Foggy On Details? USF Researchers Patent Formula To Enhance Brainpower

Researchers at the University of South Florida have bottled an elixir for aging brains that harnesses the power of blueberries and green tea.

The proprietary formula, NT-020, boosted mental performance in older adults during a clinical trial featured in a recent issue of Rejuvenation Research. The news coincides with the national launch of the supplement, which can now be found in Publix stores throughout Florida and the Southeast, and in 800 Kroger stores around the country.

"It's been a long process, but it's exciting to see the first human studies finished and have it go out in the market in a big way," says Paula Bickford, a professor in the Department of Neurosurgery and Brain Repair at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and a senior research career scientist at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.

Bickford is one of five co-inventors of the formula. The VA is part owner of the patent secured by USF. The university licenses the patent to Natura Therapeutics, Inc., a company formed by the scientists to market NT-020 under the name NutraStem.

The dietary supplement, which targets adult stem cells, has been a decade in the making -- beginning in a petri dish and culminating in the human study that confirmed a theory developed by the USF research team: The right combination of natural anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories could promote the growth of new stem cells in the brain and moderate declining cognitive function in older adults.

From Laboratory To Grocery Store

The health benefits of blueberries and green tea have been widely recognized in scientific circles for some time, so these became the core ingredients, Bickford says.

The researchers screened more than 100 potential ingredients -- mostly herbal anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories -- to see which worked best in conjunction with the blueberry and green tea extracts to stimulate the replication of stem cells -- the master cells that help the body repair itself.

The winning combination turned out to be blueberries and green tea added to vitamin D3 -- a fat-soluble vitamin found in lamb's wool -- and L-carnosine, an amino acid found in meat and vegetables.

"When we took these four together in proper ratios, the synergistic effect was greater than the sum of its parts," says Bickford, who went on to conduct the NT-020 animal studies.

"We found that if you put older animals on this treatment, they learned much more quickly and retained it longer than similar older animals -- similar to what we saw in the normal elderly human."

In several preclinical trials, NT-020 produced an overall rejuvenating effect in aging laboratory rats that even benefitted animals impaired by a simulated stroke.

The two-month human study, conducted at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute by Brent Small, a professor in USF's School of Aging Studies, focused on unimpaired men and women between the ages of 65 and 85. It pitted the supplement against a placebo in tests that measured cognitive functions that normally decline with age, such as number-sorting and computation.

"We saw modest improvements in how quickly people could perform on a task that has timing, which is what goes first as we get older. For instance, it takes us a little longer to do math problems," says Bickford.

Future clinical trials may include participants who are cognitively less healthy, or with memory problems.

"We would predict we would see a much larger effect with mildly cognitive impaired than in people with normal function," she says. "But if they're all the way to Alzheimer's disease that may be too late, because there's only so much you can do."

Florida Berry Boon?

With polyphenol-rich blueberries at the heart of the formula, its celebrated brain-boosting benefits would seem to be a boon to Florida's blueberry industry.

But blueberries alone don't pack the punch of the four carefully balanced and concentrated core ingredients contained in a NutraStem capsule.

"You would have to eat or drink several gallons of blueberries a day," says Cyndy Sanberg, another of NutraStem's co-inventors and president of Natura Therapeutics, the company formed to  market and distribute it.

Still, it is the growing body of science extolling the health benefits of blueberries, in general, that has resulted in the explosion in the Florida blueberry industry over the past decade.

"In the last seven or eight years, it's really started to take off, says Gary Wishnatzki of Plant City. His family has dominated the Florida strawberry market for nearly a century.

Wishnatzki added blueberries to the mix in 1994, back when mom and pop farms were beginning to dabble in what was traditionally a northern crop. Now his Wish Farms brand is a major player in the expanding blueberry market and he couldn't be more pleased about the latest innovation coming out of USF.

"There's been a lot of positive press about blueberries in the past years and the good news just keeps coming," he says.

Still, most of the blueberries that go into NutraStem come from the northeastern U.S., which has been producing highly concentrated blueberry extracts for decades.

"I don't want to recreate the wheel when Maine already has a system set up for this," Sanberg says.

Whether Florida blueberries will become a part of the expanding commercial extract market remains to be seen. Much of it depends on the economics, says Wishnatzki.

Florida's southern high-bush varieties produce fewer berries than the wild low-bush strains cultivated in the northeast. Climate is a factor, and Florida is not necessarily poised to become a leader in the processed berry market, he says.

"A lot of New England's wild form of low-bush blueberry is grown just for processing and used for jams and jellies. Our high bush berries are used for the fresh and freezer market," he says.

Florida, with lower yields, but higher per-pound prices, sells most of its blueberries as fresh produce. There is little left over to divert to processing lower-priced concentrates and extracts.

Keeping It Local

Still, the fledgling brain-booster is made by Sun-Pac Manufacturing in Tampa, which has been producing vitamins, minerals, herbal preparations and dietary supplements since 2000.

"We like to keep things local," says Sanberg, who regularly visits the Westchase area plant. "We are a Florida company -- a USF spin-off company -- and USF is a shareholder."

Her husband, Paul Sanberg, USF's Senior VP for Research & Innovation, along with researchers Jun Tan and Douglas Shytle, round out the team of five prominent USF scientists who developed NT-020.

NutraStem, which is also available online through the Natura Therapeutics website, currently comes in three formulas: NutraStem Cardiac, NutraStem Bone and Joint and NutraStem Active. All have the exact same base formulation, with specific added ingredients. NutraStem Cardiac, for instance, the formulation used in the recent cognitive trial, contains grape seed.

"We are working on a NutraStem Slim right now," Sanberg says. "It's not a weight loss program, but body shape management."

NutraStem Slim will focus on a natural way to increase fat-burning metabolism, without making exaggerated claims about weight loss.

"We're targeting people who are trying to lose 10 or 12 pounds, but need to shape and tone, combined with diet and exercise, of course. It's safer and more scientific to shape and tone."

Regardless of the formulation, NT-020 has its fans among its creators, who believe in its power to rejuvenate aging cells. 

"I take it. My husband takes it. My family takes it," says Bickford. "I think it's great."

Jan Hollingsworth has been reporting on Florida's agriculture and environment since the 1970s. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Jan P. Hollingsworth, 66, of Live Oak, died Monday, March 23, 2020, following a stroke. The national editor for Natural Awakenings Publishing Corp., Jan was an award-winning journalist and author. Her 1986 book, “Unspeakable Acts,” chronicles the investigation that exposed the child-abuse crimes of two Miami day-care center operators and was made into a 1990 television movie. Her reporting specialties included complex issues related to the environment, politics, agriculture, medicine, health, and law. A former Valrico resident, she spent 14 years at The Tampa Tribune as a reporter and editor, receiving numerous honors, including the Environmental Writer of the Year from the Florida Wildlife Federation in 2003 and the Al Burt Award for thorough coverage of growth management from The 1000 Friends of Florida in 2000. Contributions in Jan’s memory would be appreciated at Grune Heide Farm Rescue.