Creative Inquiry

Project Spotlights

A Fruit Juice For a Cure

Each day we hear about a new potential cause for cancer; from cell phones to microwave meals, it seems that the threat of the disease is all around us. But what if something as simple as a fruit juice could not only treat cancer but also provide people with a preventative defense against its ravaging effects? Clemson biological sciences professor Dr. Yanzhang (Charlie) Wei and a group of undergraduate students are partnering with research groups at the University of Hawaii to test the juice of the noni fruit for such anti-cancer properties. The noni tree (Morinda citrifolia) grows mostly in Southeast Asia, but can be found in Hawaii as well. Clemson's Hawaiian partners are responsible for preparing a derivative of the noni fruit juice called Fermented Noni Exudates, or fNE. Under Wei's guidance, Clemson students are testing fNE for anti-cancer activity.

Using an in vitro cell culture system, students involved in this project test over twenty different components that are isolated from fNE. The students investigate the compounds for anticancer activity in two ways: first, they test to see if the compound has cytotoxic properties, which would give it the ability to kill cancer cells in a way similar to a chemotherapy drug; and second, they test to see if the compound can act as an immunomodulator by activating the immune system to fight cancer. By using an animal model, the group has made the exciting discovery that noni fruit juice does indeed demonstrate anti-cancer activity.

Wei explains that the scope of this project is quite vast. It has been in process since 2006 and three publications have already been produced. And, the project is receiving attention nationally and globally, as several labs in both the United States and overseas have expressed interest in research collaboration with Wei and his team. The partnership between Clemson and the University of Hawaii is essential to the project, as the noni tree is not native to South Carolina.

Students who are involved in this Creative Inquiry get hands-on experience in a research lab. They are involved in every aspect of the research, from experimental design to data collection to explaining their findings in a report and then presenting the results at conferences locally, regionally, or nationally. Wei is committed to helping students learn the necessary skills to be able to conduct their own independent scientific studies. He prefers that students stay involved with the project for at least two semesters to ensure that they receive plenty of experience in the lab. Student Rob Borecki feels that the work he is doing on this project will directly help him in his future endeavors: "Research has been a great way for me to apply what I am learning in the classroom to real-world problems. As a pre-med student, this research also allows me to understand and be a part of the work that goes into finding treatments and cures for diseases."

Noni juice has demonstrated many beneficial health properties, including anti-inflammation and antiangiogenesis effects. The complexity of this project causes research to move slowly and carefully, so although the team hasn't yet found any direct links to other diseases in the juice, it is possible that they will as their research continues. Wei explains that the most exciting discovery so far is that fNE has been demonstrated as a cancer preventative agent. The team's purpose becomes clear in light of this discovery: "Our goal is to manipulate this juice and get people to drink it to prevent cancer from developing. That would be amazing, right?" Amazing it would be, indeed.

By: Amber Day & Michaela Reinhart (Decipher Issue 2, Fall 2013)