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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 30, 2013


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Posted by Derek

One more on quackery, and then back to science. You may have seen this story, which broke in Sports Illustrated, on a strange little outfit that called themselves Sports With Alternatives To Steroids, or S.W.A.T.S. They seem to have had a long list of professional and college athlete customers looking for some sort of (legal) performance edge. And who wouldn't sign up when there are cutting-edge therapies like this on offer?

(S.W.A..T.S.) prescribed a deluxe program, including holographic stickers on the right elbow; copious quantities of the powder additive; sleeping in front of a beam-ray light programmed with frequencies for tissue regeneration and pain relief; drinking negatively charged water; a 10-per-day regimen of the deer-antler pills that will "rebuild your brain via your small intestines" (and which Lewis said he hadn't been taking, then swallowed four during the conversation); and spritzes of deer-antler velvet extract (the Ultimate Spray) every two hours.

"Spray on my elbow every two hours?" Lewis asked.

"No," Ross said, "under your tongue."

We never do find out what's in the "powder additive". My guess is sugar-free drink mix, but perhaps I'm just small-minded. I don't think as big as the founders of S.W.A.T.S., that's for sure - these guys are way out in front of the rest of us:

The theoretical underpinning offered by Key is that radio waves can be stored in fluids (the spray) and in holograms (the chips), and that when an athlete consumes the fluid or wears the holograms, the radio waves are re-emitted and prompt his body to create specific nutrients and hormones -- from vitamin B to testosterone. Key says that it's not unlike the way particular wavelengths of sunlight cause the human body to produce vitamin D. In the musty storage room, the holographic stickers and bottles of deer-antler spray are irradiated for 24 straight hours or more in what Ross and Key say is an effort to program them with performance-enhancing frequencies

You know, that reminds me a lot of Nativis, the odd little biotech company I wrote about here, and who threatened me with legal action here. They went on about "photonic signals" stored in water, that were somehow stored and released later. The people at S.W.A.T.S. should look into this technology; it sounds like it would be a good fit. When last heard from, the Nativis folks were touting some sort of radio-frequency cancer zapper - slap some holographic stickers on at the same time, and who knows what might happen?

The SI article is well worth a read, just to show you that the process of separating the gullible from their money is timeless. There are gloomy thoughts to be had about the state of science education, that such things are believed, but education is a thin spray-painted layer on the surface of a brain that wants miracles and wants to believe. The proper response is the one that NBA owner Mark Cuban had to a very similar scam, the Power Bracelets that would, er, align your energies or something. Cuban found the right alignment for them, as far as I'm concerned - check the video clip at that link. I hope the trash can is big enough for all this stuff.

Comments (33) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil


1. Matthew Herper on January 30, 2013 9:08 AM writes...

Apparently, according to the NYT, one of their sprays contained IGF-1.

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2. Matthew Herper on January 30, 2013 9:10 AM writes...

here is the link on that:

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3. The Aqueous Layer on January 30, 2013 9:17 AM writes...

They are selling the placebo effect, basically.

To borrow a favorite quote from Bull Durham:

If you believe you're playing well because you're getting laid, or because you're not getting laid, or because you wear women's underwear, then you *are*! And you should know that!

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4. MTK on January 30, 2013 9:26 AM writes...

I don't know that much about IGF-1 or deer antler extract, so someone correct me if I'm wrong but...

I'd hazard to guess that there's not enough of it in the extract to be pharmacologically relevant and even if there was that its oral bioavailability is so poor that it wouldn't matter.

Somehow it's doubtful that these guys figured out a way to deliver a protein orally when people still haven't found a good way to deliver insulin orally despite the massive efforts.

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5. Hap on January 30, 2013 9:27 AM writes...

How do you get negatively charged water, exactly? Wouldn't that create some biological problems if it were real - there have to be plenty of redox cycles that don't need extra electrons, and of course there's oxygen, which makes all sorts of happy things with electrons.... And storing radio waves - one would figure that if you could store them, there'd be a much larger market in battery development and energy storage.

For people that seem to fear chemicals, we seem to have an awful lot of blind faith in them sometimes, though greed is a powerful lubricant.

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6. pharmacologyrules on January 30, 2013 9:27 AM writes...

many years ago a PA drug company was looking at antler extracts for potential osteogenic compounds. some proteomics and genomics on the antler 'bud' and mature antler. i never saw A-Rod haning around the campus.

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7. Calvin on January 30, 2013 9:32 AM writes...

Sports Illustrated you say? I thought it was surely The Onion.

Antler Spray? Well if it could convince the Chinese to stop killing tigers, elephants and Rhinos for bone/tusks and use antler as a "superior" substitute then this might have some "value"

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8. nitrosonium on January 30, 2013 9:34 AM writes...

i don't think any of this is a scam. i can see the well reasoned medical science in this because of my new-found mental clarity which comes from drinking high pH water......and from swirling my wine last night. counter clockwise of course!!

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9. z on January 30, 2013 9:42 AM writes...

The thing I don't like about placebo effects is that they are real therapeutic effects. And those of us who are more highly educated and cynical can't have the benefits that the people who really believe in these things do.

While I certainly don't support any of the therapies described in this article, I wonder if and how we can most effectively access the same abilities of the human body without requiring a foolish naivete? What's the best placebo? And what's one that still works when you have a basic understanding of science and how the body works? Many traditions include meditation, prayer, or some other mindfulness exercises. Do these work via the same mechanism and how do they compare in terms of efficacy?

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10. RB Woodweird on January 30, 2013 9:44 AM writes...

Any professional athlete who risks his paycheck by taking mystery "supplements" from quacks has suffered one too many microconcussions. You cannot know what is in the "clear". It might well be a banned substance.

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11. Nuke LaLoosh on January 30, 2013 10:00 AM writes...

Why does he keep calling me 'meat'? I'm the one sleeping with Annie, I'm the one with the Porsche.

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12. Electrochemist on January 30, 2013 10:04 AM writes...

What, no copper bracelets? Channel the Incas, man! Machu Picchu was an alien landing site.

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13. Teddy Z on January 30, 2013 10:38 AM writes...

And the winner Comment is #11! Well done sir, well done.

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14. cytosolic on January 30, 2013 10:40 AM writes...

There's a director of screening at GSK who wears a Power Bracelet.

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15. DatamonitorMark on January 30, 2013 10:52 AM writes...

If you're having gloomy thoughts about the state of science education, you may not find this article quite as rip-roaringly daft as it is:
Russian Scientists Reprogram Human DNA Using Words and Frequencies

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16. DRB on January 30, 2013 10:56 AM writes...

"Spray on my elbow every two hours?"
"Sure, why not."

As I was reading the article last night I was wondering if Dr. Lowe would have something to say about it, and here it is in the morning.

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17. NoDrugsNoJobs on January 30, 2013 11:32 AM writes...

The sublingual administration of IGF is not as farfetched as it might seem. I believe the sequence of IGF-1 is similar to insulin and insulin has been shown to be absorbeable by a sublingual route. IGF-1 is the mediator of the anabolic effects of human gowth hormone and is approved for some of the same uses. One look at Ray Lewis tells me that something he is taking must be working lol

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18. Crash Davis on January 30, 2013 11:35 AM writes...

Don't think. It'll only hurt the ball club.

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19. Michael O. on January 30, 2013 12:31 PM writes...

"sleeping in front of a beam-ray light programmed with frequencies for tissue regeneration and pain relief"

Obviously their stuff is BS, but NASA did develop LEDs to aid the healing of wounds in space. I always thought that was pretty crazy sounding. Not sure if the light therapy was found to have any effect outside of microgravity.

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20. gippgig on January 30, 2013 2:30 PM writes...

This reminds me of the Tank McNamara comic strip about the athlete who improved his performance taking phony steroids. The interesting thing is that I later read about a study (don't have the details) showing that a placebo really did improve athletic performance (no idea how good the study was).

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21. Squib on January 30, 2013 2:30 PM writes...

IGF-1 is banned by the NFL, MLB and the World Anti-Doping Agency, although the NFL doesn't test for it. One would think it must therefore do something...
Sub-lingual administration seems to be the most logical way of trying to get it into the body, short of injection as I don't see it doing so well with oral dosing...

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22. anon the II on January 30, 2013 3:16 PM writes...

Ironic that you should mention Mr. Cuban. There's a thin line between huckster and salesman and Mark Cuban sits on it. I don't know all the details but Mr. Cuban got very rich by selling the idea of delivering sports over the internet. The problem is that at the time the average sports fan's bandwidth wouldn't support it. By the time bandwidth was good enough, the owner of Cuban's company no longer held a technical advantage worthy of the money they paid. Cuban cashed out at the peak of the dot-com frenzy and left somebody holding the equivalent of a sock puppet. So he knows of which he speaks.

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23. DCRogers on January 30, 2013 7:42 PM writes...

I liked the caption: "Christopher Key, who does personal training on the side to make ends meet, believes in S.W.A.T.S.'s technology and says that it's up to science to disprove it."

The list of tasks expected of scientists grows ever longer...

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25. jtd7 on January 30, 2013 8:58 PM writes...

Today on Twitter @AlbertBrooks "I'm going to spray some deer antler on my career."

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26. TheEdge on January 30, 2013 10:23 PM writes...

You know, given that nearly everything they're selling is clearly crap, I'm impressed that the spray does contain traces of IGF. I went in assuming that it was flavored water.

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27. Secondaire on January 30, 2013 10:53 PM writes...

Negatively charged water? What are they drinking, pure hydroxide ion?

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28. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 30, 2013 11:30 PM writes...

In the case of big-time football, fussing over a hormone is jusst rearranging the deck chairs when the sport faces a really titanic problem: chronic brain trauma.

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29. Helical_Investor on January 31, 2013 9:19 AM writes...

If I was a tattoo artist I would be hyping the heck out of BS 'radiatively charged' inks and such for athlete art. Or maybe just ones that amplify the signal of holographic stickers (LOL).

Groan. I have almost no doubt that someone already does this.


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30. The Aqueous Layer on January 31, 2013 9:35 AM writes...

Ironic that you should mention Mr. Cuban. There's a thin line between huckster and salesman and Mark Cuban sits on it. I don't know all the details but Mr. Cuban got very rich by selling the idea of delivering sports over the internet. The problem is that at the time the average sports fan's bandwidth wouldn't support it. By the time bandwidth was good enough, the owner of Cuban's company no longer held a technical advantage worthy of the money they paid. Cuban cashed out at the peak of the dot-com frenzy and left somebody holding the equivalent of a sock puppet. So he knows of which he speaks.

He developed something unique, sold when the time was right, and after selling, he diversified his holdings to avoid the dot com bust he probably saw coming. Exactly how can this be construed as being bad? Sounds like a fairly savvy businessman to me.

And the 'somebody' who bought him out was Yahoo...

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31. metaphysician on January 31, 2013 5:08 PM writes...


I wonder what will happen to King Football if the colleges have to start spending most of their income on athlete medical needs, making it no longer a massively profitable industry. . .

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32. Lindsay on February 1, 2013 9:11 AM writes...

@26: It's not uncommon for homeopathic products, when they sometimes become "contaminated", to be "contaminated" with just the right chemical to achieve the effect they claim on the label. That this looks like a fairly similar situation doesn't surprise me much.

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33. matt on February 2, 2013 12:54 AM writes...

I had heard of deer antler extract in the past in conjunction with steroids...not sure whether that was in error, or IGF-1 was lumped into that category, or whether it becomes the magical "natural source" for whatever banned substance people want to be taking. I guess in that last case, what Lindsay #32 describes above may be the source. It's not like Chinese products are known for purity of ingredients.

A common error among athletes seems to be the thought that "natural forms" of the banned substance are totally okay, that it's a synthetic origin that got the substance banned. Then they look on the banned substance list and say, see, Chinese musk ox "horn" isn't listed as a banned substance, it must be okay. No matter that the company is marketing it as a source of IGF-1 or a steroid etc.

Another common error, see commenter #21 above, is that only substances which give an advantage are banned (so it _must_ be good--like all those penis enlargement spam emails, they must work because otherwise why would they be so common?). There are also substances which have harmful side effects and long-term drawbacks, and which are _reputed_ to give some advantage, which may get banned. Wikipedia describes IGF-1 as "a stimulator of cell growth and proliferation, and a potent inhibitor of programmed cell death." Sounds like that might rub the oncogenie the wrong way in larger quantities.

Truth is, few (any?) of the banned substances have ever shown efficacy (for athletic improvement, as opposed to medical effects) at the level of FDA scrutiny. Sports medicine, as we saw earlier on the post about Lance Armstrong, is rife with studies using ridiculously tiny, non-representative samples, and attempting to generalize conclusions and explanations out to the general (perhaps sporting) population. And that's the scientific part--the rest is a swamp of S.W.A.T.S.

However, the records set by the East German women's swim team, certain banned track and field athletes, and the (perfectly legal) swimmers using full body suits form very powerful circumstantial arguments that some interventions improve performance.

The placebo effect can be a powerful contributor, but there have been examples in the past where I'm not sure the placebo effect would come into play. For example, the East German swim team, or other sports teams of the past where I've heard athletes were given regular injections and told not to ask what was in them. I would think such a situation would be a rotten trigger for placebo effect.

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