Food Innovation Center

Collaborating for a healthier, hunger-free world.

Berries and Biofilms: Purnima Kumar Shows Us How Healthy Eating Can Improve Oral Health

Could eating black raspberries reduce your risk for oral cancer? This is just one of the exciting innovative research questions under investigation by Food Innovation Center member and Associate Professor in the Division of Periodontology, Purnima Kumar. Her FIC seed grant project, "It's a two-way street: Characterizing the interaction between oral biofilms and anthocyanins," examines the chemopreventive properties of fruits and their relationship with our oral bacteria.

Purnima KumarHealthy bacteria colonize in our oral cavity a few minutes after birth and form organized communities called biofilms on tooth surfaces, under the gums, and on oral mucosa. Kumar compares the beneficial bacteria in our mouths to a well-manicured lawn. Just like a well-maintained lawn prevents weeds from growing in the grass, bacteria in our mouths also prevent pathogenic bacteria from colonizing in large numbers.

Without proper dental hygiene, such as brushing teeth and flossing regularly, pathogenic biofilms build up in our mouths and begin replacing the healthy bacteria. This results in inflammation, leading to chronic periodontitis and even oral cancer. Luckily, our oral health gets a helping hand from anthocyanins, water-soluble pigments that give fruits and vegetables a red to blue color. Evidence suggests anthocyanins exert an antibacterial effect and reduce inflammation. By understanding the relationship between anthocyanins and oral biofilms, Kumar and her team can find ways to improve oral health and prevent cancer.

The importance of food in our everyday lives compelled Kumar to use food research as a way to simplify the ways in which we can improve our oral health. 

"Food is a fundamental part of life. You empower an individual when you can show them what foods they can eat instead of adding a new regimen of pills or exercise to their lifestyle. It is a simpler therapeutic option so patients are more liable to follow it," says Kumar. 

Through a research grant from the Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship (CAFFRE), Kumar and her research team were the first to provide evidence of a response from bacteria in the mouth when black raspberries are consumed. 

A microscopic image of healthy oral biofilms

A microscopic image of healthy oral biofilms

"We found that black raspberry extracts behave in a very exciting way. They prevent epithelial cells (the cells that line our body) from responding with a lot of inflammation to pathogens. While a robust inflammatory response is essential to controlling disease, an uncontrolled florid response can turn against the host and destroy one's own tissue. Black raspberry extracts are able to reduce this type of florid inflammatory response to pathogenic bacteria, but do not alter the way our body see the beneficial bacteria," explains Kumar.  

Anthocyanin-rich fruits such as black raspberries, chokeberries, red grapes, and strawberries are currently being experimented on by Kumar and her team to identify the effect of these fruits on oral biofilms. Kumar hopes the findings from this research will lead to the development of anthocyanin-rich confectionaries and food products used to improve oral health and treat oral cancer. 

Kumar's participation in FIC projects has made multidisciplinary research very familiar and compelling. Her FIC research team recently received a team award for their research project on "Foods, Intestinal Microbiome and Human and Animal Health."

"We really have a dream team," says Kumar, "We all look at things completely differently. It's all about perspective."   

Working with a multidisciplinary team created new learning experiences for Kumar and has changed her perspectives on nutrition and food. She especially enjoys the interactions between members.

"It's amazing. I learn more and more about food each day. I am paying attention to what I eat and have new respect for food sources and their multiple effects on the human body."

Kumar's seed grant project is currently in the stage of being sent out for publication. A manuscript was recently sent to the Cancer Institute for a funding proposal.

To learn more about Kumar's collaborative research on anthocyanins, go here.

Written by Chau-Sa Dang