The secrets of citrus in cancer prevention

4 August 2017
Investigating bioactive compounds in citrus peel

Australia wastes thousands of tonnes of orange peels each year, but our researchers are exploring ways to repurpose citrus peel into a supplement for cancer prevention.

orange peel

When you next enjoy a refreshing glass of orange juice, consider that the peel discarded in its production may well lead to more significant health benefits including a supplement for cancer patients in remission.

Bala Shammugasamy, a PhD candidate in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is investigating the cancer preventative benefits of bioactive compounds found in citrus peel.

“Cancer occurs when cells begin to mutate and divide uncontrollably to the point they become dangerous. However, Bala has identified that citrus extract can have a very strong ‘cytostatic effect’, meaning they can prevent these cells from multiplying,” says Dr Valtchev, a postdoctoral fellow from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering who is supervising Bala’s work.

Eager do something meaningful and inspiring, Bala brought his idea to Professor Fariba Dehghani, one the school’s internationally-renowned researchers. Before long, Bala was quitting his job in pharmaceutical testing in Malaysia and moving to Australia to begin his journey as a PhD student at the University of Sydney.

So why focus on orange peels? The healthy benefits of citrus extract can be attributed to the bioactive compounds found in citrus fruits. These compounds are most concentrated in the fruit’s peel, which often goes to waste. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, oranges are the most consumed citrus fruit with 470,000 tonnes of oranges being harvested in the Australia in 2016/17. Bala’s research attempts to transform this waste to useful, consumable products.

Researchers in lab in lab conducting cancer research

Bala Shammugasamy (left) working in the lab with the research centre director, Professor Fariba Dehghani (right).

“Bala has set up a biological screening platform to test various bioactive compounds on cancer cells and determine which compound is the most effective in keeping the cells dormant. Ultimately we want to understand the molecular mechanisms that enable this behaviour. The hope is to eventually create a supplement for people's diet that could act as a chemopreventive agent. It could even be used after chemotherapy to prevent a relapse in cancer growth,” says Dr Peter Valtchev.

Industry partner Defugo, a company with a patented technologies provide the capability to recover and enrich the active compounds required for Bala’s research.

“The product under test is a commercial product produced in an existing factory; this is a very exciting project for our company,”says Tim Lang, Chief Technical Officer at Defugo.

While the screening process shows intriguing results, Dr Valtchev reminds us that the positive effects are occurring in a controlled environment where the cancer cells are in constant contact with the bioactive compounds. While the biomolecular theory is there, it is difficult to predict how these compounds will behave in the human body.

Bala is hoping to complete his PhD early next year and has learned to be patient when he doesn’t get the laboratory results he wants. “PhD life is demanding, both mentally and physically, but it is really an interesting journey and worth the experience. I love the challenge and the work. It keeps motivated to come into the lab at 8am to do more tests and get more results. It’s an exercise in resilience to stop and think about why the test is failing. But just small changes in the process and experiment design can cause a huge difference in the results,” says Bala.

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