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Student's Research Project Tests Green Tea Against Breast Cancer

Thursday, June 11, 2015
Abigail Etters working in a lab.

Testing Alternatives: Etters research focused on determining whether green tea could be used to complement or even replace traditional medicines.

Green tea has been widely purported to be beneficial for a variety of reasons, even being credited with increased longevity, and an ability to fend off some cancers. But senior biochemistry major and pre-med student Abigail Etters needed data before she would be convinced of the beverage's benefits.

Etters, from Oceanside, California, has had the opportunity to test the substance's interaction with breast cancer estrogen receptors as part of a year-long research project at Rose-Hulman. Estrogen receptor positive breast cancers are commonly treated with drugs such as Tamoxifen, which inhibit cancer cell growth by blocking estrogens from stimulating cell proliferation.

During this project, Etters sought to determine if isolated green tea compounds also bind to the receptors, and if so, how well. Could, she wondered, green tea be used to complement or even replace traditional medicines?

Her research was done with the guidance of Rose-Hulman Associate Professor of Chemistry, Ross Weatherman, PhD. Weatherman has been studying breast cancer for more than 15 years.

"When I found out Dr. Weatherman was researching breast cancer, I automatically wanted to join his team," Etters says.

She approached Weatherman with the idea of testing the effects of green tea. Like Etters, he was intrigued by the possibility, but skeptical of all of the hype surrounding green tea.

"If you can't explain how it works then I'm much less likely to believe that it works," he says. So Etters, with Weatherman's blessing, began researching if and how green tea alters the estrogen receptor function.

Over the past year, she discovered that green tea does have an effect on estrogen receptors.

"These green tea compounds do in fact bind to estrogen receptors to a lesser degree than the common drugs that are out there for breast cancer," she says.

A self-proclaimed tea connoisseur, Etters was encouraged by the results of her research.

"I was hoping to learn more about how green tea interacts with the body. It's been rumored to have all of these healthy results and now I finally have data to back it up."

And while the effects weren't nearly as strong as traditional medicines, Etters says the research experience served another purpose. She will now be able to draw on this base of knowledge during her summer internship in the Pediatric Oncology Education Program at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

Weatherman says that although the research process can be very frustrating at times, it can also be very rewarding.

"You've learned something, so the next step is asking why is it not quite good enough? How can we make it better? One of the great things about Abigail is that she's a very optimistic person. She'll keep trying and trying," he adds.