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3 Charged With Lacing Herbal Products

The founders of a now-defunct Brea company allegedly added addictive drugs.

June 13, 2003|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

The founders of an Orange County company that touted an answer to prostate cancer have been charged with secretly lacing the herbal pill and other products with highly addictive prescription drugs.

John Chen, his sister Sophie Chen and Allan Wang are scheduled to be arraigned June 23 on seven felony and seven misdemeanor counts alleging that they conspired to doctor a variety of pills with drugs -- such as the anti-anxiety medication Xanax -- and falsely promote them as cancer remedies to unsuspecting consumers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 100 words Type of Material: Correction
Herbal products -- An article in Friday's California section about BotanicLab Inc. of Brea, a company accused of doctoring herbal products with prescription drugs, incorrectly named Indomethacin as one of the company's products. Indomethacin is a prescription medicine that was allegedly found in some of the company's products. The story also incorrectly reported that state authorities found both the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the blood-thinning drug Coumadin in two of the company's herbal products, PC SPES and SPES. Health officials found alprazolam, which is sold as Xanax, in SPES; they found warfarin, which is sold as Coumadin, in PC SPES.

The criminal charges, filed May 29 by the Orange County district attorney's office and first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, are the latest developments in a case that has fueled concern about the effectiveness of regulating herbal products.

The Chens and Wang, who have not yet entered pleas in the case, face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of all charges. Neither prosecutors nor the defendants could be reached Thursday, but the company has said in the past that the products were inadvertently contaminated during shipment.

A class-action personal injury lawsuit brought by former customers is also pending against the company, BotanicLab Inc. of Brea. It closed a year ago, unable to survive after shelving nine products in question.

Former customers who believe they were victimized by the company said the criminal charges are long overdue. Tatiana Palma, 49, of Santa Monica said she is still struggling to recover from addictions she developed while taking an arthritis medication.

But two state lawmakers are not backing away from a bill they are pushing that would return one of the company's most controversial drugs to the market.

AB 421, sponsored by Assemblymen Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) and Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) would allow the continued sale of PC SPES, the herbal product offered as a prostate cancer treatment. The bill passed the Assembly with a strong majority and is now in the Senate.

"The intent is to try to help people suffering from prostate cancer," said Peter DeMarco, Cox's press secretary. DeMarco said both assemblymen survived prostate cancer, though he did not know whether they used herbal products.

The case against BotanicLab dates back more than a year and centers mostly on PC SPES. The compound was marketed as a centuries-old Chinese herbal remedy that could help boost the immune system.

Its ingredients were said to be herbal derivatives including reishi, Baikal skullcap, rabdosia, dyer's woad, mum, saw palmetto, San-Qi ginseng and Chinese licorice.

PC SPES became a huge success after studies on its benefits were published in respected medical journals. Charles Reinwald, chairman of the nonprofit Cancer Cure Coalition in Scarsdale, N.Y., told the Long Island newspaper Newsday last year that an estimated 10,000 U.S. men were taking the product.

But in February 2002, the state Department of Health Services found that both PC SPES and SPES contained elements of the anxiety drug Xanax and the blood-thinning drug Coumadin, which are supposed to be taken under a doctor's supervision.

State health officials asked BotanicLab to recall those two types of pills in early 2002. The company complied, even though it contended that the products were inadvertently contaminated while being shipped from overseas. A short time later, a class-action lawsuit was filed by cancer survivors who had used PC SPES.

In June 2002, the company went out of business, saying it was devastated by the costs of the lawsuit and voluntary recall of the two drugs. That same month, the state health department warned consumers to avoid remaining supplies of seven other BotanicLab products: Arthrin, HepaStat, Neutralis, Indomethacin, OA Plus, Osporo, Poena, and RA Spes. Officials warned that these also may be contaminated with ingredients available only in prescription medications.

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