Although plant sterols (phytosterols) were chemically described in 1922, their biological role in human and animal health has been underestimated. Their ability to control cholesterol plasma levels in hypercholesterolimic patients was first described in 1983 when the structure of phytosterols implied that they could, by steric hindrance, inhibit the absorption of cholesterol from our diets. This has led to the development of functional foods containing high contents of these plant molecules or their esters as cholesterol controlling foods. Over the last 15 years, however, several reports have appeared in the literature indicating that phytosterols have some immunological activity as highlighted in animal models of inflammation or even in in-vitro and in-vivo models of cancer (colorectal and breast cancer). These findings were paralleled by epidemiological studies correlating the reduced risk of numerous diseases and the dietary intake of phytosterols. It is only in the last 10 years, however, that their direct immune modulatory activity on human lymphocytes has been proven and the mechanism of action in cancer cells has been elucidated. The use of phytosterols as supportive therapies in certain chronic conditions has been tested under clinical trial conditions. This review presents a summary of the in-vitro and in-vivo studies published to date.
Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
Correspondence to Professor Patrick J.D. Bouic, Immunology Unit, Department of Medical Microbiology, Faculty of Health Sciences, Tygerberg Hospital, PO Box 19063, Tygerberg 7505, South Africa. Tel: +27 21 938 4035; fax: +27 21 938 4005; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org