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Supplements seen as anti-cancer benefit are focus of concern

Resveratrol, one of the most fashionable of dietary supplements made from ingredients found in the skin of red grapes and berries, has been marketed for its anti-aging and anti-cancer benefits.

But a new study by Oregon Health & Science University says it may also be a teratogen, capable of causing major birth defects.

Specifically, researchers at OHSU’s National Primate Research Center have found that the offspring of pregnant monkeys who were given the supplement developed significant abnormalities in their pancreases.

Ironically, the OHSU researchers and colleagues at the University of Colorado-Denver were engaged in a study looking at the potential benefits of resveratrol. The supplement is considered an anti-oxidant and an anti-inflammatory, so it was hypothesized that it might offer fetuses protection in cases where their mothers engaged in high-fat, obesity-producing diets.

Researchers found that resveratrol provided some of the benefits for which they were looking. Monkeys fed western-style diets that featured 36 percent fat calories and regular doses of resveratrol were measured against a control group of monkeys fed the high-fat diet without the supplements. The resveratrol-fed animals lost a significant amount of weight and experienced increased blood flow to their fetuses — both positives. But the pancreases in the fetuses they carried were enlarged by an average of 42 percent.

The pancreas is critical for the body’s regulation of blood glucose.

The study authors, including Dr. Antonio Frias, director of the diabetes and pregnancy program at OHSU’s Center for Women’s Health, say they think obstetricians should advise pregnant women and women who might plan on becoming pregnant not to take resveratrol supplements.

Frias says though resveratrol is mostly associated with red wine and grapes, he doesn’t think there is a prenatal danger from women consuming too much of the compound without supplements. Concern about birth defects from all types of drinking should keep women from drinking red wine during pregnancy, according to Frias. And, he says, the amount of resveratrol found in grapes is much lower than in supplements.

A cup of red grapes contains less than a milligram of resveratrol. A cup of red wine has half a milligram to a milligram. The supplements, however, contain 250 to 500 milligrams of resveratrol.

Frias says the greatest danger from resveratrol probably comes from women taking the supplements before they realize they are pregnant. Most dietary supplements, unlike pharmaceuticals, have had very little controlled testing to discover their potential dangers.

“It underscores that we need to test a safety profile for these supplements,” Frias says. “When you take a high dose of these things in isolation, there may be some negative side effects.”

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