A University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point research project may uncover the secret to producing a food supplement from grapes.
Resveratrol, an antioxidant believed to provide several health benefits like the ability to lower cholesterol, is found in high quantities in grapes.
Paul Fowler, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology, became interested in the idea in 2013 and said the market for the drug is expanding. The institute is headquartered at UWSP, and Fowler said the chemical may be linked to lowering the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Fowler contacted vegetable grower Dick Okray of Plover Farms LLC and UWSP foundation board member Dr. Paul Skinner, a professional grape grower from California. Two acres were cleared and planted per Skinner’s design with 1500 vines in spring 2014 in one of Okray’s fields.
The project was originally funded by a USDA grant, which supported institute activities. Because the grant expired, the institute now supports the project.
Skinner received his undergraduate degree in resource management from UWSP and followed research on health effects of grapes since earning his PhD in agronomy from the University of California, Davis.
He said his experience in Germany during the European environmental studies seminar with UWSP sparked his interest in grapes.
“One class in soils really got me started,” he said. “The broad background here allowed me to do several different things.”
Skinner’s career in consulting with grape growers has taken him to vineyards around the world. He sourced UWSP’s grapes from growers in cold-climate states like Washington, New York and Minnesota.
“I’ve seen a lot of grapes growing in many different conditions. I’ve done quite a bit of work in China, and much of the country gets pretty cold,” he said.
Skinner’s work in China exposed him to eastern pharmaceuticals, including resveratrol. Most of the United States’ supply of the supplements come from Asia, and there are concerns about quality and consistency among products, he said.
“Going to China, I got to see all these crazy pharmaceuticals,” he said. “It’s marketed as a wonder drug, but there’s no assurance of quality.”
Each part of the plant will be tested by staff of the institute in campus facilities. The grapes themselves will be produced when the plants mature next year, but initial results have indicated that the woody tissues of the plant are rich with resveratrol.
“The grapes are pruned each year,” Fowler said. “There is a pretty significant quantity in the prunings.”
Fowler explained how the chemical is extracted from the plants by cutting tissues into half-inch pieces and placing them in an accelerated alcohol extractor. Another method being explored is freeze drying and milling wet material, which tends to be somewhat less effective, he said.
“The accelerated process is kind of like a pressure cooker,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out where the opportunity lies economically.”
Fowler is happy with the way the project has progressed. The team was concerned about extreme winter temperatures, site infertility and potential damage from deer, but growth has been good.
Both Fowler and Skinner said they owe much of the success to efforts by Okray and his niece, Gabrielle Eck, who helps tend the vines. Okray and Eck receive no payment for their contributions.
“Dick was really enthusiastic about it,” Fowler said. “He’s looking for an angle on commercialization.”
Skinner is pleased with the efforts.
“Dick is a very innovative thinker,” he said. “He’s embraced a lot of risk.”
Fowler thinks the project could help bring attention to the science of extracting special chemicals from plants. The possibilities for new jobs and industries in the area are exciting, he said.
“This could be a flagship to look at other vegetables that are grown in the region,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of the major vegetables right here.”
Fowler said he’s even thinking of non-food opportunities associated with plant-derived chemicals.
“How do they form a part of an industrial chemical supply chain?” he said. “Those are areas that are growing pretty significantly.”
The team wants to increase student involvement with the project, both afield and in the lab. Skinner thinks UWSP is a ‘prime participant’ for the work and is ambitious about the future and possible collaborations.
“We could provide career opportunities that aren’t on the traditional path,” he said. “The challenge is to find your way into private world support of your own activities.”