Pat Murphy, Food Science and Human Nutrition, (515) 294- 1970
Mary Ann Evans, IWISE, (515) 294-5883
Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917
KENYAN SCIENTIST MAKES IMPORTANT ISOFLAVONE ADVANCE WHILE AT ISU
AMES, Iowa -- A new method for synthesizing a difficult-to- make isoflavone, a cancer-fighting substance found in some plants, was developed by a Kenyan scientist visiting Iowa State University this past summer. Organic chemist Caroline Lang'at, of Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, worked with Iowa State food toxicologist Pat Murphy to develop a much simpler method for synthesizing a key chemical compound in making the isoflavone glycitein.
Lang'at's work was part of her participation in Iowa State's International Women in Science and Engineering (IWISE) summer workshop. The workshop teaches leadership skills to women scientists from around the world. It is the only program of its type in existence, said Mary Ann Evans, IWISE co- director.
A simple way of making glycitein could be a boon for research into isoflavones, Murphy explained. Isoflavones are found naturally in some plants, most notably soy. There are three isoflavones in soy -- genistein, daidzein and glycitein -- that act like natural estrogens. Nutritionists believe these compounds reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and age-related cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. But nutritionists don't entirely understand how or why.
Researchers know a lot about genistein and daidzein because they are easy to obtain. But glycitein has been something of a mystery with relatively little lab work done on it due to its scarcity. That should change with Lang'at's process, Murphy said. She adds that knowing how all three compounds act together will give researchers a much clearer picture of what makes these compounds healthful to consumers.
"This area is very hot right now," said Murphy, who explained that large companies like Monsanto and ADM are making their way into the "functional foods" market, and consumer interest has spurred research into all facets of isoflavones.
An organic chemist by training, Lang'at provided the expertise Murphy lacked and helped devise a much simpler way to make glycitein. Gone was the exacting, multi-step process, literally replaced by a simpler mix and microwave method.
"What Caroline did was come up with a way to make a key intermediate (an essential chemical to obtain glycitein) in a process of 'organic chemistry for dummies,'" Murphy said. "Caroline sort of came up with a cake recipe. It's a one-bowl process. That's the beauty of it."
Murphy's research group has submitted a paper to the Journal of Ag and Food Chemistry, a professional journal, in the hopes of making Lang'at's process known to a wide range of researchers. She thinks that with an abundance of glycitein, researchers will get the whole picture of what makes isoflavones so beneficial when consumed by humans.
"Anyone wanting to study isoflavone metabolism needs to look at the whole picture," Murphy said. "It's like eating tomatoes or oranges. You can get vitamin C, vitamin E or carotenoids by themselves, but it's all of the other things in fresh foods that work together to cause the health enhancing effect."
During the eight-week IWISE program, Lang'at was given access to an advanced laboratory and volumes of scientific literature, two key resources she often lacks in Kenya. Also during her stay in Ames, Lang'at took part in seminars on leadership skills and grant proposal writing, visited several Midwestern companies and research centers, and built up a network of researchers half a world away from her home.
The program "provides much needed exposure to recent advances in one's area of research, and the opportunity to work in established laboratories and conduct collaborative research with U.S. scientists," Lang'at said. "This program can boost a woman's scientific career enabling her to compete more effectively in a male-dominated field." Lang'at has already recommended the program to other Kenyan women scientists.
IWISE co-director Evans added that the three-year-old program has had various positive effects on its participants. "I think these women benefit in a lot of different ways depending on their own personality and needs, and the matches we make with ISU scientists. Some of our summer participants, like Caroline Lang'at, have really opened doors for themselves through their participation."
When Lang'at returned to Kenya she received a surprise. She had been named chair of the chemistry department at Kenyatta University.
"Having completed the IWISE program has made it easier for me to face my new challenge," Lang'at said.
IWISE is a program of the International Institute for Theoretical and Applied Physics, a collaboration between Iowa State University and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Ardith Maney, ISU professor of political science, is an IWISE co-director.
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IWISE co-directors Mary Ann Evans and Ardith Maney will be in Africa the week of December 7. They return to Ames on Dec. 20, but can be reached during their travel time. Contact Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917, if you'd like to get in contact with them
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