmental toxins and free radicals by taking antioxidants. Guess what? Ellagitannins are also very good antioxidants and chemoprotective agents. Researchers at Wayne State University have a theory about how ellagitannins might work. The liver produces enzymes that rid the body of toxins. These enzymes break down or chemically change toxic substances we ingest or inhale so that they can be excreted. During this detox process, the breakdown products, called metabolites, are frequently more damaging then the original substance. It appears that ellagitannins are able to safeguard the liver from damage caused by these breakdown products. Another theory held by some investigators is that ellagitannins are able to protect our genetic material from certain types of chemical reactions that lead to misreading of damaged DNA.

Why does chemotherapy and radiation eventually stop working?

It is becoming clear that normal therapeutic cancer treatment works by turning on apoptosis. We used to think that chemotherapy and radiation killed rapidly dividing cells, which is why these procedures were able to shrink tumors. However, at some point these treatments begin to lose their effectiveness. Why is that? Scott Lowe, a research scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory may have found the answer. Instead of killing these cells, chemotherapy and radiation damage their cellular DNA. This alerts the cellular watchdogs that control the cell cycle that something is wrong and tells the cell to stop dividing or to commit suicide. Therefore, chemotherapy and radiation act somewhat like a "vaccination" that works by helping the body help itself. The evidence for Dr. Lowe's theory is pretty convincing, because when these treatments start to fail, researchers have found that the genes that control apoptosis are no longer functioning.

Why don't ellagitannins induce normal cells to commit suicide?

As we know, cancer cells become immortal; this means that they are able to replicate themselves after something called the Hayflick limit has been reached. The Hayflick limit is the number of "allowed" cellular replications. Each cell type has its own limit. Human cancer studies show that mutations in the tumor suppressor gene called p53 account for many of the tumors found. One of the functions of this gene is that it normally prevents cells with damaged DNA from proceeding through the cell cycle. The presence of the protein product encoded by p53 turns on the waf-1 gene. The waf-1 gene produces a protein that normally inhibits the activity of several similar cellular proteins called kinases. These proteins are involved in stopping cell cycle progression. A mutation in either the p53 or waf-1 gene can cause the loss of that "emergency brake" function and allow uncontrolled growth. However, only "damaged" cells are induced to commit suicide and so normal cells are not affected.

Other Phytochemicals found in raspberries

Besides ellagitannins, the short list of other beneficial compounds found in red raspberries includes anthocyanins, salicylic acid, quercitin and catechins. Some recent work has shown that these anthocyanins are more effective then Vitamin E and equivalent to ibuprofen and naproxen in inhibiting the COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. Both Cox-1 and Cox-2 are associated with the pain of arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, and Cox-2 inhibition is positively linked to preventing breast cancer. Besides their anticancer properties, anthocyanins provide many other health benefits. Among these are controlling diabetes, improving circulation and aiding the retention of motor skills and preventing the loss of memory due to aging. Salicylic acid may have the same effects as aspirin in protecting us from cancer and the progression of atherosclerosis. Both quercitin and catechins are flavonals that are known to have antioxidant benefits including cancer prevention, and quercitin may act as an antihistamine also. Besides the anticancer properties of ellagitannins they can protect us against infections.

An Antibacterial and an Antiviral agent

Ellagitannins can act as antibacterial agents and as antiviral agents too, and now we know how. Think of the genetic material of bacteria as a rubber band that is all twisted up. In order to replicate, the DNA must untwist itself through a process requiring the enzyme gyrase. Ellagitannins inhibits gyrase activity so replication of the bacterial DNA is restricted. More importantly, bacteria cannot easily become resistant to this type of antibacterial action. Resistance to antibiotics has become a real concern to the international medical community. A federal government task force noted that antibiotic resistance was “a growing menace to all people” but children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are especially at risk. Besides its antibacterial action, ellagitannins have antiviral activity also. Viruses do not have the ability to replicate themselves. Instead they must "hijack" the host cell and insert their own DNA into the host cell genome. This requires an enzyme called integrase and the ellagitannins inhibit this enzyme also.

Citizen: Heal Thyself. (With apologies to Mr. Hippocrates)

People are turning to alternative forms of medical treatment and prevention. Not only is the medical delivery system failing but, our costs for health services are rising at an astronomical rate. What this means for the medical consumer is that we need to be more responsible for our own health. We need to look at prevention instead of always looking to health care providers to "fix" what exposure to a toxic environment and/or years of unhealthy lifestyle practices have wrought. The quality of medical care is uneven at best. Too often, our insurance providers do not cover necessary tests and procedures, especially those of a preventative nature. However, we can become involved in our own health care. A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is a good start towards preventing disease. Unfortunately, current tests show that our soil is severely lacking in many minerals or electrolytes and other components that are essential for proper nutrition. It is necessary to sometimes take supplements as it may not be physically or economically possible to eat enough food to get the proper nutrition. In addition, the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables can be prohibitive. For instance, unless you grow your own raspberries, the cost of the American Cancer Institute’s recommended daily bowl of the whole berries could run as high as $300 a month. Not only that, but research has shown that the ellagitannin content is much higher in the seeds then in the fruit. In addition, the powdered seed may be much more bioavailable then the whole fruit, especially so for the short carnivorous gut of the cat or dog. It seems that our pets are particularly at risk for cancer because they interact so closely with the environment (unless of course you lick your paws after crossing the street).

Cancer is epidemic in dogs and pandemic in cats.

So nutraceutical supplements appear to be the answer. Raspberry seeds contain many more times the ellagic acid than the fruit at one-tenth the cost. It’s your choice, whatever form you may decide to use- the take home message is: “ Eat your ellagitannins!”

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