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A boost for the immune system?

Magic Johnson endorses a dietary supplement containing tree extract; some experts question its effectiveness.

March 15, 2004|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Since announcing his HIV infection in 1991, former Laker Earvin "Magic" Johnson has been the nation's most visible symbol of the increasing longevity of people with HIV infection. Now he's endorsed a nutritional supplement that the manufacturer says will boost the immune system.

"I feel better than I ever have," Johnson said in a news release announcing his advertising campaign for the product, called My Defense. "And I want others to know of new things available to strengthen their immune system and support optimum health."

He announced his endorsement at a health expo in Anaheim earlier this month and will begin appearing in ads for the product in national health and fitness magazines in late April.

The supplement's main ingredient is a patented form of larch arabinogalactan, an extract from the stumps of larch trees, which grow in Central Europe, North America and parts of Russia. The manufacturer of My Defense, Natrol Inc., says the extract (called ImmunEnhancer) protects against cellular damage and supports the body's natural production of immune system components.

But some physicians question the claims, saying the supplement has not been proved effective -- and that it could give users a false sense of security, especially if used to combat their HIV infection.

"More rigorous studies are needed before we know what it does," said Dr. Sudhir Gupta, chief of basic and clinical immunology at UC Irvine, who has read research summaries provided by Natrol. "I don't know of any peer-reviewed literature that would indicate this is a credible immune-enhancing agent."

Other health experts question the appropriateness of using Johnson, who says in the ads he takes the product supplement every day. Because he's the most well-known public figure with HIV, his endorsement could suggest that the supplement is a therapy for HIV or AIDS, says Dr. Stephen Barrett, vice president of the National Council Against Health Fraud. The nonprofit agency, based in Peabody, Mass., campaigns against misinformation in public health.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, destroys the body's immune system, leaving it vulnerable to infection and disease. "For anyone to subtly or not so subtly suggest that this product is enhancing his [Johnson's] health in a major way ... seems improper," Barrett said.

Attempts to reach Johnson were unsuccessful. A spokesman for Chatsworth-based Natrol Inc. said the company did not "suggest, claim nor promote" the product as a treatment to combat HIV.

"This is not an AIDS or HIV product by any stretch," said Bob Mauser, the company's director of communications. "That being said, we looked to partner with Magic Johnson because he's a great community leader, he has a lot of presence and he has a mission to improve the health of everyone, especially the urban community."

Over the last decade, Johnson has successfully made the transition from basketball star to entrepreneur whose vast business dealings include investments in restaurants, movie theaters, coffeehouses, a home loan company, a music label and real estate. Johnson has also become well known for his extensive philanthropic work, much of which has concentrated on HIV and AIDS awareness, prevention and fundraising.

Paul Feldman, director of public relations for the National Assn. of People With AIDS, said he was unfamiliar with the product, but praised Johnson's activities in raising awareness about the disease. "Magic Johnson is an important public figure who advocates for people living with HIV and AIDS," said Feldman, whose Washington, D.C.-based organization is a national AIDS advocacy group. "He is well known and well loved and we're happy to have his participation."

Natrol would not disclose details of its business arrangement with Johnson.

Questions about the product come amid a national debate about the safety and regulation of dietary supplements. Federal regulators recently moved to take two other products -- ephedra and androstenedione -- off the nation's shelves. Although drug makers must demonstrate their products' safety and efficacy, such standards do not apply to makers of dietary supplements.

A 75-capsule jar of My Defense sells for $23.99 at www.drugstore.com.

The supplement can be used as a source of dietary fiber, but the company cites six studies on ImmunEnhancer, the primary ingredient in My Defense, that it says suggests much broader uses. Tests on human subjects over the last six years have shown that ImmunEnhancer can improve the body's immune system, the company said. The studies, which ranged from one month to six months, showed an increased production of several types of white blood cells, including those known as macrophages and natural killer cells, the company said. These white blood cells help attack and destroy viruses and other microbes inside the body.

"This product 'up regulates' the immune system and allows the body to do what it should be doing," said Richard Lamb, technical director at Larex Inc., of White Bear Lake, Minn. Larex holds the patent to My Defense's main ingredient.

Gupta says the studies cited by the company are inconclusive. Such research must show that the product helps the cells combat invaders, he said, before researchers could conclude that the product buttresses the immune system.

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