06 juillet 2006

Scientist supporting herbal HIV remedy suspended

Researcher faces university investigation after work with unproven AIDS treatment.

Natasha Bolognesi

Mysterious medicine: Secomet V is made from the red clover, Trifollium pratense.
The University of Cape Town in South Africa has closed down the laboratories of one of its top scientists, who has been supporting an unproven herbal AIDS remedy.

Girish Kotwal, head of medical virology at the university's Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, has been temporarily suspended from his research duties so the university can investigate his association with the plant extract Secomet V, which is manufactured and distributed by the Stellenbosch-based company Secomet.

Secomet V has found a champion in Kotwal (see 'Bad Medicine'). But there have as yet been no clinical trials of the product.

Kotwal has published some data from a trial with four individuals showing that the herbal extract, which comes as a Coca-Cola-coloured liquid, acts as a broad-spectrum inhibitor of viral entry. But Kotwal's work has also shown that it can be toxic to cells, at least in the test tube. He acknowledges that much more testing is needed before the product should be used clinically.

Two AIDS patients in Stellenbosch died earlier this year after sudden liver failure. Neither had been on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), says their doctor Lisa Hellstrom, but both were taking Secomet V. Another of Hellstrom's patients, who has taken both ARVs and Secomet V, has been found to have abnormal liver enzymes.

The product does not seem to be properly registered in the country as a herbal or complementary medicine, and some have raised potential ethical concerns about the university's sales royalty agreement with Secomet.

This royalty agreement will be reviewed by the university on completion of their investigation, says the university's manager of marketing and communications, Skye Grove.

Taking action

The institute's director Greg Hussey has said that Kotwal was dealing with Secomet in a personal capacity, and has said that his behaviour regarding the product is unacceptable. The matter was brought to the attention of higher university authorities by the investigations of Nature Medicine, which first reported on Kotwal's involvement with Secomet on 28 June 2006 (see 'Bad medicine').

Cheryl de la Rey, deputy vice-chancellor of the university, told news@nature.com they are taking the matter seriously.

Certain allegations of possible professional misconduct in respect of Kotwal are under investigation, says Grove. "The preliminary investigation committee convened on Monday 3 July to decide what the charges against him will be. He has been temporarily suspended from his research duties, and his laboratory has been closed, pending the outcome of this," says Grove.

Kotwal told news@nature.com that he cannot communicate with the press until the investigation has been completed.

Secomet, meanwhile, continues to sell their product. Their website says that the herbal extract "is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease" but adds that: "patients generally experience a lowering of viral load, which allows their CD4 count to stabilize and then to start improving."

Chairman of South African Medicine's Control Council (MCC), Peter Eagles, told news@nature.com that "Secomet cannot trade making medicinal claims. The company's conduct will be discussed at an MCC meeting on Friday 7 July when the matter will be put forward for further clarity and investigation." Secomet refused to comment to news@nature.com.

L'Afrique du Sud est un havre pour les médecines 'alternatives' contre le SIDA soutenues par certains politiques, dont le président Mbeki et son Ministre de la Santé, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. On se rappellera notamment le cas des pilules multivitaminiques du Dr Rath censées combattre le SIDA, des cancers, etc. Il est donc intéressant de constater qu'il n'est quand même pas possible d'y faire du n'importe quoi médical, comme de recommander des produits potentiellement dangereux sans tests scientifiques, avec en plus un lien financier pouvant générer un conflit d'intérêt.

Article du Skepdic sur le Dr Rath