UCC researchers develop compound from berries that reduces tumours

Plans to test compound to see if it works on patients after successful trials on mice

Researchers at University College Cork have developed a compound from tree berries which has shown the potential to significantly reduce size of tumours, particularly in leukaemia.

The tests, using molecules derived from berries from the Bloodhorn tree, found that the compound significantly reduced tumour size by up to 70 per cent in experiments conducted on mice.

Dr Florence McCarthy, who leads the team on the project at the Analytical and Biological Facility at UCC, said the next step is to seek funding to see if the compound will kill leukaemia cells in patients.

He explained that the molecule in question is derived from an ellipticine which has been isolated from the berries of the Ochrosia Elliptica tree or Bloodhorn tree which grows in Australia and Brazil.


The molecule was produced by a member of Dr McCarthy's research group, Elaine O'Sullivan whose work as part of the group is funded by the Irish Research Council, he added.

Dr McCarthy said his research team partnered with the National Cancer Institute in the US where "the molecule showed promise against leukaemia cancer cells over other cancers."

The research team then collaborated with Prof Tom Cotter, chair of Biochemistry at UCC, to identify if the molecule could be marketed as a drug and this led to seeing how the drug kills cancer cells.

The group then obtained funding primarily from the Children's Leukaemia Research Project and the Irish Cancer Society and they set up a study to see how effective it might be in killing cancer cells.

“The fact that Tom ran across campus to deliver the results to me, rather than use the cursory email, indicated the significance of our findings,” said Dr McCarthy.

“Our plan is now see if other drugs can be accessorised in the same way and develop our drug to further improve the cancer killing effect,” he added.

Prof Cotter revealed: “We targeted acute leukaemia, which is a difficult to treat cancer, and to be honest I didn’t expect the experiments to work as well as they did.

“In fact I was so surprised with the results I kept looking at them for ages; I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing,” added Prof Cotter.

According to Dr McCarthy, the group’s research has “taken the natural product and restyled it with unique features to improve the potency and solubility.

“What is truly exceptional is these features are not common in drugs and so we aim to exploit this fully. There is also significant potential to apply this approach to other drugs in a similar fashion.”


Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times