What to make of estrogen? Does the female sex hormone's potential to protect women, and even men, against an array of illnesses foreshadow a research bonanza? Or will its use, in natural and synthetic forms, always be compromised by serious side effects, including an increased risk of cancer? A steady flow of academic articles and announcements from university research centers indicates widespread interest in such questions, but the asking seems much easier than the answering.

"Estrogen" is a generic term for synthetic substances and a family of natural hormones formed by the ovary, placenta, and testes; possibly by the adrenal cortex; and by certain plants. In the United States, estrogen replacement therapy generally derives from a mixture of natural hormones obtained from the urine of pregnant mares. Despite estrogen's well-established ability to protect against osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease, less than one-fifth of postmenopausal women ever take estrogen supplements (L.M. Salamone...

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