GAO report on dietary supplement flaws released today in Senate hearing

Regular readers know that I hold equivocal views of the broad area of dietary supplements, particularly botanical supplements. On one hand, I have seen some great new compounds come from the systematic investigation of herbal and fungal concoctions to the point that 25% of prescription drugs are derived from natural products. On the other hand, some corners of the dietary supplement industry are little more than turn-of-the-last-century snake oil operations, with offenses so egregious that even their own trade associations try to distance themselves from those who adulterate, mislabel, and misrepresent their wares.
Just use the search box in the left sidebar and search this blog for “adulteration” to get a flavor for some examples (here, I’ve done it for you). Here’s one I haven’t gotten to that I just found thanks to the article mentioned below: the May 1 FDA consumer warning (but not recall) on Vita Breath supplement (for plumb fresh breath!) because it contains 10,000 times the lead content permitted in candy.
In today’s New York Times, Gardiner Harris gives us a preview of a report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) that will be presented to a Senate hearing in preparation for an overall plan on US food safety.

Nearly all of the herbal dietary supplements tested in a Congressional investigation contained trace amounts of lead and other contaminants, and some supplement sellers made illegal claims that their products can cure cancer and other diseases, investigators found. . .
. . . Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat who will preside over Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said that while improvements had been made in recent years in the oversight of supplements, “the F.D.A. needs the authority and tools to ensure that dietary supplements are as safe and effective as is widely perceived by the Americans who take them.”
Among the witnesses at the hearing will be Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of, a company that has tested over 2,000 dietary supplements made by more than 300 manufacturers and has found that one in four have quality problems. According to Dr. Cooperman’s written testimony, the most common problems are supplements that lack adequate quantities of the indicated ingredients and those contaminated with heavy metals.

Go read and draw your own conclusions. I’ll look forward to seeing the whole report.
P.S. – I may be a little punchy today after a few days of grant reviews but I love that the Senator from Wisconsin is named “Herb.” In fact, Senator Kohl has been a big supporter of the Wisconsin ginseng industry. And Steve Mister, president of the trade group Council for Responsible Nutrition, is referred to as Mr. Mister. I can only think of this.

Horny Goat Weed (Epimedium spp.) is a limp excuse for Viagra, Cialis

Reuters and Bloomberg reported earlier this week on an ongoing patent battle (read: pissing match) between Pfizer and Eli Lilly & Co. relating to their erectile dysfunction drugs Viagra and Cialis, respectively.
Goat.jpgA US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) appeals committee has ruled that an element of Pfizer’s patent on sildenafil, the active chemical in Viagra, is invalid because the drug is insufficiently different from a traditional Chinese medicine called Yin Yang Huo or horny goat weed.
At issue is Pfizer’s claim to a method for treating male erectile dysfunction. The patent appeals panel ruled that the method did not constitute a new invention because of the precedent set by Yin Yang Huo. Moreover, the board ruled that chemicals found in the herbal medicine act by the same mechanism as sildenafil by inhibition of an enzyme called phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE5). Therefore, the panel ruled, “the patent claim was the next logical step up from using the herb.”
I’m not an expert in law but there are untold number of traditional remedies touted for all sorts of sexual enhancement, none of which have the convincing efficacy of the prescription PDE5 inhibitors. We may call the condition “erectile dysfunction” today and the idea of treating it may have existed for centuries but having a compound that can actually do anything about it is an invention. However, I can see the fine distinction if Pfizer claimed that the idea of treating erectile dysfunction was an invention.
You lawyers out there can weigh in but this sounds like a bunch of posturing for market share: worldwide Viagra sales were $2 billion USD last year.
But what is this horny goat weed and why is it being singled out?

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Update: Rocky Mountain High and the Serious Side of Colorado Medical Marijuana

Update: New ScienceBlogs colleague, Sharon Astyk at Casaubon’s Book, brought my attention to the fact that this local southern Colorado story has been picked up by CNN.
Although I originally wrote this post rather tongue-in-cheek, some scientific evidence has accumulated for the benefits of cannabis in neuropathic pain, cancer pain and nausea, as well as muscle spasticity in multiple sclerosis. For what appears to be a subset of individuals, marijuana is superior to prescription drugs in terms of efficacy and side effect profile. Equivocal results with a standardized cannabis extract oromucosal spray product have just been reported in this review.
In 2000, Coloradans voted to approve Amendment 20 to the state constitution which permits dispensaries to provide marijuana to up to 200 approved patients. This cap has since been lifted, leading to a sharp increase in medical marijuana use in the state.
Patients enroll with the Colorado Medical Marijuana Registry of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (four-page PDF description here, forms here). As of 31 August 2009, the state reported that 14,377 patients hold registry cards; consistent with the known clinical efficacy of marijuana, the most commonly approved use is for muscle spasms, representing 29% of approved users.
As one might suspect, marijuana dispensaries of various sorts have sprouted up all across the state. With regulation developing slowly, some resemble glorified head shops while other are sterile clinical offices. As a result, Westword, the local independent weekly, has enlisted two dispensary reviewers who are each state-certified medical marijuana patients. Westword’s Joel Warner wrote in greater detail back in February about the literal Wild West of Colorado’s medical marijuana industry.
An even more unclear area is who is actually authorized to grow cannabis to wholesale to dispensaries. Currently, one applies to be a “care-giver” but one is only a care-giver if a registered patient lists one as such – an odd chicken-or-the-egg arrangement. In late October, the state ruled that care-givers/growers must do more than provide cannabis; they must also provide supportive medical or social services. A hearing had been scheduled for this Wednesday, 16 December, to repeal this supportive care stipulation but the CDPHE has now indicated the hearing is postponed.
So, the state of medical marijuana in Colorado is very much in a state of flux.

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How to report in vitro cancer studies: maitake mushroom extract doesn’t “fight cancer”

ResearchBlogging.orgEarlier this week, I saw one of the best treatments of a misinterpreted story that has me thinking about how all news outlets should report in vitro laboratory studies.
Only thing is that it didn’t come from a news outlet.
It came instead from a brainwashing site run by those medical socialist types – I am, of course, speaking of the UK National Health Service and their excellent patient education website, NHS Choices.
You may recall reading in the popular dead-tree or online press that investigators from New York Medical College in Valhalla published in British Journal of Urology International about maitake mushroom extract killing bladder cancer cells. The most widely cited reports came from the UK Daily Mail by Tamara Cohen entitled, “Mushroom ‘shrinks cancer tumours by 75 percent,'” and “Cancer Cure: Mushrooms Can Shrink Tumors,” by Jo Willey of the UK Daily Express.
Well, NHS Choices took a look at the study and detailed how the mushroom extract was only used on bladder cells in culture. Throughout their review and in the conclusion that follows, they specifically took to task the story in the Daily Express:

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On the Origin of Witches, Broomsticks, and Flying

This post appeared here originally on 31 October 2007

Have you ever wondered, perhaps on 31 October, why witches are depicted as riding brooms?
The answer is alluded to by Karmen Franklin at Chaotic Utopia in her post as to why witches need to know their plant biology.
The excerpts I’m about to give you come from a superb and accessible pharmacology text entitled, “Murder, Magic, and Medicine,” by John Mann, host of the BBC Radio 4 series by the same name.

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Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz, and Ada Yonath win 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Welcome visitors coming from a recommendation by Dr Carmen Drahl at CENtral Science, the blog of the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN):

Terra Sig has a fantastic post about the chemistry prize. The money quote: “If I see electrons being pushed around, it’s chemistry.”

Thank you for the kind words, Dr Drahl. New readers, feel free to weigh in down in the comments as to your take on this year’s Chemistry prize.

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to three amazing scientists who elucidated the chemical bond-by-chemical bond action of the cell’s protein synthesis organelle, the ribosome. Each of the three laureates employed three-dimensional, X-ray crystallographic structures and naturally-occurring antibiotics to dissect the mysteries of the ribosome, making tremendous advances in our knowledge on the least understood process of the central dogma of molecular biology: protein synthesis.

Yes, friends: this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry would not have been possible without the awesome power of natural products and the contributions of my natural products chemistry colleagues who provided Ramakrishnan, Steitz, and Yonath with the chemical tools for their work.

Literally dozens of these antibiotics are used clinically around the world and I guarantee that if you possess the relative wealth to have an internet connection to read this, you have taken at least one of these antibiotics.

Tetracycline? Check. Erythromycin or azithromycin? Check.

The scientific background on the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (PDF) is, as always, the best place for advanced students to start reading about the context of the scientific achievements of the three laureates. These are terrific, underappreciated, and meticulously constructed review articles, and this one by Måns Ehrenberg is no exception. Page 14, for example, provides a detailed list of the antibiotics that target the small and large ribosomal subunits of bacteria.

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Pediatric cancer patient checks in at age 55; beneficiary of Dr Charlotte Tan’s actinomycin D work

gary grenell.jpgI love it when new readers stumble upon old posts.
Such was the case when I received the following delightful comment from Seattle-based psychologist, Dr Gary Grenell, on my April 2008 post about the passing of Dr Charlotte Tan, a pediatric cancer chemotherapy pioneer:

I was probably in one of her earliest actionmycin-D trial groups for Wilms tumor in 1957. Now at age 55, 52 years later, still going strong!

Most of you scientific youngsters today probably only know of actinomycin D as a laboratory tool for inhibiting RNA synthesis. But here in the following repost, learn about the bacteria-to-bench-to-bedside application of actinomycin D:

This post appeared originally on 4 April 2008.
Childhood cancer chemotherapy pioneer, Dr Charlotte Tan, dies at 84
Charlotte%20Tan.jpgActinomycin D was the first antitumor antibiotic isolated from Streptomyces parvallus cultures by the lab of 1952 Nobel laureate, Dr Selman Waksman, at Rutgers University. However, it took a young Chinese physician and the confidence in her by a future US Surgeon General for this natural product drug to positively impact the lives of children with cancer.

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Sage advice?: NC to join 13 states in outlawing Salvia divinorum

ResearchBlogging.orgSalvia divinorum (Salvia, Magic Mint) is a plant used for entheogenic purposes by the Mazatec people of Mexico. A relative of the common garden plant “scarlet sage” (Salvia splendens), S. divinorum contains several hallucinogens that include salvinorin A, the first non-nitrogenous agonist known for kappa opioid receptors (KOR).
I had known of salvinorin A since a highly-cited 2002 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper by Bryan Roth, Richard Rothman and colleagues (full text here). At that time, I had read several anecdotal reports (that I cannot locate now) that the hallucinations rendered by Salvia ingestion or smoking were so bizarre and disturbing that 8 of 10 first-time users declared they would not use it again. Hence, I never really thought that Salvia would become much of a public health problem or be embraced by recreational hallucinogen enthusiasts.
However, just Google “Salvia” and take a gander at the ads on the right sidebar.
I’m still not certain if Salvia is enough of a public health problem to warrant legislation but we just learned this week that North Carolina will join 13 other US states in criminalizing possession and use of the plant or extracts made thereof:

A bill that would outlaw the psychoactive herb Salvia divinorum has passed the state Senate, prompting consumers to rush to buy it legally.
Senate Bill 138, sponsored by Sen. Bill Purcell, D-Laurinburg, would prohibit the “manufacture, sale, delivery, or possession” of Salvia divinorum. The law calls for a fine for the first two offenses and misdemeanor charges for subsequent offenses. Purcell stressed that North Carolina’s law would not be as strict as those of 13 states, which made Salvia divinorum a drug on par with heroin.

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Heroin Hits The Heartland

When one thinks of a heroin user, thoughts most often come to mind of a person living in squalor in a big metropolitan city or that of an artsy, poetic hipster (while there are many literary works on the life of heroin users, my all-time favorite is Basketball Diaries, an autobiographical account written by Jim Carroll during the ages of 12 to 15. From this description of Carroll’s two works on his life with heroin at the website of Carroll scholar, Dr Cassie Carter: “After reading about 30 pages of the Diaries, [Jack] Kerouac stated that ‘at the age of 13, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89 per cent of the novelists working today'”
And when one thinks of drug problems in place like Ohio or Iowa, clandestine synthesis of the drug in trailers is usually what I first think of.
These notions are shattered on the front page of today’s Sunday New York Times in an excellent article by Randel C. Archibold with Antonio Betancourt.

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Poppy seed tea can kill you

A little over a week ago, we posted on the very sad story of the accidental death of a University of Colorado sophomore from ingesting poppy seed tea. The poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the commercial source for prescription narcotic painkillers such as morphine and codeine. The seeds can be had online and in retail stores. The plants can often be grown if these seeds are not roasted or otherwise sterilized.
I had originally suspected that the CU-Boulder student had not used poppy seed tea but rather some other decoction of the plant itself. I had always contended that the seeds did not contain appreciable amounts of morphine, codeine, or other opiate-related molecules. However, it appears that I am wrong.

Commenter Tom
just shared with me the absolutely heartbreaking story of the death of his 17-year-old son from poppy seed tea:

Just a note regarding your statement: “A previous report has been that the student and friends were boiling up poppy seeds, but I was suspicious as those lack significant amounts of opiates.”.
Our son died 6 years ago from exactly the same causes as the man in this case. Except that my did in fact use only poppy seeds, in large amounts. Even though there is no Morphine in the seeds, they contain traces from the rest of the plant from the processing/harvesting. We have put up a Web site that includes the coroner’s report stating that cause of death was indeed Morphine overdose from poppy seed tea. You can find our Web site at:

I spent some time on Tom’s site, Poppy Seed Tea Can Kill You, and I just have to say that I am in awe of the effort and courage this gentleman has undertaken to keep other kids and other parents from experiencing the same tragedy.

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