(U-WIRE) COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Ed Harris jokes that he has heard every man-made compound has been tested for cancer-fighting abilities. Harris, a biochemistry and biophysics professor at Texas A&M University, said the future of medicine, including a way to fight cancer, is in natural products such as your daily glass of orange juice.
"It's up to scientists to see how these things work and pull them out," he said.
Harris works with one of these natural products called a limonoid.
"A limonoid doesn't come from a lime," he said. "It's a certain family of compounds with a certain structure. These are all found in citrus."
These compounds have the ability to destroy cancer cells, Harris said.
"We weren't the first to discover that," he said. "But we were the first to explain how they work."
Harris said there are two different ways to kill a cell. A cell dies if it is ruptured or it can be destroyed through a process called apoptosis, Harris said. Limonoids cause apoptosis in cancer cells, he said.
"It's like setting off an explosion inside a house and causing it to crumble in on itself," Harris said.
Shibu Poulose, a graduate student who conducts research with Harris, said the limonoids were tested on neuroblastoma, colon and breast cancer cells.
"First, we isolated the compounds from the citrus fruits, then we characterized them," he said. "We used different cancer cell lines, and we used these compounds to see if they would kill the tumor cells."
Harris said some cancers, such as leukemia, are not affected by the limonoids, and that further research is required to discover the reason why.
Harris said they now know how the liminoids are able to kill the cancer cells, and that is the important thing.
"You're turning on genes that aren't normally active, causing the cell to commit suicide," he said.
The most promising aspect of limonoids is that they kill cancer cells without damaging normal cells like drugs do, Harris said.
"Anytime somebody comes up with a drug there are side effects," Harris said. "What research has been trying to do is find a magic bullet that will attack cancer cells and leave the normal cells alone. [Liminoids] take the form of drugs, but they're not drugs because they are naturally occurring."
Harris said they will continue their research to determine why the limonoids do not affect the normal cells.
Elsa Murano, vice chancellor and dean of agriculture and life sciences, said this research is an example of the impact agriculture can have on society.
"This kind of work showcases, in my opinion, the importance of agriculture -- how agriculture plays such an important role in the prevention of diseases," she said. "We are on the cutting edge of research, and it is a great source of pride for A&M."
As for Harris, he said to make sure to drink your juice.
"We're getting cancer all the time, but we're not allowing it to get to a critical mass," he said. "It could be that when we're drinking our orange juice or grapefruit juice, we're holding it back. Anti-cancer is right under our nose -- it's as close as our nearest fruit tree."