Chemistry and Life

Medicinal chemistry. Pharmacology. Toxicology. Environmental sciences.

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If your dietary supplement is advertised to work as well as a pharmaceutical, it may be adulterated with one

Recent news is that the US Department of Justice has taken action against some major manufacturers of dietary supplements – companies whose products are sold in retail outlets such as GNC and Vitamin Shoppe.  They are alleged to have intentionally adulterated their products with synthetic pharmaceutical drugs.

It has long been known that the less reputable supplement manufactures, the kind that sells things like “herbal viagra” over the internet, spike their products with pharmaceutical ingredients to make them effective.  They know, for example, that in terms of effectiveness, nothing natural can compete with Viagra.  So they add sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra) to their products to make them actually work as well as their customers expect.  This, of course, can be dangerous for those purchasing these products because they have no idea what they will be consuming.  They are being dosed with an unknown amount of a potent drug that can cause serious side effects even when taken under the controlled conditions of a prescription medication.  The recent news about basketball star Lamar Odom’s near-fatal overdose on “herbal viagra” pills highlights this danger.

Even worse, in an attempt to outwit authorities that may be testing their products for those specific adulterants, supplement manufacturers are known to turn to untested, unapproved drugs instead.  There are many drug candidates with the same mechanism of action as Viagra (a class of drugs known as PDE5 inhibitors) that failed clinical trials or were dropped from development for various reasons (maybe toxicity, unacceptable side effects, etc) or never even advanced into clinical trials.  Examples include acetildenafil, aildenafil, and thiosildenafil.  Unscrupulous supplement manufacturers have been caught putting these in their products too.  A criminally dangerous behavior, indeed.

But now with the recent news from the DOJ, it seems that even some big names in the supplement industry are doing the same thing.  It is apparent that they believe what their critics have been saying all along: all-natural herbal ingredients just aren’t effective in the same way as FDA approved pharmaceutical drugs that have succeeded through scientifically vigorous clinical trials.  So to get their supplements to work as well as those pharmaceuticals, they have resorted to adding them to their own products.  Although the headliner is USP Labs, whose executives have been arrested and are facing criminal charges, there are over 100 manufacturers being targeted.  The problem appears to be widespread.

So, yes, if your dietary supplement is advertised to work as well as a pharmaceutical, it just may be adulterated with one.


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Forces that hold rapidly spinning near-Earth asteroid together discovered — ScienceDaily

Chemists are used to thinking about things on a very small scale. Sometimes, though, we think about how molecular interactions have tangible or visible effects on the properties of materials. But we don’t often think about how interactions between molecules can have much larger effects, like determining the fate of an entire astronomical object. Here’s story to remind chemists to think about the big picture:

Forces that hold rapidly spinning near-Earth asteroid together discovered — ScienceDaily

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How do tick bites cause allergy to red meat?

I’ve seen reports of this in the news a few times lately:  some people can become allergic to red meat after being bitten by a tick.  (See here or here, for example.) We are not used to thinking about allergic reactions this way. We think of sensitization to an allergen due to repeated exposure to that allergen. Peanut allergies come from exposure to peanuts, for example. So why does exposure to a tick bite sometimes lead to becoming allergic to red meat?

The connection is a carbohydrate called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or just “alpha-gal”. Alpha-gal is present in the tissues of mammals, with the exception of primates (including humans). When a tick bites an animal, some alpha-gal then gets into the tick. When the tick bites a human, the alpha-gal is transferred through the tick’s saliva into the individual who is bitten. The bite, or perhaps a component of the tick’s saliva, triggers an immune response that results in the alpha-gal being recognized as a foreign substance leading to sensitization to alpha-gal upon later exposures. Since alpha-gal is present in animals, particularly those from which we get red meat, an individual who has become sensitized to alpha-gal has an allergic reaction to eating red meat.

In the United States, the problem seems to be closely associated with only the Lone Star Tick, which has a limited range mostly in the Southeast. The problem doesn’t appear to be currently widespread.

For details on how the cancer drug cetuximab was the key to discovering the connection between tick bites and red meat allergy, the paper titled “The relevance of tick bites to the production of IgE antibodies to the mammalian oligosaccharide galactose-α-1,3-galactose” makes a good read.

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Bromine is essential to life in humans and other animals

Considering the scarcity of bromine-containing organic compounds in nature, especially in sources other than marine microorganisms, I find this surprising:

“Twenty-seven chemical elements are considered to be essential for human life. Now there is a 28th: bromine. In a new paper, researchers establish for the first time that bromine, among the 92 naturally-occurring chemical elements in the universe, is the 28th element essential for tissue development in all animals, from primitive sea creatures to humans.”

Chemical element bromine is essential to life in humans and other animals, researchers discover — ScienceDaily.

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Mayo Clinic trial: Massive blast of measles vaccine wipes out cancer

This is an approach to treating cancer that is new to me:

Mayo Clinic trial: Massive blast of measles vaccine wipes out cancer | Star Tribune

It’s a small trial, and it will be awhile before there are answers to how effective and safe it can be.  Years in the future when cancer is considered a treatable medical condition, I’m certain that there won’t be one single “cure for cancer”, but rather an array of options each suited to different cancers, this may well be one of those options.