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January 3, 2011

Cranberry and Viruses

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  Cranberry Juice for Urinary Tract Infections

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Heaping the cranberry sauce on your turkey this Thanksgiving could do more than just make the perfect dinner — it may also protect you against common intestinal viruses. This ScienCentral News video explains.

Berry Good for Bowels?

People have long believed that certain foods help us heal. Cranberries may be one of them. A laboratory study on animal intestinal viruses similar to those people get showed that when the viruses were treated with cranberry juice it seemed to bar them from entering healthy cells.

"The cranberry juice may have a blocking effect on the cell surface which is then preventing the virus from infecting this host cell," says one of the study's authors, biologist Steven M. Lipson, of St. Francis College.

Research on the benefits of cranberry juice in women with urinary tract infections, prompted the St. Francis team to see whether cranberry juice might also effect viruses. With partial funding from the Cranberry Institute, Lipson's team focused on animal strains of reovirus and rotavirus, common intestinal viruses that in microscopic images appear as round, dot-covered wheels resembling dandelion puffs.

"There is a major problem among children concerning intestinal virus infections," says Lipson. "Our interest was to look at something which might be applicable to address this issue."

As reported in Discover magazine, the researchers mixed intestinal animal viruses with cranberry juice at varying concentrations, then separately made a batch of virus and saline solution. "These two systems [were] added to cells growing in culture, as well as red blood cells to identify the effect of these viruses on the clumping of red blood cells," says Lipson, explaining that when cells clump together in blood, called haemagglutination, it indicates viral infection. "These viruses which were treated with cranberry juice... lost their ability to clump red blood cells, showing that the infectivity of these viruses are inhibited," possibly because of changes on the cell surface in the presence of cranberry juice.

Preparing cranberry juice mixture
But it's still unclear how the cranberry juice might work to prevent the viruses from entering cells. "The effect may not be necessarily on the virus itself but it may be on the cells which are no longer receptive to the virus," says Lipson.

All viruses are like homeowners. They need to know where to go to enter a cell but they also need a key that helps them bind to and open a receptor site on the cell. "The receptor is like a lock and the virus has a key," explains St. Francis College biologist Allen Burdowski, who was also an author on the study. "And all of a sudden the virus opens up, it binds to the lock… the door opens and the virus enters." Something in cranberry juice may be disrupting this process. Says Burdowski, "What cranberry juice does is really prevents the virus from inserting the key to open up the lock. And if it can't insert the key to open up the lock the virus can't enter into the cell."

But David Sanders, a viral researcher at Purdue University says that almost any substance can have an effect on cells and viruses in the kind of study Burdowski and Lipson did. "You can do all sorts of things to damage viruses and cells," Sanders says. "It doesn't necessarily mean there's a biological effect." To be convinced that cranberry juice produces impacts viruses Sanders says he would need to see "an animal study that shows researchers can reduce the length [of time from symptom to recovery] or the number of enteric viruses [cases]" when animals are given cranberry juice, compared to when they're not. Otherwise, he says, the cranberry juice-viral connection, "just doesn't have any relationship to human health."

Healthy cells coated with cranberry mixture
Lipson is quick to point out that the team's work is preliminary and might not pan out in animals or people. "At this stage I do not want to say what might happen following human consumption of cranberry juice as having anti-viral effect," he says. "It is critical that we look into the mouse model… by feeding the mice with defined concentrations of cranberry juice, defined concentrations of virus, very careful controls, we want to see if we can see if the cranberry juice can prevent the mice from succumbing to the virus infection."

A lot rides on combating rotaviruses, which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures show hit children in third world countries hardest; those in the poorest countries account for 82 pecent of the 352,000 to 592,000 children under five, or 1 in 293, killed each year from the effects of rotavirus that include fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting.

Whether cranberry juice can do anything to thwart intestinal viruses beyond cell studies remains to be seen. But until we know more, all can agree that cranberries in your diet can't hurt.

This research was presented at the 105th Meeting of the American Society of Microbiology and was funded by St. Francis College and the Cranberry Institute.

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