Grant’s Desi Achiever
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
Ending global hunger, finding ways to prevent cancer, fighting ailments such as diabetes and obesity that beset large populations across the globe... these are lofty goals we discuss in our living rooms and then shrug. “What can one person do to change things?”
Plenty, as it turns out. Dr Gopinadhan Paliyath’s discovery of hexanal has opened up a world of possibilities.
Hexanal, he explains, is a naturally occurring plant component with no side effects.
“The flavour that infuses the air when you cut a cucumber, that’s due to hexanal. It is produced when plants are wounded.”
Pure hexanal, extracted from plants and also the one produced in a lab, burns out into carbon dioxide and water, leaving behind no residue on fruits and vegetables treated with it. At the same time, it inhibits enzymes that cause decay, enhancing shelf life of produce that remains firm longer.
Dr Paliyath has received nearly five million dollars in funding for his work from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and International Development Research Centre (IDRC), among others. He has over 220 research contributions, and has served as editor, guest editor or reviewer at prestigious industry journals. As a visiting scientist, he has participated in international projects and workshops.
A professor at the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, Dr Paliyath’s research interests include biochemistry of fruits and vegetables, their cancer-preventive and anti-inflammatory mechanisms, senescence, shelf life and quality.
When fruits ripen or leaves turn yellow, there are internal changes taking place, he explains. That is senescence. “When Golden Delicious apples soften, for instance, that is related to the calcium content and enzymes control the process. Using hexanal, we can delay the process.”
This has wide-ranging application in post-harvest technology. Fruits can be dipped in hexanal solution before being stored. Taken out and shipped as needed, they ripen as usual. A bunch of bananas which would last for say, two weeks at 10 to 15 C, will last for 45 to 50 days after an application of hexanal and the formation of brown spots is reduced.
A company in BC ships sweet potatoes to Great Britain in cardboard boxes treated with hexanal to keep them from sprouting. Hexanal is also being used in India. Farmers in Tamil Nadu are using it successfully on mangoes and bananas and there are joint projects in Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Kenya, Tanzania, etc. Another is slated to begin in Ivory Coast and the Philippines has shown interest.
Growing up in an agricultural family in Kerala, India, Dr Paliyath was familiar with the processes of fruit cultivation and storage. He was also aware of the vast amounts wasted during transportation or due to poor storage.
The statistics are shocking.
“On the one hand we have people going hungry, and scientists and governments are talking about the nine billion challenge – how we are going to feed everyone with the world population projected to grow to nine billion. And on the other, we lose as much as 50 per cent of what we grow. If we are able to prevent spoilage, we wouldn’t need increased production. We don’t need to destroy forests to cultivate more crops, we need to use what we grow well and wisely.
“With our research, I hope we are on the right path towards enhanced food security.”
Dr Paliyath is working on nutraceuticals – a term which combines the words nutrition and pharmaceutical to target inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease, among others.
He has developed a food powder from various compounds that reduces weight gain in mice. Clinical trials are yet to be done, but this can be used in preventing obesity.
His studies have shown slowed tumour growth in mice treated with polyphenols from merlot grapes while normal cells showed no negative side effects. He is now testing and studying anticancer properties of Ontario blueberries, strawberries and cherries.
This is based in Ayurveda, which identifies doshas or conditions in human beings, he says. Different levels of free radicals of oxygen are formed within different body types and a whole slew of chronic diseases are associated with an excess of these radicals. These include everything from rheumatism to obesity, cancer and neurodegenerative conditions. Enzymes from coloured fruits and vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, cherries and blueberries – if consumed in enough quantities – can detoxify the radicals.
His interest in phytochemistry was sparked by his family’s knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants. But his research is also a personal crusade against cancer. Dr Paliyath lost his son to leukaemia at the age of 14, his brother to lymphoma and is himself a cancer survivor.
“Inherently, genetics determine the levels of free radicals that can cause mutation and cancer. Necessary components in one’s diet can help prevent that by reducing inflammation. Once inflammation is reduced, diet can be used to prevent and control a disease. Curing a condition needs aggressive intervention, but now it is believed that 80 per cent of cancers can be prevented with an appropriate diet. There is this shift in thinking.”
Multi drug resistance, in which cancer patients develop a resistance to the very drugs they are being treated with, is another area he is focusing on. His son received heavy chemo and then stopped responding to treatment.
“A part of me died with him,” says Dr Paliyath. “I experienced social withdrawal. When I see the desperation in the eyes of parents of children struck with cancer, I know what they are going through.
“The cancer cells develop a system to push the drugs out. In such cases, one might see an initial remission, but cancer comes back with a vengeance. There is no way currently to fight multi drug resistance, but our research with delivery systems on mice has shown good results. Funding can be challenging, but since these are not all new drugs we are working with, some of them are already approved, we should see results sooner rather than later.”
Humans consume a vast variety fruits and vegetables, but absorb little of the nutrients, possibly due to their breakdown during digestive processes and one would have to consume a basket of grapes a day to get sufficient nutrients.
Dr Paliyath is working on the more practical solution – a nutraceutical product with increased and easier absorbability. His team is developing technology to increase bio-availability of nutrients.
Most people don’t get enough iron from their diets unless they eat meat and it can be particularly difficult for vegans. However, iron from iron supplements is very poorly absorbed by the body. Dr Paliyath is looking at nano delivery systems to provide faster and better availability.
While his work focuses on enhancing the nutritional profile of fruits and vegetables, he points out that this is not the same as adding nutrients to processed foods.
“One issue with adding to processed foods is that they may not be stable and therefore of not much benefit. In the long run, a well-balanced diet following Health Canada standards is the best way to get all the nutrients the body requires. Flavanoids in apples can help prevent disease, for example.”
So, there’s some truth to an apple a day keeps the doctor away?
“Yes,” he says. “Other fruits offer additional benefits. The problem is that we don’t consume enough. According to one study, in Ontario, the average person eats just one apple a week.”
Dr Paliyath came to the US in 1980 after completing his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. He moved to Canada in 1984 to work with professor John Thompson at the University of Waterloo.
“Rented a car and drove all the way!” he recalls with a laugh. “A ten-day trip.”
It was cheaper to live in the US, the family realized. Also, it was a bad period economically in Canada. There was a hiring freeze at many institutions and Dr Paliyath found it hard to land the jobs he wanted. After the initial good response, he’d not hear back. But he persisted. Then came an opportunity at the University of Guelph where he could teach and conduct research.
They also faced some racism, but Dr Paliyath would rather talk about the help and support they received from a Mennonite group when their son was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11.
“They conducted bone marrow drives, organized fund-raisers. They gave us the gift of their friendship.”
His wife Ramany worked on the hexanal project with him and he conducted his first experiment with her. Their daughter Surya and son Vasant have brought their respective daughters Anushka and Rowan into their lives, making the Paliyaths happy grandparents.
In the little spare time he has, Dr Paliyath is busy writing books and with his editorial work. He listens to music and used to play cricket, but now not so much, due to health issues. He not a TV person, but enjoys watching basketball.
“My son used to play,” he says, quietly.
Meditation keeps him relaxed and in control of his mind and body. Sometimes things pop up, he chuckles, but he looks at the positives and maintains an even keel.
Be in the present, that’s his mantra.
“I believe every experience has value. Whatever I have experienced – good or bad – is stored. I can recollect it and apply it to current situations, it helps me find the answer.”
He tells his students and young scientists that it is important to understand one’s capabilities and set goals accordingly.
“A scientist has to look at publications – at the quality of his work and at the message. He or she has to develop a body of work.”
Work hard, he tells them, but don’t become a workaholic.
“Become more aware of nature. Think of the contributions you can make to those around you.”
• Grant’s is proud to present this series about people who are making a difference in the community. Represented by PMA Canada (www.pmacanada.com).