Black Raspberries: The David and Goliath of Cancer Treatments

If Goliath were cancer, then David would have to be the tiny black raspberry that rose to fame as the deep purple superstar of the berry world when Ohio State University (OSU) scientists discovered its powerful abilities to fight cancer. Dr. Gary D. Stoner, one of the world’s leading researchers of berries, and his team were studying the impact of ellagic acid on esophageal tumors and found that black raspberries carried higher levels than the other berry varieties they tested. They also identified anthocyanins, responsible for the berry’s dark color. 

Why is that important? Anthocyanins and ellagic acid are polyphenols, which is a class of powerful micronutrients carrying critical health benefits, not the least of which is offering protection against diseases such as cardiovascular, diabetes and cancer.

“At the time I thought, Oh, my goodness, this is retrograde science. I mean, everybody at that time was working with pure compounds, and we’re proposing to work with a food preparation,” Stoner recalled. 

The idea of looking at a whole food was so far from the science of the time, but Stoner’s curious team fed high concentrations of freeze-dried berries to cancer infected hamsters and rats, which resulted in a 50–70% reduction in esophageal, colon and oral cavity tumors. Perhaps most remarkably, the black raspberry powder contained 

a combination of anthocyanins, ellagic acid, fiber and other less abundant chemo preventive compounds that could be given to people in high concentrations with almost no toxic effect. According to Stoner, a drug produced to increase the life span of pancreatic cancer patients by two months, for example, costs $40,000 per shot. However, the pancreatic patients that were given five months to live and took black raspberry powder with chemotherapy, lived 12 – 16 months longer with a better quality of life. 

Dr. Li-Shu Wang, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, currently has the difficult task of identifying the correct dose of berry powder to combat pancreatic cancer in clinical trials. 

“Human cancers go through multiple mutations, so focusing on one mutation and one drug ignores the other cancer cells that become resistant to the treatment. The FDA won’t move studies to phase 3 unless there is a way to standardize the berries. But whole berries can’t be standardized since all of their compounds act together on the cancer cell,” Wang asserted.

One physician who has incorporated black raspberries into patient treatment is Dr. Eugene Woltering, section chief of Surgical Endocrinology and professor of surgery and neuroscience at Louisiana State University. A pioneering oncologist, Woltering uses black raspberry products made by BerriHealth, whose products have been used by more than 15 clinical research groups. 

“There is a definite survival advantage for my patients with carcinoid tumors. The berries reduce the formation of new blood vessels feeding the tumors and give my patients a survival advantage,” said Woltering. 

According to Steve Dunfield, founder and president of BerriHealth, there is also interest in studying the black raspberry's effect on cellular damage caused by acid reflux. 

Stoner pointed out that, “A number of companies sell black raspberry powder in capsule form but swallowing a capsule doesn’t expose the powder to the tissue, which is necessary to fight cancer. Based on BerriHealth's work, one capsule contains approximately 1.5 berries. To get a full serving would require 27 capsules each day to make a difference in your health.” 

Susan Mallery, chair of the Division of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology and Radiology at OSU is currently developing a patch impregnated with black raspberries to inhibit the progression of mouth lesions. 

“After conventional treatments, the cancer stem cells still maintain their genetic mutations, which cause so many people to die from local recurrence. With a controlled release from a biodegradable patch, local delivery will be more effective. Similar to embedding radiation beads,” stated Mallery. 

Carolyn Katzin, Integrative Oncology Specialist at the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology points out that since research on an integrative approach has lacked funding, her work is all about the results. 

“What I find is that when an oncologist sees my patients doing well, they are supportive of using black raspberries,” stated Katzin. 

The black raspberry truly has become David slaying the behemoth named cancer, and as research mounts across the U.S. and the world, there will be a time when doctors look to using food as medicine instead of strictly using toxic treatments. If you have the opportunity to bite into one of those antioxidant jewels this summer, savor its wonderful sweetness while reflecting on its strength to prevent and fight disease.