Cures or `Quackery'?
How Senator Harkin shaped federal research on alternative medicine
As Sen. Tom Harkin tells it, it was a personal experience that made him a real believer in "alternative" medicine--and, more to the point, in diverting several million dollars out of the National Institutes of Health research budget each year to look into unconventional therapies. A "guy from Arizona" who claimed that bee-pollen capsules could cure Harkin's allergies came to see him; Harkin swallowed 250 of the pills over the next five days; and, sure enough, he says, his allergies were gone. "Something has to be done to investigate these things," the Iowa Democrat told a 1993 Senate hearing, "because it sure worked for me."
Just a few months before his visit to the halls of Congress, however, the guy from Arizona, Royden Brown of the C C Pollen Co., paid a $200,000 settlement under a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission. He promised to cease making false claims for his High Desert bee-pollen capsules and misrepresenting as objective news programs what were paid television ads for his wares. Brown's infomercials claimed, among other things, that the company's bee-pollen capsules could cure heart disease, reverse the aging process, prevent memory loss, improve one's sex life, kill bacteria, promote weight loss, prevent premenstrual syndrome and provide "an energy source" for athletes who don't have time to work out. ("I stopped counting at 59 claims," says an FTC lawyer who handled the case.) The ads also asserted that both Ronald Reagan and "the risen Jesus Christ, when he came back to Earth," consumed bee pollen. Harkin says he became aware of the FTC complaint against Brown only a year later, in 1994.
Now hear this. The friend who introduced Harkin to Brown and whom Harkin credits with getting him interested in alternative medicine--fellow Iowan and former Democratic Rep. Berkeley Bedell--has been touting some even more dubious characters. Bedell claims he was cured of prostate cancer by Gaston Naessens, who, Bedell says, invented a special microscope that allows him to "look at blood samples and diagnose cancer well before a victim has any symptoms."
Naessens, who lives in Canada, was twice convicted of practicing medicine illegally in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. The cancer "cure" he currently peddles, which he calls 714-X, was described by Canadian health authorities as consisting of camphor, mineral salts, alcohol and water; Canada has issued a warning against this product, deploring its use in treating cancer and AIDS and cautioning of side effects. 714-X is at least the third such "secret" formula Naessens has tried to pass off as a cancer cure, according to the American Cancer Society and the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF), a nonprofit group that monitors questionable therapies. Naessens could not be reached for comment. (A footnote to this story: Bedell had received conventional treatment for his cancer before taking Naessens's "cure.")
All of this might simply be considered harmless wackiness were it not for the fact that the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), which Harkin was instrumental in establishing in 1992, has been strongly influenced by a small group of advocates of outlandish therapies with whom Harkin has allied himself. As chairman (until last fall's election) of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of NIH's funding, Harkin used his power to shape the makeup of the OAM's advisory council and to push particular research areas, say current and former NIH officials.