Researchers have discovered that chokeberry, which is native to North America, may strengthen the effectiveness of a chemotherapy drug used to treat pancreatic cancer.
It is hoped the findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, could help with other types of cancer by boosting the effects of current treatments, particularly involving those forms of the disease that are hard to tackle.
Researchers from King’s College Hospital in London and the University of Southampton tested the effectiveness of extract of chokeberry – Aronia melanocarpa – in killing off cancer cells.
Chokeberry is a wild type of berry that grows on the eastern side of North America in wetlands and swampy areas.
It is high in vitamins and antioxidants including various polyphenols – compounds that are believed to “mop up” the harmful by-products produced in the body during normal cell activity.
Chokeberry is already available to buy as a natural extract in health food shops and online due to its potential health-improving properties.
The researchers in the latest study chose to test the extract on pancreatic cancer cells due to high mortality rates from the disease, with less than 5 per cent of patients still alive five years after their diagnosis.
In Scotland, there are almost 800 cases of pancreatic cancer reported each year and more than 8,700 across the UK.
In 2012, there were 742 deaths from pancreatic cancer in Scotland, and 8,662 in the UK as a whole.
The researchers looked at how well pancreatic cells grew in the lab when treated with the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine alone, or with different levels of chokeberry extract alone, or in combination with the conventional treatment.
The findings suggested that when chokeberry was added to the chemotherapy treatment, it more effectively boosted the death of cancer cells.
The berry was found to have no effect on normal blood-vessel lining cells, even at the highest levels of concentration tested.
The researchers said this suggested that cancer-cell death was being caused by something other than preventing new blood vessels from forming, which is important to the growth of tumour cells.
Researcher Bashir Lwaleed, from the University of Southampton, said “These are very exciting results. The low doses of the extract greatly boosted the effectiveness of gemcitabine, when the two were combined.
“In addition, we found that lower doses of the conventional drug were needed.
“This could change the way we deal with hard-to-treat cancers in the future.”
The researchers said more clinical trials were needed to explore the potential of naturally occurring micronutrients in plants, such as those found in chokeberry.
Dr Lwaleed said that potential was shown in similar experimental studies, indicating that chokeberry extract seems to induce cell death in brain cancer as well as curb its invasiveness.