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Illinois to Lead Studies of Effects of Phytoestrogen

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The University of Illinois has won $8 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of botanical estrogens, which are becoming popular in consumer products, including research that focuses on gene expression, the school said this week.

The five-year effort will involve the US Food and Drug Administration's National Center for Toxicological Research and will include collaborations with the University of Mississippi and Oregon State University.

Plant-based estrogens, also called phytoestrogens, are advertised as natural and nutritional supplements in teas, energy drinks, and food, and they are believed to be able to suppress hot flashes, improve sex drive, enhance mental function, and reduce the occurrence of breast cancer. For these reasons, many women are taking them in concentrated forms as alternatives to hormone-replacement therapy. Research into their effectiveness, however, has "yielded mixed results," according to the university.

While consumption of some plants or extracts appears to reduce the risk of some cancers or minimize symptoms of menopause, others have no effect. Other studies have found that some phytoestrogens may induce cognitive problems, increase the risk of breast cancer, and interfere with breast cancer treatment, the school said.

"The types of botanical estrogens that are being marketed are getting more and more potent," U of Illinois Professor and Director of the Botanical Research Center William Helferich said in a statement. "We want to see if they really are effective or detrimental."

These projects will study how phytoestrogens in soy, licorice root, dong quai, and wild yam influence gene expression or cellular processes and affect various tissues. Specific areas of interest include the effects phytoestrogens may have on growth and metastasis of breast cancer tumors, influence bone loss, or alter the rate of cognitive decline in aging.

One study area will include research into the effects of these estrogens on gene activation and their interaction with estrogen receptors and regulatory proteins.

A project at the University of Mississippi will authenticate and standardize the botanical samples that will be used in the research, and the FDA's NCTR will identify and quantify the samples in the study and determine the appropriate dosing.