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Dennis Lubahn, PhD, is principal investigator for a $7.6 million NIH grant awarded to MU. He will study such common crops as soybeans and exotic herbs to determine their safety and efficacy.

Harvesting Facts About Plants

MU Awarded $7.6 Million to Become One of Five New
NIH Botanical Research Centers

Many plants possess health benefits, but scientists have yet to pinpoint the precise properties that make some popular herbs and even common crops helpful or harmful. A University of Missouri research center unveiled Oct. 7 will address the need for more data about plants that are part of a flourishing dietary supplements industry.

Created with a new $7.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, MU's center is one of five in the country selected to lead interdisciplinary and collaborative research on botanical dietary supplements. The majority of Americans take dietary supplements, spending $25 billion a year on such products as herbs and other botanicals. The Nutrition Business Journal forecasts that sales of botanical dietary supplements will increase about 19 percent over the next five years.

"Despite their widespread use, the safety and efficacy of these products have not been adequately studied," said Dennis Lubahn, PhD, principal investigator of the project and a professor of biochemistry and child health in the School of Medicine and College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

MU's Center for Botanical Interaction Studies will focus on five different plants and their abilities to aid in the prevention of strokes and prostate cancer, as well as improve resistance to infectious diseases. Botanicals that will be studied include soy; garlic; elderberries; sutherlandia, a common medicinal plant in Africa; and Picrorhiza, an herb that grows primarily in the Himalayan mountains.

A team of more than 20 human, animal and plant scientists at MU will study how the botanicals use antioxidant properties to protect people from disease. Project leaders include Grace Sun, PhD, a biochemistry professor who will lead a team of neuroscientists in investigating how botanicals may suppress stroke damage in the brain, and Kevin Fritsche, PhD, a professor of animal sciences, nutritional sciences and molecular microbiology and immunology. He will study how the plants' antioxidant properties help the immune system by improving resistance to infection.

"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."

Project leaders will use the resources of the Charles W. Gehrke Proteomics Center, MU Informatics Institute and the MU DNA Core Facility. MU researchers will use the DNA core 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.

"MU's Informatics Institute will then sort our data and allow us to see if the same functions are occurring in the brain, in the immune system and the prostate," Lubahn said. "With the technology we have at MU, the potential for large impact, novel discoveries is tremendous."

Because the potency of wild plants can vary, researchers at MU and elsewhere are cultivating their own. MU is cultivating 600 types of soybean seeds to study different concentrations of the same compounds in the plants and 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. Lubahn said there may be variations in individual plants that will make a difference in how well they fight disease.

The grant project leaders are faculty members in the MU 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. They will partner with the Missouri Botanical Garden to cultivate and procure plant materials for laboratory research.

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. In 2006, MU researchers received a $4.4 million grant to study the potential healing properties of African plants in partnership with the University of Western Cape in South Africa, the Missouri Botanical Garden and other partners. The first NIH Botanical Center award was received in 2000.
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