Vol. 238 August 15, 2020 Science Marches On . . . Slowly

Beware of Dietary Supplements
I have written before in this space about the uncertainties about the benefits and safety of dietary supplements (a $46 billion industry). The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not provide the regulation, safety testing, and approval of supplements the way it does for pharmaceuticals. It does host a database of adverse effects called the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Adverse Event Reporting (CAERS,pronounced CARES) which depends on individual consumer reporting.  It is used very little. About 2% of possible adverse events are reported annually. This scant data does not allow the FDA to”build a case” about the harm of any specific dietary supplement. It took seven years for the FDA to collect 23 reports to ban a supplement causing lethal liver damage. The FDA–unlike with drugs–is not required to publicize results of investigations into dietary supplements or even tell the public about one. (Consumer Reports, Sept. 2020)

“The FDA’s delayed response–with its life-threatening consequences–is attributable to our woefully inadequate system for monitoring supplement safety.” NEJM 2014, Pieter Cohn, MD

While consumer and academic groups clamor for improvement of the FDA’s evaluation and monitoring process for dietary supplements, what can we do as individuals? CR suggests we ask three questions before taking a dietary supplement:

1. Does it work?
Manufacturers don’t have to prove that it can work and can make almost any claim in an ad, but many dietary supplements have been studied extensively by others. CR’s own Guide to Natural Cures (CR.org/naturalcures0920) summarizes what is known about more than a dozen supplements and natural remedies or the NIH Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets (ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list/all) will help you sort the wheat from the chaff.

2. Is it safe?
Unlike medications, dietary supplements do not come in standardized doses and forms. Just because it is “natural” it doesn’t mean it is safe. Use the CAERS database  to report possible harm from a supplement.

3. What’s in it?
The FDA doesn’t routinely test supplements. More than a third of echinacea or turmeric products tested by CR had elevated levels of lead or bacteria, or low levels of active compounds. For information about ingredient compounds you can go to the non-profit U.S. Pharmacopeia site. (USP) or CR.org/supplements0920.

“The current system, in effect, benefits the supplement companies far more than the consumers.” (CR, Sept. 2020, pg.37)

Tomatoes are NOW good for you?!
For years a scientifically-trained friend of mine has been telling me that tomatoes are bad for my smoldering arthritis. Not a great thing to hear by someone who lives for fresh local tomatoes in August. The tomato belongs to the Solanacae family of nightshade root vegetables (or fruits) –all of which contain a compound called sloanine which in large amounts can be toxic. Belladonna, of course, is the “deadly nightshade root.” But the amount found in tomatoes is extremely low. There is no research that nightshade roots cause inflammation.

In fact, a tomato gets its rich red color from a compound called lycopene, a powerful anti-oxidant. Lycopene may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, protect against skin cancer, and help maintain bone mass in aging women. To absorb the maximum amount of lycopene from a tomato you should either slice and dice, puree, cook, and mix it with olive oil, avocado, or cheese.  “The phytochemicals in tomatoes have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect.” Thank you CR. (On Health Consumer Reports, Sept. 2020)

Here’s the reason behind what you already know: “In an attempt to create firm, round, pest-resistant fruit, big agriculture accidentally bred out the flavor gene. Sun-ripened [local] tomatoes have more flavor and more lycopene.” ( NYU dietician  Alisa Scherban R.D.)

One Reason It Takes a While to Develop a Coronavirus Vaccine
All vaccines and medications are first tested for safety and efficacy in animals, almost always starting with laboratory white mice. Our Covid-19 virus has no effect on conventional lab mouse. It doesn’t make them ill. So, how to test a new vaccine?

When scientists first heard about Covid-19 in February 2020 and knew that conventional lab mice would not suffice, they frantically searched the literature and found that in 2007 a researcher studying vaccines for the SARS epidemic had engineered a mouse that developed lung damage when infected with a corona virus. When the SARS epidemic and the research funding petered out that strain of mice susceptible to corona virus was not maintained. None of those mice were still alive in 2020! BUT, the researcher had frozen sperm from them. 

Sixteen vials of the sperm were flown to Jackson Lab in Maine (the world’s best and biggest source of laboratory mice since 1929) and the process of generating 1200 transgenic mouse pups susceptible to Covid-19 was begun. The months required to build a large enough colony to meet the testing demands from multiple labs from around the world were filled with impatient pleas from researchers for the special mice. By mid-June Jackson Lab was trucking them out on eighteen wheelers. (New Yorker,August 17, 2020, Raffi Khatchadourian)

A five month wait to obtain the test animals to study Covid-19 seems like a long “delay”, but remember it has taken five years or more to develop an effective vaccine against other viruses.

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