Give thanks for cranberries.
We think of them as an important part of the traditional Thanksgiving menu, but the tangy fruit offers year-round health benefits.
Cranberries are known for their role in maintaining urinary tract health, and their broad antimicrobial properties may support oral and gut health. In addition, cranberries contain health-promoting flavonoid antioxidants like those in red wine—and may help prevent cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and other diseases.
The UMass Cranberry Health Research Center explores the science behind why the cranberry is not only good, but good for you.
Photo: Using the NMR spectrometer, Dr. Catherine Neto, co-director of the UMass Cranberry Health Research Center, works with students to understand the chemical composition of cranberries.
Evidence for the cranberry's role in health and nutrition
Established at UMass Dartmouth, the UMass Cranberry Health Research Center fosters collaborations among academic institutions, medical institutions, and industry to provide solid scientific evidence for the cranberry's role in health and nutrition. Its membership encompasses researchers from all five UMass campuses as well as from other academic institutions, hospitals, and private laboratories throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Dr. Catherine Neto and Dr. Maolin Guo—the Center's directors and professors in UMass Dartmouth's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry—received a $110,000 UMass President’s Science and Technology Initiative grant in 2011 to establish the Center. An additional $500,000 over 5 years from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the Center is pending through the Environmental Bond Bill.
"We are working towards developing stronger science to support our understanding of the cranberry's health benefits," said Neto.
"The Center is developing novel analytical methods and tools that allow us to study cranberry's chemical and biological properties, and learn more about how a variety of compounds in cranberries work to fight colon cancer, cardiovascular and other diseases, and bacterial infections. This molecular and mechanistic knowledge can be applied to the design of animal and clinical studies."
Massachusetts a leader in cranberry production
Support for the center's research initiatives underscores the importance of cranberry production in Massachusetts. Cranberry fruit and products are one of the state's chief exports and play a significant role in the economy of southeastern Massachusetts. In 2013, Massachusetts harvested more than 2.1 million barrels of cranberries valued at more than $99.8 million, and the state ranks second in U.S. cranberry production.
Research undertaken by the center may help the industry withstand market fluctuations and point the way to new or expanded markets for cranberries.
Probing the cranberry's chemical composition
Neto and Guo both oversee labs that use UMass Dartmouth's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer to understand the cranberry's chemical composition.
Working with students in her lab, Neto characterizes and quantifies cranberry compounds that have potential use as antimicrobials, antioxidants, and anti-cancer agents and determines their distribution in a variety of different cranberry samples.
Exploring the connections between chemistry, biology, and medicine, Guo and his students tag the cranberry compounds with fluorescent dye to track their bio-distribution and activities in cell models of Alzheimer's and cardiovascular diseases.
"The center's ongoing studies into the cranberry's ability to fight cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses may provide the basis for clinical trials and could potentially attract federal research funding," said Neto.
Neto holds a BS from UMass Dartmouth and a PhD from Brown University. She has also completed postdoctoral research in biochemistry and drug development at Brown.
Guo earned his BS and MS at Shanxi University and his PhD at Edinburgh University.