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Powdered shark cartilage has been touted as a cancer cure, especially by William Lane, Ph.D., whose company produces the stuff under the name of BeneFin. Lane has written two books, both with the false claim that sharks don't get cancer in their title. Sharks do get cancer, even cancer of their cartilage. On June 29, 2000, Lane was prohibited by the Federal Trade Commission from claiming "BeneFin or any other shark cartilage product prevents, treats or cures cancer," until he has substantial evidence to support his claims.
Dr. Lane is an example of why alternative medicine is usually either useless or harmful. He took a little bit of knowledge, generalized from it, started a company to produce the miracle cure, wrote books and misleading promotional pieces supporting his company's research and product, got a major news show to do a shoddy, uncritical story which suggested that maybe there was something to the miracle cure, and responded to criticism with the claim that his critics were conspiring to stifle him because his research was somehow a threat to traditional medical practitioners.
There are no scientific studies done by independent researchers with proper controls which have substantiated the claim that shark cartilage is a useful treatment for cancer. In at least one such study, the treatment was found ineffective. Other studies are underway and their results should be available soon. One study, mandated by the U.S. Congress, was completed in 2007.It was designed to see if patients with advanced lung cancer would live longer if they ingested shark cartilage. Dr. Charles Lu of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston was the study’s lead investigator. His group tested a shark cartilage extract being developed as a drug by Aeterna Zentaris, a Canadian company. Dr. Lu said that there was reason to believe the cartilage might be effective in fighting cancer because cartilage has been found to contain substances that impede the formation of blood vessels and cutting off the blood supply to tumors has already been proven effective. There were 384 patients in the study, all with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer. The shark cartilage extract was given as a liquid twice a day. Those who received the shark cartilage extract lived a median of 14.4 months. Those who got a placebo had a median survival of 15.6 months.*
Dr. Lane got his inspiration from the work of real scientists who injected bovine and shark cartilage into the bloodstreams of rabbits and mice with cancer. The stuff greatly inhibited angiogenesis, the growth of blood vessels which supply nutrients to the cancerous cells. However, not all cancers rely on angiogenesis. Most researchers doubt that cartilage taken orally will result in significant quantities making it to the site of a tumor. They believe that it is a protein in cartilage that affects angiogenesis and that the protein would be digested rather than absorbed into the bloodstream where it might find its way to a tumor. However, injecting shark cartilage directly into the human bloodstream might result in an unfavorable immune system response.
The best that can be said for taking shark cartilage pills, powder, or liquid is that it is an unproven cancer cure.
See also alternative health practice.
McCutcheon, Lynn. "Taking a Bite out of Shark Cartilage," Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 1997.