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Isoflavones are part of a family of phytoestrogens primarily found in soybeans that may be beneficial to human health. Genistein is an isoflavone derivative related to coumarin that shows significant potential as a natural anticancer agent and is included in a variety of dietary supplements.

In soy plants, isoflavones serve a variety of functions, playing a significant role in the coloration of the beans produced, protection against bacterial and fungal infections, and cell regulation. Similarly, when consumed by humans, isoflavones and their derivatives, such as genistein, are believed to produce several different health benefits in addition to providing nutritional value. Though studies are ongoing, research indicates that these health benefits are fourfold, due to the activity of the substances as estrogens and antiestrogens, as cancer-enzyme inhibitors, as antioxidants, and as immune system enhancers.

In Asian countries, the amount of soy products, and consequently genistein, consumed is much greater than in Western Europe or the Americas. This information, along with the fact that epidemiological studies show that mortality rates for breast, colon, and prostate cancers are lower in Asian countries than other parts of the world, has caused a significant amount of interest in the medical sphere in recent years as the search for cancer-fighting drugs has escalated. Yet, some scientists have been quick to discover that genistein may not work the same for all people. Most notably, a series of studies led by William G. Helferich at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that isoflavone-enhanced nutritional supplements containing genistein may counteract the anticancer effects of tamoxifen, a drug often prescribed for women combating estrogen-dependent breast cancer.



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