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Mixing Science With Herbal Supplements

Research: In an effort to increase the credibility of an industry short on evidence, a manufacturer of botanical products donates money to UCLA for a lab.


Responding to criticism that the safety and effectiveness of herb supplements are based on the flimsiest of scientific evidence, a local supplement maker has donated money to launch a research laboratory at UCLA.

Pharmanex Inc., a Simi Valley-based company that makes several botanical products, announced its donation (the sum was not disclosed) to open the Pharmanex Photochemical Laboratory at UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition. The laboratory will be under the direction of Dr. David Heber of UCLA.

The one-time donation allows Heber to equip the lab, which will then conduct testing for any clients, including Pharmanex, interested in phytochemicals. The study of phytochemicals looks at the chemistry of plant components and their medicinal value. Pharmanex announced immediate plans to begin studying numerous herbs in order to produce higher-quality products that are backed by scientific evidence. The botanical industry is largely based on anecdotal evidence. "It's an industry crying out for good science," said Ray Cooper, vice president for research and scientific affairs at Pharmanex. "We want to take the anecdotal evidence and bring it to a scientific setting. This gives us the opportunity to do well-thought-out, well-designed studies which will produce quality botanical products in a setting that is credible."

The private donation to launch an academic lab is not unusual and will not influence the scientific work performed under the auspices of UCLA, said Heber. "It's a no-strings-attached donation. It's not an exclusive relationship."

Partnering with academic researchers will allow the supplement industry to produce better products more quickly, Heber said. "These jobs are expensive. This allows Pharmanex to do this research in a very productive environment."

Supplement companies are recognizing the need to provide more scientific proof of the safety and effectiveness of their products, Cooper added. Earlier this month, the Journal of the American Medical Assn. and its sister journals published a number of articles on supplements and other forms of alternative medicine.

And last week, the Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines intended to keep supplement manufacturers from making untruthful or inaccurate claims about their products.

"I don't think we'll be unique," said Cooper of the relationship with UCLA. "We have a chance to help change the industry. Companies will either have to do their own research and development or go this route. So we believe it's money well-spent."

While Cooper declined to provide details about specific research, he said that projects at the UCLA lab will include an effort to identify which chemicals in herbs are useful to promote health or relieve disease symptoms and in what doses. Studies will also be done to ensure that the proper amount of the active ingredient ends up in each pill or tablet. The supplement industry has come under criticism for sloppy manufacturing processes that do not always ensure a substance claimed to be present is actually there.

Health professionals will be more likely to support the use of supplements if issues such as standardizing products can be resolved, Cooper said. "I think clinicians will respect good science. At the very least they can tell their patients, 'Based on the information I know, this [product] can't hurt you.' "

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