Thursday, 29 November 2007

L-Arginine: dubious supplement marketing

It's a recurring theme that once some biochemical is shown to have a useful or even vital role in the body, someone will produce a supplement and market it on the woo logic that if something is good for you, lots of it will be even better. This is patently nonsense: vitamins, for instance, are crucial to health but are toxic in high doses (as, famously, the explorer Douglas Mawson found out afer eating husky liver). It's even more nonsense in the case of the body's neurotransmitters and other signalling chemicals, which work on specific concentrations. Get the wrong level of dopamine, say, and you'll get radical neurological problems (again famously, as documented by Olive Sacks in Awakenings) But this doesn't matter to supplement promoters: the more you take, the merrier.
      I noticed this syndrome recently in the marketing of L-Arginine. The 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Furchgott, Ignarro and Murad "for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system". Nitric oxide, they discovered, turns out to have a crucial role in various functions: blood pressure control, heart action, neurosignalling in relation to the gastronintestinal tract and memory formation,, as a biocide in the immune system, and in penis erection. It's synthesised in the body by an enzyme, nitric oxide synthase, acting on a common amino acid L-arginine, which is actually nonessential, as it's synthesised in the body.
      Given this role, it can easily be imagined that levels are critical. The vascular damage seen in diabetes appears to be down to low levels; conversely, the lethal shock seen in severe infections is down to overproduction of nitric oxide. The precursor to the nitric oxide, L-arginine, may itself be a double-edged sword: one study at Johns Hopkins had to be brought to a halt on safety concerns after L-arginine supplements appeared to worsen the risk of death in patients recovering from heart attack (see L-arginine Supplements Linked to Increased Risk of Death in MI Patients). What's the response of supplement vendors to this complex situation? Take moar L-arginine!

Bearing that in mind, about a week back I saw in the Exeter Express & Echo featured a story, Firm promotes body products: "A company specialising in offering a new dietary supplement range has a promotion in Exeter tomorrow.The founders of Arkworld claim their products can reverse biological age and repair, restore and rejuvenate the body through circulation". Arkworld is fairly ghastly in four respects. One, it's a multi-level marketing scheme. Two, it's designed around some laboured Biblical metaphor: "Everything we do as a company is going to be built around the Ark Story". Three, bad puns on the word Ark ("The Marketing Plan or should we say, Arketing Plan"). Four, the simplistic assumption that guzzling L-arginine is automatically good for you.
      Needless to say, their ADNO – Arginine Derived Nitric Oxide page doesn't tell you we synthesise our own ("Your body uses Arginine an Amino Acid we absorb from food") and simply asserts that more of it makes everything work better in all the systems where nitric oxide is involved. And that, of course, is achieved via two arginine supplements, Ark1 and Ark2, as well as the PINKDrink.
      The PINKDrink website makes a number of grandiose claims. "Nitric Oxide is referred to by scientists as the 'Miracle Molecule'" (nope: only on sites selling L-arginine supplements such as - and it needs to join the queue behind phosphatidylcholine, water, P57, DMT, melatonin, omega-3 and no doubt many more). "Arkworld's products have been created by leading scientists and product formulators, including the legendary Jeff Golini who cracked the Creatine Code". Legendary where? Apparently only on sites selling his body-building product Kre-Alkalyn, and for some reason this groundbreaking work doesn't appear in PubMed. Golini is one of the group behind Arkworld, listed as doctors though rather than medical doctors the group appears to be a mix of technical and marketing people headed by a dentist and a naturopath. As leading scientists, it's remarkable how few Google hits they get.
      The site also mentions the PINKDrink appeared on the BBC's Inside Out, which may be true but if you watch the clip from this episode about CADASIL sufferer Jack Shields, its role is fairly subliminal, as a brief glimpse of some powder said to be L-arginine. There's also an interesting factoid that "Columbia University refers to L-arginine as the 'magic bullet' for the cardiovascular system. Over 10,000 L-arginine citations were compiled by Columbia University researchers in their quest to document the clinical benefits of this simple amino acid". I have been unable to find a citation for this claim.

Addendum: if you want to comment, read the comments policy first. If you have actual evidence that I'm wrong - peer-reviewed research - by all means comment.  But I will bin any comments that just tell me I'm wrong and link to some promotional/sales website.

JML Pest Shield: ASA result!

See the update to Gnawing doubts: JML Pest Shield.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Beer after sport is good for you: it's official, say Spanish beer promoters

The perils of news without context. A glance at Google News finds, not surprisingly, repetition of the science news reported in the Telegraph (Beer after sport 'is good for the body') and Daily Mail (A pint of beer is better for you after a workout than water, say scientists).
      The result may well be true, but this is just so suspect a story on a number of levels. The research: it's based on tests of only 25 subjects, with little sign of tackling the many variables in the situation (for instance, subjects were allowed to drink as much water as they liked). The practical interpretation: get real, even if one pint is beneficial, many people are not going to stop after one pint. The agenda: there's currently a media blitz in the UK on the bad effects of alcohol consumption, and this kind of story with its "something the government tells you is unhealthy turns out to be healthy" subtext is such a godsend to papers with a reactionary agenda that the origin looks potentially promotional.
      Let's take a look at sources (we have to go into Spanish and Google Manuel Castillo Garzón" Cerveza). I have no idea of the general credentials of the University of Granada or its medical faculty, but it's fairly bizarre to see a science press conference with a poster of a ruddy great beer glass behind the speakers.
      I have idea whether the reported research is actually sponsored by beer manufacturers. But there's a strong traditional partnership of alcohol promotion and sport promotion, and a constant drive by various manufacturers to encourage athletes to drink something more proft-making than plain water - such as pseudoscientific water or glossily promoted hydration drinks pushed via PR departments masquerading as sports science academies. Spanish beer looks no different, so when you see a medical symposium called Beer, Sports & Health, with the Director General of Brewers of Spain as one of the lecturers, you have to wonder what interests might be afoot.
      I notice another conference, FEMEDE 07 (PDF) - FEMEDE is the Spanish Federation of Sports Medicine - of which the "Physical activity and ageing" section is sponsored by the Centro de Información Cerveza Y Salud (Information Centre for Beer and Health). This organisation, which promotes Spanish beer as having health benefits, has strong academic links in the medical, sports science and nutrition fields that would be a rather surprising and distinctly problematical alliance in this country.
      With the general downer on alcohol at the moment, I suspect this is a trend we'll see more of. Compare this 2006 news item, Functional beer for women, which describes the marketing of Karla, a low-alc fruit beer sold via pharmacists as a health drink. The trade organisation The Brewers of Europe is likewise getting jittery - see Trouble Brewing for Europe's Consumers - which probably explains why it is also interested in the Beer and Health angle.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

UFO found in Topsham

This is an "unenquiring media" story rather than a bad science story. The Exeter Express & Echo has reported a run of UFO sightings recently (not coincidentally, I'm sure, with the run-up to November 5th). Finally, however, one has come to earth: Charred remains and bright lights add to growing UFO claims.

Anne Lock says she found the remnants of a "bright something" that she had spotted overhead on Sunday evening near her home in Monmouth Avenue, Topsham. It was about 8.15pm when I saw a series of bright lights in the sky somewhere over the rugby ground. There were about four in a line and another four or six behind moving about. I went upstairs and that's when I saw this big bright something over the garden. In the morning, I found what seemed like the remains of a miniature parachute - only it wasn't a parachute. It was gauze or muslin and shaped like a light bulb. It was about three feet high and 12 inches across. All around it was bits of charred residue, like charred paper.

From the description, it's almost certainly a sky lantern, a miniature hot air balloon. They're traditional in East Asia, where they feature in beautiful festival displays (see YouTube for examples) but are becoming increasingly popular in the UK for celebrations and as an alternative to fireworks (the trad burning paraffin-soaked rag that keeps them aloft has been replaced by solid fuel in the high-tech ones). They have been behind a number of British UFO sightings over the past couple of years (see, for instance, Lanterns spark UFO scare and Aliens in town? No, I'm to blame).
      Mrs Lock can hardly be blamed for not recognising one; they're still quite new here. But I would have thought it within the resources of a newspaper to come to the same conclusion I did.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Polish Sokal-style hoax

Via Modne Bzdury via Bad Science, this looks interesting. A psychologist in Poland, Tomasz Witkowski, has announced how he conned Charaktery (a scientific monthly focusing on popularising psychology) with a Sokal-style hoax article about a fake psychotherapeutic method. Here's his original article, Wiedza prosto z pola (Knowledge straight from the field), written under the pseudonym Renata Aulagnier.
      I don't know Polish, so have had to get the drift by machine translation. Knowledge straight from the field leads with a postulated scenario: that a patient could be MRI-scanned to measure their morphogenetic field. If the morphogenetic resonance is out of kilter, the patient can be exposed to appropriate influences to correct it, such as listening to different kinds of music in various proportions, or going into a large crowd of people with the correct vibes (e.g. a theatre or a football stadium) to get into tune with their field. Thus psychotherapy could be achieved without lengthy analysis, issues of resistance, disclosure of embarrassing sexual secrets, etc.
      But this is not science fiction, the article says, and goes on to describe a "Strasbourg experiment" in which such a technology has been developed (the idea inspired by Carl Jung and Henri Bergson, the mathematics from Lacan - who "first discovered the possibility of employing mathematical topology in the analysis of the structures of intellectual diseases", and the mechanism from Sheldrake).
      Witkowski's motivation appears to have been disillusionment at the quality of peer review - despite Charaktery having various professorial-level academics on the editorial board, he argues that it's been playing to the popular market by publishing articles about topics like neuro-linguistic programming and morphogenetic resonance. And as he describes here on his explanatory page, Witkowski's particular indictment of Charaktery is that not merely did the piece get past the editorial system, but the editors actually collaborated in expanding it with uncredited material from writings elsewhere about Rupert Sheldrake.
      This is currently all over the Polish blogosphere. As I said, I don't know Polish, but if anyone who does would care to translate properly, it looks rather an excellent sting.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Poor reportage fires up Rife supporters

Via a Bad Science thread - Garage Invention Alternative for Chemo? - this ABC News piece, Cancer Victim Invents Possible Chemo Alternative, which tells the story of John Kanzius, a radio entrepreneur, engineer and cancer-sufferer, who has "invented the first generation of what would become a machine that uses radio waves -- not radioactivity -- to fight cancer". It goes on to mention the work of Dr. Steven Curley of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. "Curley and his colleagues at the center took Kanzius' made-in-the-garage invention very seriously. They began testing the radio-wave technology on animals, and say they completely destroyed liver cancer tumors in rabbits".
      As the comments page and Google show, this has brought out of the woodwork fans of Royal Rife, who see this as vindication of Rife's pseudoscientific radio-based therapy machines. Wrong. A look at the original news release, Radio Waves Fire Up Nanotubes Embedded in Tumors, Destroying Liver Cancer, shows that the ABC News story has omitted a critical detail: the radio waves alone don't do anything. The method works only when the cancerous cells are primed with a radio-absorbing substance, in this current work carbon nanotubes, which heats up and kills them. Kanzius' patent is readable online - Canadian Patents Database CA 2562625 - and makes perfectly clear that heat generation by an RF-absorbing target material is intrinsic to the method. This does not support claims for Rife machines to destroy cancerous cells by targeting purported frequencies of the cells themselves.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Gnawing doubts: JML Pest Shield

Recently British TV has featured ads for a product called the JML Pest Shield, a plug-in device which purportedly "creates a digital forcefield that helps drive away rats, mice and cockroaches from your home". The advert is here at
      There was another version of the ad - gone now, see below - at JML's own sales page for Pest Shield, which expanded the claim, saying thay it "transforms the wiring in your home into a giant digital pest repellent. This digital pulsing forcefield drives away mice, rats and crawling insects from your home by interfering with their nervous system". Interestingly, its online press release (PDF) has an entirely different explanation for the mode of operation, saying "It irritates them by emitting a sound that fluctuates from high to low frequency. This change in sound irritates insects and ruffles rodents". So which is it? You'd think at least they could agree on a consistent story. Also interestingly, "because the Pest Shield attacks the rodent-based nervous system, it's important you don't use it around hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, tarantulas or chinchillas".
      Such devices are widespread, but it doesn't take much research to find that there is little or no evidence for their effectiveness. Electronic Rodent Repellent Devices: A Review of Efficacy Test Protocols and Regulatory Actions looks at the history of such claims, particularly a fad in the 1970s for devices "advertized as capable of generating their own magnetic fields or distorting the earth's magnetic fields in such a manner that animal pest species (but not beneficial species) stopped eating, drinking, and reproducing". Thes devices were marketed without efficacy data, because there wasn't any. For instance, Commensal rodents from the Utah State University wildlife management series concludes: "many devices which produce electromagnetic fields have been marketed as an effective rodent repellent. Again, however, scientific evidence clearly shows that these devices are not useful in repelling rats or mice".
      A recent article, People And Rodent Pests in PCT Online, a rodent control trade magazine, likewise concludes "Ultrasonic and electromagnetic rodent repellent devices are available on the consumer market but good data supporting their effectiveness is lacking. Controlled studies with commensal rodents have been generally negative". In the USA, at least one manufacturer has been charged by the Federal Trade Commission - see FTC Swats Lentek's Claims - as making false and unsubstantiated claims for electromagnetic pest repellent devices, And in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission obtained a punitive undertaking, including customers' right to refund, after judging that a direct marketing firm, Danoz, had made misleading claims of efficacy for devices of this type. See the undertaking register for Danoz Direct Pty Ltd - now that is consumer legislation with the teeth the ASA here ought to have.
      In short, even if you hadn't guessed from the pseudoscientific description that the makers aren't even consistent about (and thinking a tarantula is a rodent isn't a good sign either) in my opinion Pest Shield is almost certainly a total crock. I've shopped it to the ASA, but unfortunately a quick Google on electromagnetic pest repeller shows it's far from alone.

Addendum, Nov 6th: I just had a letter from the ASA saying they're already investigating this issue, and have added my comments to the portfolio.

Addendum, Nov 29th 2007: the ASA has just published its adjudication on the JML TV ad for Pest Shield - see JML Direct Ltd t/a Shop Now TV, 28th Nov - upholding all complaints on grounds of Evidence (efficacy being unproven) and being misleading, as well as falsely denigrating other products. Although this ruling has no jurisdiction over video ads published on their own website, I notice that Pest Shield has been removed from the JML Direct shopping site.

Addendum: I'm sorry; I don't normally redact comments, but I'm nervous about the legality of hosting anecdotes that might be read as allegations of criminal negligence. So no stories of e.g. how a Pest Shield exploded and took out half of a city block. If something like this did happen to you, best move is to take it up with your Local Trading Standards people, who handle product safety issues.