New NIH centers to unlock botanical complexity and ‘inform consumer decisions’

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Herb

The National Institutes of Health has announced the funding of five new research centers to further study the safety, effectiveness, and biological action of botanical products.

The competitive awards, approximately $1.5 million each per year for five years, are part of the Botanical Research Centers (BRC) Program, which is entering its third five-year cycle, with two three of the five centers new additions to the program.

The five interdisciplinary and collaborative dietary supplement centers will be jointly funded by the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and supported by the National Cancer Institute

"Eventually, the program may provide data that translates to new ways to reduce disease risk,"​ explained Paul Coates, PhD, director of ODS. "Until then, the research from these centers will help the public make informed decisions about botanical dietary supplements."

"Botanicals are usually complex mixtures of many active constituents,"​ added Josephine Briggs, M.D., director of NCCAM. "This complexity poses some unique research challenges that these centers are well positioned to address."

The centers are:

  • Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University System​, Baton Rouge. Led by William Cefalu, MD​. This center will focus on the potential of botanicals, such as Artemisia and St. John's wort to reduce the risk of developing conditions that often lead to metabolic syndrome and of developing metabolic syndrome itself
  • University of Illinois at Chicago​. Led by Norman Farnsworth, PhD​. This center will focus on botanical dietary supplements for women's health, with an added emphasis on the safety of supplements like black cohosh and licorice
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign​. Led by William Helferich, PhD​. This center will focus on botanical estrogens, such as soy, wild yam, and dong quai, and their safety efficacy and mechanism of action.
  • University of Missouri​. Led by Dennis Lubahn, PhD​. This new center will look at the safety and efficacy of botanical dietary supplements, such as elderberry and garlic, particularly in relation to signaling pathways.
  • Wake Forest University Health Sciences​. Under the leadership of Floyd Chilton, III, PhD​, this center will focus on botanical lipids, such as borage oil, and their role in preventing or affecting disease, especially relating to immunity and inflammation.


Commenting on the announcement, Dr Stephen Dentali, chief science officer for the American Herbal Products Association said: "This type of long term research funding by ODS and NCCAM is critical to discovering mechanisms of how herbs work in the body and is consistent with NCCAM’s strategic plan regarding natural product research.

"It’s vital to establish a basic science foundation so an eventual return to clinical trials will be maximally informative. This approach has been well thought out and was the subject of NCCAM’s Think Tank on Natural Products Day held in March of this year for which I was an invited participant.

"I would also like to say that it’s heartening to see the Botanical Dietary Supplements for Women's Health Research Center under Norman Farnsworth, Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago receiving continued funding because it remains a model of well informed interdisciplinary botanical research,"​ added Dr Dentali.

Proferssor Farnsworth was also highlighted for acclaim by Mark Blumenthal from the American Botanical Council (ABC), who told NutraIngredients-USA: "The news that the University of Illinois at Chicago was given its 3rd (I believe) 5-year NIH-NCCAM Botanical Center grant is well received here at the American Botanical Council, as the principal investigator, Prof Norman Farnsworth, is a co-founder of ABC and is still on the ABC Board of Trustees.

“His group has published more papers based on their focused area of botanicals and women's health than any other NIH-funded botanical center has published in their respective foci,”​ he added.

Blumenthal also said that there could be less ‘negative publicity’ about herbs. “With NCCAM's announced focus on mechanistic research on botanicals, we will probably see less clinical trial publications, and the resultant negative publicity that usually ensues from trials with negative outcomes, in favor of hopefully more positive outcomes from the basic pharmacology and mechanism of action studies.

"After all, as most of us in the herb community already know, herbs work! Hopefully, the research at the NCCAM-funded centers will confirm this truism,”​ said Blumenthal.

Blooming sales

According to a report from the ABC, US sales of herbal supplements in mainstream market channels last year saw the largest growth levels in recent memory.

Published in the current issue of ABC’s journal HerbalGram​, the report identified a 14 percent sales hike in this channel, to reach a total of $335,585,700 for 2009.

When other market channels are included in the equation, the overall all sales increase dips to 5 percent, with total estimated sales of just over $5bn.

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