Ontario Researchers Collaborate to Study Acai Berry Palm Extract as an Intervention in COVID-19 Patients

Disclaimer: The treatment discussed in this story is experimental for COVID-19. The trial is approved by Health Canada, however the sale or use of acai berry to treat COVID-19 is not approved yet.

There is no shortage of innovative clinical trials studying treatments for COVID-19 patients underway in Ontario. One such trial is the Palm Berry Extract in COVID-19 Patients trial led by Ontario researchers Dr. Michael Farkouh and Dr. Ana Andreazza of the University of Toronto. This trial is one of many participating in CTO Stream to streamline multi-site ethics review.

COVID-19 causes many disturbances in the human body, which can lead to complications including excessive inflammation. Studies have indicated that the extract of the acai berry may act as an inhibitor of inflammation, but more research is needed. Dr. Farkouh and Dr. Andreazza are collaborating to test whether an early intervention of acai palm berry extract can improve the recovery of patients with COVID-19 and help to prevent complications caused by inflammation. Specifically, they will investigate if the extract of the acai palm berry can reduce mortality or need of mechanical ventilation in patients with COVID-19.

A time of crisis kick-starts collaboration

If it had not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Farkouh and Dr. Andreazza may never have met. Dr. Andreazza, an Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology and Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and a collaborator Scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, has been studying acai berry extract for about five years and has a strong understanding of the extract’s effect on the inflammatory response. Dr. Farkouh is the Chair & Director of the Peter Munk Centre of Excellence in Multinational Clinical Trials, part of the University Health Network, and Vice Chair of Research in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto. His research interests include the interaction of cardiovascular disease and other medical conditions including osteoarthritis, gastrointestinal disorders and depression.

After COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Dr. Andreazza saw the opportunity to study acai berry extract as a potential treatment for the novel coronavirus within a clinical trial. Dr. Andreazza’s Department Chair, Dr. Ruth Ross, at the University of Toronto connected her with Dr. Farkouh, an experienced clinical scientist. They quickly began work on a clinical trial. “Our collaboration is a really interesting story of how translational scientists and clinical scientists get together in times of crisis to bring forward a scientifically sound intervention,” said Dr. Farkouh.

Studying the acai berry extract as a treatment for COVID-19

The acai berry is a natural berry from Brazil, which according to Dr. Andreazza, has shown some ability to modulate inflammatory response. Dr. Andreazza and Dr. Farkouh wanted to test whether acai berry extract can reduce the inflammation response resulting from COVID-19 and prevent future complications. “We hope that by giving this intervention, we will prevent hospitalization and the more serious complications of COVID-19,” said Dr. Farkouh.

There are three major sites participating in this clinical trial, two in Ontario and one in Brazil. The Ontario sites include the COVID-19 assessment centre at Women’s College Hospital, and the COVID-19 assessment centre at Scarborough Health Network. The trial has presented a unique opportunity for inter-professional collaboration. “It has been wonderful to see silos breaking down,” said Dr. Farkouh. “At Women’s College Hospital, the trial is being led by an orthopedic surgeon, and at the Scarborough Health Network, a cardiologist has taken the lead.”

The third site is in Brazil at the University of Sao Paulo, a partner of the University of Toronto. “One advantage of including a site in Brazil is that they are experiencing the peak of COVID-19 cases at a different time than in Canada, so we will be able to see the impact of this intervention in both the early stages of caseload, and the later stages,” said Dr. Andreazza.

The design of the study is minimizing any direct contact between patients and healthcare workers by shipping the intervention directly to the trial participant’s home and conducting follow-up interviews by telephone. The researchers are anticipating a high participation rate in the trial and hope to have results in approximately three months.

A safe and cost-effective option, if successful

Dr. Andreazza and Dr. Farkouh feel that, should the trial provide evidence of acai berry extract being effective, that it will be important in the fight against COVID-19. “This potential treatment has several benefits, including the fact that the acai berry extract is safe, cheap, and we can produce it in mass quantities,” said Dr. Andreazza. Dr. Farkouh added, “we think that this intervention has potential not only in Canada and Brazil, but also in low- and middle-income countries where the challenges of managing COVID-19 are more exaggerated,” said Dr. Farkouh. He noted that, if shown to be effective, the extract could also be given preventatively as a public health measure.

Research lessons learned throughout the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated an urgent need to work together as a research community to find answers. Throughout this study, the two teams have worked together cohesively, and both Dr. Farkouh and Dr. Andreazza spoke of the important strides towards improved collaboration and cooperation occurring across Ontario.

“I think that in Ontario, we have come together as a research community, and that has a lot to do with Clinical Trials Ontario bringing us the opportunity to have a province-wide platform for multi-site ethics review,” said Dr. Farkouh. “I hope that we are able to learn from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the collaboration across the health research community will continue.”

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