Why is the NIH Funding Blueberries?

Camping trips in my youth inevitably included the gathering of wild blueberries for dessert. My family realized that bears were doing the same, but in a more precise and methodical way. We took note of their skill and ability but also learned that it would be best not to go into their territory. We also wondered if their strength was due to eating the fruit. Later, I worked for an employer who insisted that if we ate blueberries, his health care costs would be reduced. My coworkers and I found this intrusive, but I always wondered why he was so adamant. Most recently, I was intrigued by my friend’s father, who had Alzheimer’s disease and could not remember the name of his wife. During one of my friend’s visits to the nursing home, she shared blueberries with her father; after having eaten the berries, he could recall his wife’s name, as though by magic. Since this fruit has crossed my life so many times, I decided to make it part of my daily diet. Whether related or not, my co-workers always wonder why I never have colds, headaches, or allergies. I associated my health with eating blueberries, but my theory remained unproven until a visit to North Carolina gave me the opportunity to dive into the topic.

From Intuition to Research: The Blueberry Genome

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to present a workshop at the North Carolina State University Plants for Human Health Institute. Located at the North Carolina Research Campus, a leading team is sequencing the blueberry genome. I was amazed at the work that was being done and has subsequently led to new discoveries in medical and agricultural research. This research exemplifies the NIH goal of “Strengthening Knowledge and Understanding of Dietary Supplements.” Closely examining the grants that were funded in this area – including blueberries – makes clear the direction, innovation, and translational quality of the research that the NIH is funding.

In 1995, the Office of Dietary Supplements was created under the Office of Disease Prevention. Its mission was “to explore more fully the potential role of dietary supplements as a significant part of the efforts of the United States to improve health care.” Since then, grants have been funded through various NIH initiatives via the Office of Disease Prevention, and I talk about some of these below.

Results from Recent Innovation

Within two decades, what was assumed to be hearsay gained scientific support and funding for rigorous investigation. The results have been phenomenal. PubMed reports over 977 studies on blueberries alone, not to mention the myriad of other dietary products. The NIH has also funded various initiatives on aging, cancer, in vitro studies, and memory – all centered on blueberries and health.

Translational approaches have been encouraged to relate scientific investigation in the laboratory to the public. Currently, there are several hundred NIH open competitions that could encompass research on dietary supplements and blueberries. Other superfoods, such as broccoli, spinach, cinnamon, and almonds have received attention from scientific studies at universities around the world.

What Other Studies Could Improve Health in the US?

The University of Mississippi and its Medical Center (UMMC) received $24 million in NIH grants in FY 2012. UMMC researchers discovered a blueberry-derived molecule, pterostilbene, that was shown to lower blood pressure in a clinical trial.

NIH has also supported research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, which received $1.8 million in FY 2011. A researcher identified several anti-inflammatory compounds in blueberries, as well as what environmental conditions promote increased levels of these molecules.

Other examples abound, but this is an important aspect to keep in mind when seeking for NIH research: what is the potential? What rigorous research can lead to impactful results? How will collaborative teams be brought together in their research? In all of the above cases, the answers to these questions were applied with spectacular results.

Moving Research into the Real World

“The Collaboratory is developing innovative methods for conducting large-scale, cost-effective clinical trials. The work is being done in partnership with large health care organizations including networks of hospitals, dialysis providers, and a network of Federally Qualified Health Centers. One of the greatest methodological challenges in clinical research is moving that research into more broad-based, real-world settings.” (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM))

NCCAM’s vision is that rigorous scientific experimentation and researched evidence will lead to greater public awareness on the use and integration of complementary health approaches. This NIH Center is not the only organization to embrace this school of thought. More and more foundations and federal agencies are requiring a cross-disciplinary component, in addition to a description of the real-world benefits that the research will provide to the public.

Why Blueberries?

This is the type of research that engages various funding areas of collaboration such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NIH and inter-collaboration of various NIH institutes. Research from the young investigator through the seasoned researcher is encouraged. The purpose of their work is combining translational effort with innovation to build on the body of knowledge in all areas of health. This is well-evidenced via the PubMed publications. Thinking out-of-the-box on a common and small topic can lead to great results.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

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