Guest Post: “Perception is Power: How the Supplement Industry Bought Deregulation” by Tien Nguyen
Oct15

Guest Post: “Perception is Power: How the Supplement Industry Bought Deregulation” by Tien Nguyen

Today’s guest post is from Tien Nguyen, an organic chemistry grad student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Tien is passionate about science outreach through the printed word, social media, and multimedia. On Twitter @mustlovescience and at her blog Must Love Science, she posts about timely chemistry topics and showcases the educational videos about chemistry that she helps create, including “The Fresh Bread of Bel-Air”. She is also a regular contributor to the RSC Catalysis Science & Technology Blog. Here she discusses a chapter of a new book that’s galvanized her views on science communication. Take it away, Tien! In 2008, more than 200 people were poisoned by massive doses of selenium in liquid multivitamin supplements, Total Body Formula and Total Body Mega Formula. One of the victims was a telephone repairman named John Adams. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Adams experienced severe loss of hair, fingernails and toenails and fatigue. He eventually became too exhausted to work and was forced to retire. Other symptoms of selenium poisoning include diarrhea, joint pain, cramps and blistering skin. The FDA found that on average each Total Body serving contained 40,800 micrograms instead of 200 micrograms as planned. Nearly 50,000 supplement related adverse health effects are reported each year. Most supplements, like the Total Body Formula multivitamins, have not undergone any safety testing nor were they required to by law. That’s because almost 20 years ago, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, establishing that dietary supplements—vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars (materials from animal organs, glands or tissues) and metabolites—do not have to submit to FDA safety testing before being available to the public. Referring to the Act’s passage, author Dan Hurley wrote, “So began an unprecedented experiment to test whether the unbridled use of vitamins and other supplements would help or hinder health, with the American public as the guinea pig.” As long as a supplement is labelled as such and includes a disclaimer stating the lack of approval from the FDA, the bottle is cleared for supermarket shelves. If, after wide circulation, the supplement causes adverse health effects, like organ failure or death, the FDA can step in and pull it off the market. Say what? Oh, you didn’t know supplements were totally exempt from pre-market safety regulations? Neither did 68 percent of Americans, according to a 2002 Harris poll. Nor did I, until earlier this year when I reviewed Paul Offit’s new book, “Do you Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.” He dedicates a chapter to the DSHEA, setting the stage with a...

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Lazy Cakes And Melatonin: The Sleepy Snack
Jun07

Lazy Cakes And Melatonin: The Sleepy Snack

SeeArrOh has the straight dope on a controversial snack product. SeeArrOh is a Ph.D. chemist working in industry. (An homage to Terra Sigillata; it might normally be covered on his beat.) Astute readers of the New York Times may have noticed a front-page article from a few weeks back, highlighting a new late-night snack: Lazy Cakes.  Taking a cue, perhaps, from the substance-laced brownies popular in the late ‘60s, these brownies pack a decidedly sleepy secret: each contains a “proprietary calming blend” of ingredients, chief among which is melatonin.  Melatonin is a hormone usually secreted by the pineal gland (a pinecone-shaped gland located just above the cerebellum) in humans and other mammals, in response to dark surroundings.  (Note: Although they sound similar, melatonin should not be confused for melanin, the skin pigment formed by sunlight exposure) In mammals, melatonin induces the circadian rhythms associated with sleep, affects the onset of puberty and may help regulate DNA transcription.1,2 Biologically derived from tryptophan, the amino acid and purported suspect of the Thanksgiving “turkey coma”, melatonin has been shown clinically to have benefits for memory loss, in addition to antioxidant potential.  Melatonin capsules have been sold over-the-counter for insomnia and jet lag since the 1980s.  Technically speaking, the product is labeled a dietary supplement, and as such skirts regulation by the FDA.  One valid concern are possible interactions that melatonin, like other supplements, could have with prescription drugs, a topic addressed both by Terra Sig and C&E News.  More controversy over the soporific snacks springs from their colored packaging and wide availability.  This intrepid blogger ventured out into the wild to recover a sample for analysis.  The packaging, upfront, has a distinctly comic-book appeal: purple and green swirls, a trippy logo evoking That ‘70s Show, and a cartoon brownie mascot leaned back for a snooze.  The brownie itself is compact, and has quite a bit of heft for your average baked good.  The back of the wrapper evokes language usually associated with cigarette labeling: multiple tiny lines of serious text stating Recommended for Adults Only, and Do Not Drive or Operate Heavy Machinery.      The “calming blend” also includes valerian root, which is commonly found in teas and herbal supplements.  Containing sugar-decorated polycyclic lactones called iridoids, as well as valerenic acid3 derivatives, the extracts have been shown clinically to reduce anxiety and relieve insomnia.4 Passion flower extract brings a dose of alkaloids into the bedtime mix; well-known sleep inducers opium and morphine are part of this general molecular family.  The other ingredients, however, seem to just be along for the ride: current “superfruits” goji berry and açai, with the old Vitamin C standby...

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Molecular Target for Thunder God Vine
Mar21

Molecular Target for Thunder God Vine

This post appeared originally last Friday for my monthly gig at Science-Based Medicine. Thunder god vine may not be a useful herbal medicine but the compounds isolated from it are fascinating - if not as medicines, then most certainly as laboratory tools. Nature Chemical Biology recently published an article where a research team from Johns Hopkins, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Drew University in New Jersey, has determined the molecular mechanism of action of triptolide, an unusual triepoxide compound from the plant. Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F, or thunder god vine, is known as lei gong teng in Chinese traditional medicine and has a history of use as an anti-inflammatory herb. As with many traditional medicines, usage patterns do not necessarily indicate scientific validity. In fact, a Cochrane review published just last month on herbal therapies for rheumatoid arthritis indicated that the efficacy of thunder god vine was mixed. More concerning is that the herb had significant adverse effects in some trials, from hair loss to one case of aplastic anemia. Nevertheless, the herb's components have been studied since the 1970s for since they also appears to kill tumor cells in culture with nanomolar potency and have immunosuppresant activity in animal models. The group of the late natural products chemist at the University of Virginia, S. Morris Kupchan, first identified the unusual structures of triptolide and tripdiolide from Tripterygium wilfordii as described in this 1972 paper from the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Cytotoxic activity toward tumor cells in culture was used to guide the chemical fractionation of extracts. The unusual presence of three consecutive epoxides in the structures of both compounds led Kupchan to hypothesize later in Science that they target leukemia cells by covalent binding to cellular targets involved in cellular growth. As an aside for my non-chemistry readers (and I'm sure my chemist readers will correct me): Epoxides are chemically reactive groups composed of an oxygen atom bonded to two carbons; the constraints of this triangular structure and the electrons on the oxygen favor the opening of this ring and attack of other atoms such as sulfur, often present in regulatory regions of enzymes. Dare I say that the Wikipedia entry gives a pretty nice primer. The reactivity of epoxides also makes these compounds highly useful intermediates in industry, particularly in the manufacture of ethylene glycol antifreeze and industrial paints and adhesives (e.g. epoxy resins). Conventional wisdom would drive most scientists to take one look at triptolide and say that this stuff is a royal mess - so chemically reactive that it couldn't possible have a specific cellular target. It's probably too "dirty" -...

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