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$10M in Federal Grants to Study Botanicals for Human Health

Funding will allow research into the safety and efficacy of botanical dietary supplements for women’s health to continue

by Sam Hostettler-University of Illinois at Chicago News Office
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$10M in federal grants to study botanicals for human healthMilk thistle, a flowering herb related to the daisy and ragweed family, is sometimes used as a natural treatment for liver problems such as cirrhosis, jaundice and hepatitis.Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois at ChicagoThe University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy has received a five-year, $9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue its research into the safety and efficacy of botanical dietary supplements for women’s health and another $1.2 million over five years to develop new chemical and biological approaches to the investigation of natural products. 

UIC is one of only three Botanical Dietary Research Centers to be funded by the NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements and National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, and one of only two funded Centers for Advancing Natural Products Innovation and Technology for the five-year funding cycle that begins this year.

Researchers in the UIC/NIH Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements will undertake three projects to investigate botanicals used by older women for the management of menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, said center director Richard van Breemen, professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy.

“We believe that botanical dietary supplements can be used as safe and effective alternatives to hormone therapy,” van Breemen said.

One project, led by Guido Pauli, professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy, will confirm the reliability of supplements being studied and develop methods to craft “designer” supplements from plants for optimal safety and efficacy.

Another study will evaluate botanicals for biological activity, including estrogenic, chemopreventive, antioxidant and anti-inflammation properties — to see if women who are taking botanical dietary supplements for menopausal symptoms could be seeing additional health benefits. Judy Bolton, professor and head of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy, leads the project along with research assistant professor Birgit Dietz.

“We believe that such botanicals as red clover, hops and licorice will modify the activity of estrogens, which contain toxic agents that damage DNA molecules in genes, causing mutations and tumors in sensitive tissues such as the breast,” Bolton said. The chance for errors occurring in DNA can increase dramatically in rapidly dividing cells.

Other botanicals to be studied include milk thistle, valerian, dang gui, maca, chaste tree berry, kwao keur, wild yam, rose root and five flavor berry. Under the direction of van Breemen and Dr. Elena Barengolts, associate professor of medicine, botanical dietary supplements will be chemically standardized prior to preclinical and clinical studies of safety.

In the third project at UIC, also led by van Breemen, clinical trials of hops, red clover and licorice will look for any interactions between the supplements and prescription drugs.

UIC’s botanical center is the only center in the U.S. funded continuously since the NIH began the program in 1999, and its findings have been reported in more than 200 publications. Collaboration among numerous research laboratories at UIC has been key to the center’s success, van Breemen said.

“Our multi-disciplinary approach comes from our founder, renowned pharmacognosist Norman Farnsworth,” he said. Farnsworth, who died in 2011 at age 81, “believed that experts in pharmacognosy, chemistry, botany, medicine and pharmacology working as one will provide the greatest research results,” van Breemen said. “It is one of the reasons for our many achievements, and continues to be the cornerstone of the center.”

The projects are funded under NIH grant numbers P50 AT000155 and 1U41AT008706-01.