Date posted: 01/09/2017

Can one organic NZ apple a day keep cancer away?

A drive into the country one day changed the life of a Kiwi CA and orchardist, who discovered a unique apple tree that could have anti-cancer benefits for the whole world.

In Brief

  • A unique NZ apple called Monty’s Surprise has the world’s highest levels of anti-cancer compounds called quercetin flavonoids.
  • Heritage Food Crops Research Trust is grafting and growing Monty’s Surprise apple trees and distributing them, but there are no patents so everyone can grow the apples.
  • Funding is needed to conduct a long-term trial on human health.

by Alexandra Johnson

In Whanganui, on New Zealand’s west coast, Mark Christensen CA moonlights for his charity organisation Heritage Food Crops Research Trust, as an orchardist and research director. Growing organic heirloom fruit and vegetables, the company gets phytonutrients analysed for their capacity to prevent or treat illness.

Christensen, an accountant since he left school, has worked in the same firm now, Moore Stephens Markhams, for about 40 years. But gardening has been his out-of-office passion for decades. 

“Like most people, I had some exposure helping my parents in the garden and when I got married I wanted to put in a big vege garden.” Later he grew fruit trees naturally, or organically and joined the New Zealand Tree Crops Association. 

He began to pursue his dream of growing old heritage, or heirloom trees. “The types that might have been around when your grandparents were growing trees.”

The fulsome Monty

In 2001, when Christensen was driving along a gravel road in the country, he stumbled on something extraordinary – a unique variety 100-year-old apple tree covered in blackberry.

It was a seedling variety, which means someone had eaten an apple and thrown away the core, and a tree had grown from one of the apple pips. When that happens it only carries 50% of the DNA from the mother tree and 50% comes from bee pollen.

Christensen grafted some trees from a sample and named it Monty’s Surprise, planting the first one in his orchard in 2002. Later that year, he started to develop an interest in cancer. He wanted to know what caused it and what people could do to prevent it. 

“I regard this tree as a national treasure”
“I had clients with cancer and also a couple of neighbours with cancer and the inverse relationship between apples and cancer was drawn to my attention. I began researching it and saw that others had also been looking into it.” 

He contacted scientist Tony McGhie of Plant and Food Research, who had just completed a study of 10 commercial varieties, and told him that at that time Red Delicious was regarded as the best apple for health.   

He agreed to undertake a small study and Chistensen sent him 59 varieties to test in that first year, including Monty’s Surprise. Over the next few years, around 250 apple varieties were tested, but Monty’s Surprise stood out.

“It’s got the highest level of quercetin flavonoids in the world and extremely high levels of procyanidins.” These compounds have been shown to inhibit cell proliferation in some types of cancers.

“It’s unusual to have a variety of apple which is edible and has such high levels of these components,” says Christensen.

He also came across some research in France on a French cider apple that could cause colon cancer cells to commit suicide, a process called apoptosis. He sent the researcher the data on the New Zealand apples, who tested Monty’s Surprise himself. The samples showed potent anti-proliferative effectiveness against the researcher’s colon cancer cell line which was more effective than his French cider apple in cell culture analysis.

Similar results were obtained from samples sent to a scientist in Australia and tested on colon and stomach cancer cell lines.

“Finding the tree came with a great responsibility,” says Christensen. “I regard this tree as a national treasure, it is the sort of thing that should not be patented or controlled. We could have done that, but it was too important. It’s something the people of New Zealand should be able to grow.”

An apple a day

Since then, Christensen and volunteers at the Heritage Food Crops Research Trust are grafting and growing Monty’s Surprise apple trees and distributing them, in partnership with a local primary health organisation. Grafting wood has also been sent to a nursery in Australia.

They have reached the point where they have enough science to know this apple could make a significant difference to people’s health, says Christensen. 

“Our hypothesis is that this apple has the compounds necessary to inhibit disease within the human body and that these compounds can work to prevent hereditary cancer cells in the body from activating and initiating a disease process.”

The next stage needs to be a long-term human trial. “We need to find a scientist who is interested in conducting a 15- to 20-year study – perhaps on the people of Whanganui who are eating the apple.”  

Christensen and his team have now moved on to investigating heirloom tomatoes for their levels of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that appears to exert positive effects upon human health, specifically against cancer. 

A scientist at Auckland University is interested in doing prostate cancer cell culture work on tangerine coloured heirloom tomatoes, which contain a bioavailable form of lycopene.

Christensen says our food has been so manipulated over the centuries that we’re only now discovering how many of the beneficial compounds have been altered or lost.

All of this scientific study costs money and funding is required to take the research further. 

“This year we have been looking at conducting three studies. It will cost NZ$70,000 to conduct a further human study on lycopene absorption, NZ$35,000 for a prostate cancer cell culture study and NZ$60,000 for a PhD student at Massey University,” he says.

His own organisation is there to make a difference, rather than to make money, he adds.

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