Hops, the flower cones used in beer-making, are also found in dietary supplements designed to help treat post-menopausal symptoms and other conditions.
Scientists are now investigating whether an extract from the plant could help fend off breast cancer.
In the American Chemical Society’s journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, one team reports new lab tests on breast cells that support this possibility.
In the US, breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in women.
Exposure to estrogen has long been considered one of the risk factors associated with developing the disease, particularly in post-menopausal women.
Those undergoing menopause often use hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, to alleviate symptoms such as hot flashes.
However, HRT has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and heart disease, so some women are turning to hops supplements, which contain phytoestrogens, as a natural alternative.
However, their effect on cancer risk is unclear.
Preliminary laboratory studies have suggested that certain active compounds from hops could have protective properties.
Building on this lead, Judy L. Bolton and colleagues used an enriched hop extract to test its effects on estrogen metabolism, one of the processes in the development of breast cancer.
The researchers applied the extract to two different breast cell lines to see how they would affect estrogen metabolism.
One particular hops compound called 6-prenylnaringenin, or 6-PN, boosted the cells’ detoxification pathway that studies have associated with a lower risk for breast cancer.
Thus the results suggest that 6-PN could have anti-cancer effects, although more studies would be needed to further investigate this possibility, the researchers say.
The authors acknowledge funding from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Office of Dietary Supplements, both at the National Institutes of Health.