A variety of the humble plum may hold some hope for reducing the pain and inflammation of arthritis for sufferers, with a new University Global Partnership Network (UGPN) project set to investigate whether one of the compounds that gives plums their distinctive colour could reduce joint inflammation.

With over four million Australians reported as suffering from the pain, stiffness and joint weakness caused by arthritis according to Arthritis Australia – and the proportion set to rise based on ageing and obesity trends – the need for more effective preventative and treatment options is clear.

A new UGPN research collaboration will draw on researchers from all four partners- UOW, the University of Surrey, North Carolina State University and the University of Sao Paulo- to identify and demonstrate the likely anti-inflammatory effects of the high-anthocyanin Queen Garnet plum in musculoskeletal tissues and joints.

Anthocyanins are blue to purple compounds which give fruits such as plums, cherries and blueberries their colour. UOW researchers, led by Associate Professor Karen Charlton, have studied the effects of anthocyanins in cherries and more recently, the Queen Garnet plum variety, for their benefits for the body in the ageing process.  

This research has already shown that anthocyanin rich foods, like the Queen Garnet plum, are likely to have positive effects such as  reducing blood pressure and improving cognition and memory. 

“We used to believe that anthocyanins acted solely as antioxidants by reducing inflammation in the body and scavenging free radicals to fight disease,” Professor Charlton said at the time her research team began Queen Garnet plum juice trials in 2015.

“But recent research has shown they have the potential to improve learning and memory by reaching the brain through the blood system and increasing blood flow to the brain.

“It is very exciting to be involved in work with a fruit that shows such potential, but more importantly that tastes delicious and is only grown in Australia.”

With the expertise of colleagues from across the UGPN partners, including musculoskeletal physiologist Professor Ali Mobasheri from the University of Surrey, the potential of the plum to prevent and ease the pain of inflammatory disease which affect the joints and connective tissues, such as arthritis, is also being explored.

The project, Inflammation, advancing age, and nutrition, will compare animal-model tissue samples: the first sample having been supplemented with the Queen Garnet plum anthocyanin, and the second not receiving any supplementation. The project also includes data from the UOW plum juice human trials.

In correlating the evidence, the team will be looking to identify how anthocyanin is metabolised by the body to modulate the inflammation pathway, with a view to developing new biochemical targets and nutritional strategies based on the compound for arthritis treatment.

The collaborative project, facilitated through the overarching UGPN arrangements, is a first for UOW researchers as the partnership’s newest institutional member. As well, it is the first for Professor Mobasheri, who became a collaborator in the research following discussions with Associate Professor Charlton at the UGPN meeting hosted at UOW in March 2016.

A biochemist by training, whose research has focused on cellular models of inflammation and arthritis since the completion of his PhD at the University of Oxford, Professor Mobasheri also completed a Masters in plant sciences at the University of Toronto, which he says may be intrinsically driving his interest in this UGPN project focused on a plant compound.

“The potential of this project is exciting. A key will be to compare and correlate the data we get from the animal model studies, to the biomarkers established by the human trials on anthocyanin from Queen Garnet plums already conducted at UOW.

“We know from patients that arthritis and similar inflammatory joint diseases have a huge impact on their everyday lives – millions of Australians are affected  with 1.8 million having osteoarthritis and 430,000 with rheumatoid arthritis – and current treatments are limited to pharmaceuticals that target the symptoms rather than the inflammatory pathways that drive the diseases process.

“Here we have this natural, nutritional target we can use to study and understand the biomolecular process of inflammation,         which also could ease the symptoms of inflamed joints and tissues for patients.”

Through the UGPN, collaboration is facilitated and accelerated through seed funding and an overarching agreement signed by each partner institution. Annual meetings are hosted by one of the four partners where face-to-face meetings facilitate and open up new areas of collaboration.

The Inflammation, advancing age, and nutrition project was borne out of the UGPN meeting hosted at UOW in 2016. 

“That’s the benefit of the UGPN, it encourages us to explore the work happening at our partner universities, share expertise and resources, design new clinical trials and discuss collaborations knowing we have the support of our institutions behind us to make it happen,” Professor Mobasheri said.

From Professor Mobasheri’s perspective, the Queen Garnet plum project offers the potential of some “real mechanistic insight” into inflammation, and new knowledge offered by the introduction of a nutritional target. With this it is hoped that there will be joint publications, as well as “genuine” exchange of students and academics between UGPN partner universities.

During a visit to UOW, Professor Mobasheri met PhD student Ezinne Korie, who is working on the project under the supervision of Associate Professor Charlton , Dr Yasmine Probst from the School of Medicine, and Associate Professor  Steve Roodenrys from the School of Psychology.

INFLAMMATION, ADVANCING AGE, AND NUTRITION

Principal Investigator: Assistant Professor Slavko Komarnytsky, North Carolina State University
Collaborators: Professor Ali Mobasheri, University of Surrey; Associate Professor William Festuccia, University of Sao Paulo; Associate Professor Karen Charlton, University of Wollongong 

What is the UGPN?

To develop sustainable world-class research, education and knowledge transfer through an active international network of selected Universities collaborating in research, learning and teaching to benefit global society.

The core partners within the alliance are:

- University of Surrey

- Universidade de São Paulo

- North Carolina State University

- The University of Wollongong

 Further Information about the UGPN