I have always thought of shark cartilage as one of those discredited treatments of history, like psychic surgery or drilling holes in your skull to let the demons out. Recently, I saw a program about declining shark populations that mentioned the harvest of cartilage as one factor. Near the same time, a co-worker told me the treatment is mentioned in a new natural remedies book. What happened? Is shark cartilage making a comeback?
As exemplified by Whitney Houston, you cannot have a comeback if you never go away. The use of shark cartilage as a cancer cure has been discredited over and over, yet still remains a strong seller. Personally, I'd rather see skull-drilling make a comeback, at least in one case; there's got to be more demons in Ms. Houston's head than in all of Voldemort's linen closets.
The cartilage craze began with a huge-selling 1992 book, Sharks Don't Get Cancer by William Lane. At the time, budding research indicated that injecting cartilage extracts into laboratory animals interfered with angiogenesisthe blood vessel formation that tumors require for nutritionwhich slowed cancer growth. Lane interpreted that hopeful research to mean that eating dried shark cartilage, or rectally administering massive doses of it, would cure human cancer.
Sharks were a good choice because their skeleton is not formed by calcified bone, but is mainly elastic cartilage. This fact makes the animal a conveniently rich source of both raw material and exotic cachet. They also have a unique immune system; since lacking bones means lacking bone marrow (where immune cells are produced), sharks have other organs that create protective circulating cells. In this very efficient system, sharks show an unusually pronounced resistance to infection, as well as injuries introduced by their often-struggling prey.
Despite this immune system and the book's title, sharks, in fact, do get cancer. In 2000, a Johns Hopkins researcher presented a paper describing more than 40 known types of tumors in sharks. One such cancer, called a chondroma, is a tumor of (here it comes ...) the cartilage. To completely misquote the 18th century French novel, Dangerous Liaisons (as well as innumerable Klingons), "Irony, like revenge, is a dish best served cold."
Having only questionable research to back up his claims, Lane and his son, Andrew, opened Lane Labs to begin marketing shark cartilage under the admittedly great name BeneFin. In separate actions around the year 2000, both the FTC and the FDA demanded that Lane Labs cease making claims of the cancer-curative power of their products. They ignored the order and were fined $1 million. Apparently, the Lanes are a family of hammerheads, because the unsubstantiated claims continued. Two years ago, the FDA had enough and a judge mandated all BeneFin inventories destroyed and further ordered complete restitution be made to everyone who purchased it in the prior four years.
The years of marketing hype and the power of the Internet finally resulted in a major research project testing the real effect of shark cartilage on cancer. The two-year double-blind study involved about 80 patients with either breast or colon cancer and was designed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic. Published last year in the journal Cancer, the study found absolutely no change in survival time or any improvement in quality of life. In a spark of hope, however, the original research on cartilage extracts (the paper that started this whole affair) has led to testing of a real cancer drug called Neovastat.
As I see it, there are two victims of this moneymaking fraud. The first are the cancer patients who are given false hopethey are convinced to spend both their typically limited time and their precious resources (up to $1,000 per month) on a therapy more useless than Whitney's rehab. The other victims are the sharks. Overfishing to obtain cartilage for the supplement market, as well as for the Far Eastern indulgence of shark fin soup, has left some species in U.S. waters in decline up to 90 percent. The only shark-related species I care to see decline are Jimmy Buffet fans.
I hope that the new research will convince the public that the best use of shark cartilage is, in fact, as the skeleton of a shark; cancer patients already have enough problems, like with their HMOs. If it were cost effective, it's a good bet that an HMO would even bring back psychic surgery. The problem, I think, would be credentialing a panel of providers. Hey, maybe one of Whitney Houston's demons needs a new job.