Lehman Students Explore Medicinal Exotic Fruits

You may not find them at your local fruit stand—unless you live in India, Brazil and Jamaica—but gamboge, jaboticaba and akee might hold the key to defeating certain forms of cancer, as well as other ailments.

  three lehman students
Ainsley Parkinson, Kurt Reynertson, and Scott Baggett.
The antioxidant compounds of these tropical fruits are being identified and studied by three CUNY doctoral students, each of whom has been awarded a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to support their exploration for alternative medicines. Antioxidants are considered to be anti-aging compounds because they can prevent oxidative damage that can lead to cancers, heart disease and neuro-degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

The students are working at Lehman College in the Bronx, which houses CUNY’s Doctoral Program in Plant Sciences, and in the laboratory of Dr. Edward Kennelly, a member of the Lehman biology faculty whose findings on botanical dietary supplements, natural sweeteners and anti-cancer plants have been widely published in scientific journals.

After studying gamboge for almost three years, Scott Baggett says that the compounds he isolated from this apple-sized fruit—which is used to dye Buddhist robes their distinctive bright yellow—are proving to be more powerful so far at killing colon-cancer cells than chemotherapeutic drugs currently in use. Tests are under way at the lab of Dr. I. Bernard Weinstein, director emeritus of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University, one of the nation’s premier research centers for therapies to prevent and treat cancer.

The results, says Baggett, a graduate of the University of California at Davis, are “very promising,” but he cautions that a long research road lies ahead and that clinical trials, if the studies reach that stage, would probably not begin for many years. A pan-tropical fruit, gamboge grows in locales in Southeast Asia and is usually not eaten by local populations but brewed into a broth that is used to treat gastric problems.

Another CUNY doctoral student, Kurt Reynertson, is studying jaboticaba. Eaten just like the grape it resembles, jaboticaba is popular mainly in Brazil and other countries in South America but also is grown in southern Florida, where the fruit is sometimes sold at specialized stands. Florida is also home to the Fruit and Spice Park, where the CUNY researchers, collaborating with Margaret Basile and other local scientists, obtain home-grown versions of the species they are studying.

Reynertson, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, is isolating and purifying the compounds in jaboticaba that are responsible for its antioxidant activity and dark purple color. Similar compounds are known to have positive biological effects in cranberries, grapes and other related species—including anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant qualities. Reynertson feels he might be on the trail of an entirely new compound. Dr. Kennelly notes that “new antioxidant compounds are not common,” but “we are very excited when we hit upon new ones.”

The third CUNY researcher, Ainsley Parkinson, a graduate of SUNY Binghamton, has just started his research on the compounds in akee (or ackee) and Jamaican cherry. For Parkinson, the studies bring him back to the land of his birth, where codfish and akee is a
Plant Science Computer Lab Inaugurated

September 15 marked the celebration of a new computer lab at Lehman College that will allow students to use advanced software in plant research. Twenty-five computer stations loaded with more than 100 software licenses, valued at $200,000, have been donated by the Waters Corporation in Massachusetts. These will allow faculty to teach entire classes how to use software-controlled high-performance liquid chromatography, or chemical separation, equipment. Called HPLC for short, this hardware allows for the analysis, identification, and quantification of compounds extracted from plants. Familiarity with the Waters software, says Lehman’s chair of biological sciences Thomas Jensen, will give Lehman plant science graduates “a distinct advantage over most other college graduates seeking research positions in the sciences.”
national dish. Either red or yellow in color, with very small seeds, akee has a dark side—if picked too soon, it can be poisonous. As a result, the fruit is imported into the United States only after it has been cooked and canned.

Dr. Kennelly has hopes that the recognition from NIH will mark the beginning of Lehman’s growth as a major center for this type of medicinal plant research. The doctoral program Lehman houses is already one of the largest in the country for the plant sciences and the only one of its kind in New York City.

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