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Although the U.S. government requires an extensive testing and approval process for new drugs, products such as Cat's Claw capsules can be legally sold as dietary supplements as long as no explicit claims are made on labels or packaging as to their efficacy as a drug. (The label on a bottle of Cat's Claw purchased at GNC identifies the substance as an herbal tea and a product of Peru. A university in Innsbruck, Austria, is cited as a "world leader" in Cat's Claw research.)
"There are no studies that I am aware of that [Cat's Claw] does or does not do anything," asserts Dr. Corklin Steinhart, medical director of Mercy Hospital's Special Immunology Services and an AIDS treatment specialist. "It's being used by a lot of our patients in South Florida, and a lot of them will say they feel better, but it's difficult to say whether it's the medication or the placebo effect." Steinhart says he plans to undertake his own pilot study to find out whether the product is safe, and whether there is any scientific evidence to back claims that it boosts the immune systems of patients who are HIV-positive or helps repress the HIV virus.
Although Luis and Beatriz Schuler, whom Sevcec identifies on his program as the son and daughter of Cat's Claw "discoverer" Oscar Schuler Egg, don't explicitly describe their product as an AIDS cure, they do market it as an antioxidant capable of regenerating damaged cells.
"What does it do? It regenerates the cells," Beatriz Schuler explains to Sevcec. "It purifies the blood. It expels all the deteriorated cells we have in our bodies. It helps the body attain full potential. What does it do? It helps us to oxygenate the parts which have been destroyed."
"How many people throughout the years have told you that they were cured of something because of Cat's Claw?" Sevcec asks Luis Schuler. "I'm not asking you for an exact figure, but are we talking tens, hundreds, thousands?"
"Thousands," Schuler answers emphatically.
During each commercial break throughout the show, a toll-free telephone number is flashed on the screen, with an offer of 60-capsule bottles of Oscar Schuler Egg, Inc. Cat's Claw for $29.95 apiece. (Other brands sell for as little as $19.95 per bottle.)
Reached by telephone in California, Pedro Sevcec says that until recently, the product was also available through an employee of his show, who began selling Cat's Claw without his knowledge. "She had permission from the show's executive producer to sell Cat's Claw as long as she did not do it from Telemundo," says Sevcec, adding that the employee has since ceased to peddle the product. The talk show host says he didn't originally intend to do a segment about Cat's Claw, but that an earlier show about Andres Garcia and his recovery from cancer generated such a huge audience response that he decided to go ahead with a second show about the supposed miracle cure. He confesses that he is uncomfortable with the repeated airing of the segment because he does not want to be perceived as endorsing Cat's Claw.
Claudia Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission who has not seen the Cat's Claw segment, says it might be construed as an advertisement for the product and may expose Telemundo to charges of deceptive or fraudulent advertising.
"The Federal Trade Commission monitors advertising for things that might be considered over-the-counter drugs," Farrell explains. "An advertisement is something that induces someone to purchase a product. We have moved against a lot of companies for making efficacy claims that were not supported by reliable scientific evidence." She adds that anecdotal endorsements, such as those that aired on Sevcec, are not considered reliable or scientific evidence. (Telemundo management did not respond to calls requesting comment for this story.)
Counters the host: "I don't think what we did was advertising, and from my heart I know that was not my intention."
In August the Florida Attorney General's Office opened an investigation into Cat's Claw advertisements. Jose Gonzalez, the assistant attorney general who is handling the case, says he is looking into Cat's Claw advertising in all different forms of media -- including the Sevcec segment itself. "Basically what we're looking to see is whether there's any deception involved," Gonzalez says.
"If this is being sold as a serious treatment option for cancer, then it is obscene and it is dishonest," declares Dr. Luis Villa, president of the League Against Cancer, a nonprofit organization that assists cancer patients. "We don't even know the chemical composition. There is no quality control. We don't know how it is being purified, or if it is being purified at all. It may be dangerous and it may be toxic, but we have no data."
Moreover, Villa says, the claims made by Cat's Claw proponents are all too familiar. "Every four or five years there's a cure-it-all from the jungles of South America," he observes. "Unfortunately, none of them has ever been shown to be effective.