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US Government Stimulus Money Funding New Herbal Research on Cancer and in Other Areas

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 17, 2009, allocates approximately $5 billion (of a total $787 billion) for scientific research and medical supplies.1 A handful of these studies, funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), involve research on herbs and herbal dietary supplements.

Several interesting uses for herbal ingredients are being researched with the aid provided by these federal grants. For example, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Jeevan Prasain, PhD, principal investigator, is testing whether metabolites of cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon, Ericaceae) can help prevent bladder cancer. Dr. Prasain was involved in a previous study in which rats were fed cranberry juice concentrate and their incidence of bladder cancer was lowered, which he believes was the first study conducted on this indication (oral communication, November 13, 2009). The Alabama researchers will receive $122,720 their first year and about $278,000 for a second year of research regarding cranberry for this use. “Bladder cancer is one of the commonly diagnosed malignancies in both males and females, and there is a need to establish research priorities for basic and clinical research,” said Dr. Prasain.

The support will help finance researchers’ salaries and will also provide for new equipment (a rotary evaporator) and laboratory supplies (chemicals and animals). “Cranberry fruit is a unique source of diverse chemical compounds, and it has several health beneficial effects,” said Dr. Prasain. “The point is, it’s good. People need to take more cranberry.”

Researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor are studying the effect of ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae) root as a preventative of colorectal cancer. For the ginger study, Suzanna Zick, ND, and her team of 10 other researchers are using the $98,022 to obtain supplies, rent equipment, and hire personnel to run necessary tests (oral communication, October 21, 2009). Specifically, the supplemental grant will fund the analysis of a panel of inflammatory markers in the gut tissue of people at normal and high risk for developing colorectal cancer.

“If we didn’t have this stimulus grant, it wouldn’t make us as competitive for the next grant,” said Dr. Zick. “Bio-marker work is expensive.”

“Ginger is an up-and-coming herb in cancer prevention,” she added, noting that the main use she and her colleagues are studying is the prevention of colorectal cancer, not cancer treatment. In previous animal studies, ginger was most effective if rats were given the herb before cancer started growing or at the very beginning of cancer growth. She also added that ginger may be effective against metastatic cancer, as ginger has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Another study at Ann Arbor, being led by James Varani, PhD, involves an extract of red algae found in the North Atlantic (Lithothamnion corallioides, Corallinaceae).2 The researchers will receive $203,904 for the first year of research and a similar amount for the second. The grant will primarily provide for salaries of laboratory personnel: one scientist, 2 full-time laboratory technicians, and several students, according to Dr. Varani (e-mail, November 12, 2009).

“We applied for the grant before the stimulus package was available, and the amount requested was actually a bit higher,” said Dr. Varani. “NIH gave what they could.”

The algae product will undergo 2 studies. One long-term study will assess if multi-mineral algae extract can inhibit the growth of colon polyps and colon cancer in mice on a high-fat Western-style diet better than just calcium alone.2 In the second study, human colon tissue will be used in an organ culture to help identify if the calcium-receptor in red algae is what is mostly responsible for the chemoprevention.

“There have been no colon chemoprevention studies to date with this particular material,” said Dr. Varani. “However, there have been numerous studies with calcium alone, and these studies have shown partial reduction in colonic polyps. Our studies will (hopefully) show that a multi-mineral mix works better than calcium alone.”

Another interesting study, taking place at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, involves the possible inhibition of cancer cell proliferation by the constituents of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, Araliaceae) roots grown in Wisconsin (obtained from the Wisconsin Ginseng Board). The grant total received by lead researcher Laura Murphy, PhD, will total $275,000, with $125,000 awarded the first year and $150,000 the second. The $125,000 will primarily be used for the salary of a new technician.

The current research team has found repeatedly that oral ginseng treatment helps the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin be more effective in decreasing human breast cancer tumor growth in nude mice. According to Dr. Murphy, there has been nothing published using animals or in humans related to this specific ginseng indication.

“But, it is very difficult to tease apart the mechanism of action,” said Dr. Murphy (e-mail, October 20, 2009). “The uniqueness of this project is that we recognize that ginseng is a virtual ‘drug store.’ Treating a mouse with a single ginsenoside or polysaccharide component does not tell you what ginseng will do.”

Another study, taking place at the University of Arizona, involves the efficacy of turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae) root extract in the prevention of post-menopausal osteoporosis. According to lead researcher Janet Funk, MD, currently no past human clinical trials have been conducted for this indication (e-mail, October 19, 2009). Dr. Funk explained that the supplemental grant of $10,322 will fund the work of an undergraduate over the summer, as well as assist in the purchasing of supplies.

Tariq Haqqi, PhD, the lead researcher of a study at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, and his team are evaluating whether pomegranate (Punica granatum, Punicaceae) fruit extract may slow cartilage degeneration in osteoarthritis. Though this group has done research on the effect of pomegranate extract on human cartilage in the past, there have been no human clinical studies of the effect of pomegranate on osteoarthritis, according to Dr. Haqqi (oral communication, October 27, 2009). Dr. Haqqi said that out of the $137,004 awarded for the grant, $37,000 is an indirect cost going to the university for operating expenses, and the other $100,000 will be used for the salary of one research associate, as well as supplies.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Birgit Dietz, PhD, and her research team have been awarded $275,000 to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the co-treatment of red clover (Trifolium pratense, Fabaceae) and tamoxifen (a drug shown to treat and prevent breast cancer), as well as co-treatment of black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae) and tamoxifen, which according to Dr. Dietz are combinations that have not yet been well-studied (oral communication, October 23, 2008). Tamoxifen has a side effect of producing hot flashes, which is a condition that black cohosh is traditionally used to treat.2 Both plants, according to Dr. Dietz, also have cancer-preventive compounds, which means that they may even help reduce tamoxifen-induced endometrial cancer, as tamoxifen use tends to increase the risk of endometrial cancer.

UIC has also received a 2-year $1.2 million grant to develop a new method to identify the phytoconstituents of botanical dietary supplements and how they function.3 The study will use state-of-the-art technology to generate qualitative and quantitative fingerprints of herbal reference materials, which should eventually allow for a more accurate identification of the correct plant materials and reference compounds used in production.

“This project seeks to establish new spectrometric technologies for the assessment of the quality and integrity of botanical dietary supplements, which are widely consumed by the US public and a major health economy factor,” said Guido Pauli, PhD, principal investigator and associate professor of pharmacognosy at UIC (e-mail, November 16, 2009). The majority of the grant will go to the salaries of postdoctoral scientists and research faculty involved in the study.

A grant for $6 million has been awarded to a group of 20 researchers from different universities (Michigan State, Kentucky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Texas A&M, Iowa State, Purdue, and Mississippi) to research which genes in plants create the biochemical compounds used medicinally.4 It is thought that the ability to isolate these genes will lead to less costly and faster medicine production, according to Dean DellaPenna, a biochemistry professor at Michigan State University (MSU) and co-principal investigator of the project, who was paraphrased in MSU’s student paper.4

Overall, there are many herbal studies being supported by the NIH stimulus, and perhaps this will set a trend in research for years to come.

—Kelly E. Lindner


  1. Heim K. Federal money boosts local health and social services non-profits. The Seattle Times. October 2, 2009. Available at: Accessed October 15, 2009.
  2. NIH Grants Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 Page. US Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: Accessed October 15, 2009.
  3. $1.2 million federal grant to University of Illinois for botanical dietary supplements research. The Medical News. November 13, 2009. Available at: Accessed November 13, 2009.
  4. Wagner K. MSU professor to oversee plant gene research. The State News. November 13, 2009. Available at: php/article/2009/11/msu_professor_to_oversee_plant_gene_research. Accessed November 13, 2009.