Americans spend $25 billion a year on over-the-counter dietary supplements and, according to industry forecasts, sales will increase about 19 percent over the next five years. Yet there is little scientific evidence to date that the popular supplements, known as botanicals, are effective — or whether they are even safe.
With a $7.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, a new research center at the University of Missouri will begin gathering data that could lead to more definitive human trials on the health benefits of botanicals.
The Center for Botanical Interaction Studies is one of five in the country selected to lead interdisciplinary and collaborative research on botanicals. The MU center, led by Dennis Lubahn, a professor of biochemistry and child health in the School of Medicine and College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, will focus on five different plants and their abilities to help prevent strokes and prostate cancer, and to improve resistance to infectious diseases.
At an Oct. 7 press conference at the MU School of Medicine, Lubahn said that despite the widespread use of botanicals, their safety and efficacy have never been adequately studied.
“This grant will help us answer important questions about botanicals and gain new insight into how they work,” he said.
The botanicals that will be studied are soy; garlic; sutherlandia, a common medicinal plant in Africa; Picrorhiza, an herb that grows primarily in the Himalayan mountains; and elderberry, which has been used as a folk remedy around the world for its antioxidant qualities.
“In fact,” Lubahn said,” I’ve been telling people that instead of the long Botanical Interaction Studies [name], our nickname will be the ‘Elderberry Center.’”
The research on botanicals will involve a team of more than 20 scientists in human, animal and plant sciences at MU. Project leaders are faculty members in the School of Medicine; College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; College of Engineering; College of Arts and Sciences; Bond Life Sciences Center; and College of Veterinary Medicine.
Project leaders include Grace Sun, a biochemistry professor who will lead a team of neuroscientists in investigating how botanicals may suppress stroke damage in the brain. Kevin Fritsche, professor of animal sciences, nutritional sciences and molecular microbiology and immunology, will study how the antioxidant properties in plants help the immune system.
“Plants contain an array of chemicals that help our bodies cope with oxygen and oxidative stress,” Fritsche said. “Oxygen is essential for life, but when it’s handled inappropriately by the body’s cells, oxygen can have damaging toxic effects to body function and lead to disease.”
MU Chancellor Brady Deaton said the new center embodies the ideals of Mizzou Advantage, which promotes collaborative research on issues related to food, medicine, energy, the media and technology.
The grant, Deaton said, “calls attention to the extraordinary interdisciplinary nature and community of scholars that exists on this campus . . . The ‘One Health, One Medicine’ initiative in the Mizzou Advantage could not be reflected any more clearly than it is in this grant.”
Because of variations in the individual plants that will be studied, researchers are cultivating their own — including 600 types of soybean seeds to study different concentrations of the same compounds to see how they might work to prevent prostate cancer. MU also is growing 60 types of elderberries to study the plant’s possible role in boosting the immune system against infection and fighting cancer and inflammation in the body.
Researchers at the MU DNA Core Facility will use the facility’s mega-sequencing technology to take a portion of the plant DNA, sequence and analyze it. The facility can simultaneously sequence 240 million pieces of DNA. The data will then be sorted by the MU Informatics Institute to determine if the same functions are occurring in the brain, the immune system and the prostate, Lubahn said.
“With the technology we have at MU, the potential for large impact, novel discoveries is tremendous,” he said.
The new $7.6 million grant is the third federal award MU has received from the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which leads research on health care practices and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. The first NIH Botanical Center award was received in 2000.
In 2006, MU researchers received a $4.4 million grant to study the potential healing properties of African plants, including sutherlandia, in partnership with the University of Western Cape in South Africa. Dr. Robert Churchill, dean of the School of Medicine, credited the lead investigator on that project, Bill Folk, professor of biochemistry and senior associate dean for research at the School of Medicine, with laying the groundwork for the botanical research grant.
“Bill has been on the plant agenda for some number of years,” Churchill said. “This grant is sort of building on things that he has been steadily involved in for a long, long time.”
Churchill noted that the botanical research grant is the second largest federal grant received by the School of Medicine this year. In October alone, the medical school has received $13 million in grants from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health, and has established a record for awards in a single year.
“I’m not sure why this is happening,” Churchill said. “I think what we’re trying to do is promote an atmosphere here that really fosters good research. In spite of the fact that we are kind of limited in the resources and infrastructure that other big places have, I think we have turned the corner and I think we’ve started to be recognized nationally and internationally for the good work that goes on here.”