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TEST IT, HERBALISTS URGE DOCTORS; ALLIANCE FORMED TO FINANCE RESEARCH.

Byline: Ben Sullivan Daily News Staff Writer

A standard gripe in the medical community about herbal remedies and nutritional supplements is that little clinical information exists to support claims made on their behalf.

A new trade group formed by well-heeled supplement-makers hopes to change that.

Ten firms, including Chatsworth-based Natrol Inc., have contributed $50,000 apiece to create the Corporate Alliance for Integrative Medicine to help fund university-run clinical trials of herbs and other nutritional supplements.

CAIM members include vitamin giant Rexall Sundown Inc., Nature's Way Products Inc. and Weider Nutrition International.

``The whole nutritional movement has taken on aggressive momentum in the last few years,'' said Elliott Balbert, chief executive of Natrol Inc. ``The question on many consumers' minds is that anecdotal evidence is wonderful, but is there science to back it up?''

Even more skeptical than consumers are U.S. physicians, suckled on the certitude of the double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment that can be replicated. A survey by research firm Louis Harris and Associates found that most doctors believe herbal supplements will play a growing role in medicine, but most are reluctant to prescribe herbs because of questions about their reliability.

To answer those questions, CAIM members say they want to help finance stringent clinical trials of supplements in medical schools at UCLA, Harvard, Tufts and other universities. CAIM money would pay for creation of trial protocols or parameters, and members say they hope for cooperation from the National Institutes for Health.

Balbert said CAIM will approach the NIH after getting agreements with universities. In what he hopes is a precedent, Balbert noted that the NIH already plans to finance a study comparing a plant, Saint Johnswort, and a prescription antidepressant drug.

While the CAIM alliance has been set up as a nonprofit group, Balbert acknowledges that it is being endowed by Natrol and other companies in it for the money. U.S. consumers are expected to spend $4.3 billion this year on supplements like gingko biloba, Saint Johnswort, and echinacea and ginseng for conditions ranging from an enlarged prostate to high cholesterol and depression.

Manufacturers figure that if it can be a $4 billion-plus market in the absence of scientific data, the sky would be the limit for products with clinical trials backing them up.

Another potential benefit of testing for consumers is that manufacturers might settle on standardized doses and ingredient levels for their products. Now concentrations of the key ingredient may vary wildly in different companies' supplements. Pricey grape-seed extract, for example, can contain from 50 percent proanthocyanidins to nearly 80 percent of the powerful antioxidant.

Even companies not participating in CAIM say there long has been a need for the sort of research it plans to sponsor.

``It's absolutely a move in the right direction,'' said Joseph Chang, head of pharmacology and clinical affairs at Simi Valley-based Pharmanex Inc., which markets a yeast-derived pill called Cholestin that the company says lowers cholesterol.

``There have been so many technological advances in recent years that it really behooves us to use those tools to make sure that dietary or botanical supplements are researched well'' and do what they claim, Chang said.

HERB IS THE WORD

Even if you know what herb to go after, making sense of its different forms can be a challenge. Here's a list of some common terms:

Herbal powder: A dried, crushed herb packaged in a capsule or tablet.

Infusion: Tea made from hot water poured over an herb and steeped.

Decoction: A tea made from heating cold water and an herb to near boiling temperature.

Tincture: An herb placed in a solvent of water or alcohol and allowed to steep for up to several weeks.

Fluid extract: Similar to a tincture, but the final product is concentrated through distillation.

Solid extract: What's left when all of a tincture is evaporated off.

Standardized extract: A guaranteed amount of the active constituent in an herbal remedy. Usually given as a percentage of the total weight of the extract.

SOURCE: Warner Lambert

CAPTION(S):

Photo, Box

PHOTO (Color) Elliott Balbert, Natrol Inc. chief executive, holds kava roots. His company will help finance research on medical claims made for plants.

Andy Holzman/Daily News

BOX: HERB IS THE WORD (see text)
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 15, 1998
Words:706
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