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You might want to think twice if you typically pass on the cranberries at Thanksgiving.

While they may be a long way from zeroing in on the smoking gun, a University of Wisconsin Oshkosh student and faculty research collaboration is on the hunt for compounds with antiviral activity in cranberries, other Wisconsin fruits and juices and some more exotic varieties.

“This is definitely very exciting,” said UW Oshkosh Biology and Microbiology Professor Teri Shors. “This work may propel fields forward and speed the translation of research into improved health. It offers a pioneering approach to significant biomedical problems (viral diseases). It also gives mentors and students the freedom to pursue ideas and follow them in expected or unexpected directions. The short-term goal of their research is to develop a nutraceutical with health benefits. The long-term goal is to explore compounds as a potential antiviral drug.”

It’s no secret that cranberries are an agricultural star in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association touts cranberries as the state’s top fruit crop “in both value and acreage,” attributing “nearly $300 million annually to the state’s economy” and sustaining about 3,400 jobs.

The Association and other industry interests have also long boasted cranberries’ known cancer-fighting antioxidant, antibacterial and antibiotic components. Those happen to be key buzzwords in the fruit and juice industries these days as the war is on over which products boast the most natural, disease-fighting benefit to consumers.

However, Shors, her collaborator UW Oshkosh Chemistry Associate Professor Brant Kedrowski, and their team of students and staff, are skeptical of many claims. They are interested in a deeper, scientific exploration of the antiviral culprit components in the homegrown cranberries and a number of other fruits and juices. Their research has even looked into the properties of products such as elderberry bark, milkweed and horseradish.

“We’re trying to test things that are Wisconsin-based first,” said Margaret Schuelke, a UW Oshkosh alumna who the team hired back to her alma mater as a lab assistant helping oversee much of the daily, technical research work.

Shors said the research is aligned with the 21st century interest in moving medicine “from traditional western practices to a combination of traditional practices and natural, holistic medicine.”

Prof. Teri Shors

“Antivirals could save thousands or even millions of lives in the event of a truly lethal viral epidemic,” she said. “Our research not only offers a natural health supplement option but has the potential to stimulate the economy through job creation targeted to advance public health.”

The cranberry research is being funded by the “WiSys Technology Foundation; Exploration of Bioactive Compounds from Cranberries for Antiviral Nutraceutical Potential: Wisconsin Small Company Advancement Program (WiSCAP).” “WiSCAP’s aim is to provide UW faculty with technical expertise to partner with small companies in order to stimulate economic growth, create new jobs and educate students,” Shors said.

The undergraduate research is also partially funded through the McNair Scholars Program at UW Oshkosh.

“The majority of researchers screening for compounds that have health benefits are not investigating their potential antiviral properties,” Shors said. “For this reason we were able to enter a new niche of research into bioactive compounds from cranberries and other fruits, such as pomegranates and Door county cherries with antiviral properties. Only a handful of researchers have focused on the antiviral effects of cranberries, other berries, grapes and wine.”

The UW Oshkosh researchers are keeping much of the technical detail of their work and analysis under wraps, as there is potential for findings down the road to lead to patents and, perhaps, development of a natural drug, or  nutraceutical. Ultimately, a product would generate revenues UW Oshkosh could channel back into other, new University research endeavors.

So, from the Wisconsin state fruit, cranberries, comes a new UW Oshkosh story of sustainability.

… If the vision and research all pans out.

What the collaborative research team will share is this: There is a grassroots nature  to the research, and that is one more element of its allure should their hypothesis bear fruit.

While much of the research begins with a bag of pink, dehydrated cranberry powder provided by companies supporting the research, the other fruits and products earning an examination are born out of the curiosity of students, Schuelke or even the professors. Some are the products they encounter on the store shelf or have used in the daily rhythm of their lives.

Schuelke said one student was curious about the antiviral properties of an exotic fruit that had long been part of  his Hmong culture. “He said, ‘I only know how to say it in Hmong,’” Schuelke said.

Products whose marketing and labels brag about antiviral properties have also earned a look-see. The research is putting their claims to the test.

“I was at a fair and they were handing out this supplement – this mangosteen plant that’s found by the equator,” Schuelke said.

Associate Prof. Brant Kedrowski

Whatever the findings, Kedrowski said the experience for student researchers is priceless, another example of UW Oshkosh’s commitment to high-impact, hands-on student learning alongside faculty scholars.

“Students are involved in all aspects of the project from separation and characterization work to the antiviral assays,” he said. “Like all undergraduate research experiences here at UW Oshkosh, the opportunity to get involved in the search for new knowledge is tremendously valuable.  Students that participate in undergraduate research learn both technical skills and problem solving skills. It can also be a defining moment in an undergraduate’s academic career that prompts them to pursue a graduate or professional degree.”

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