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Researchers say cholesterol treatment ineffective

CHICAGO -- German research casts doubt on the effectiveness of a sugar cane-based ingredient sold as a cholesterol treatment in One-A-Day vitamins and other products marketed in dozens of countries.

The substance, called policosanol, worked no better than dummy pills in German adults with high levels of LDL cholesterol, the kind that can clog arteries and lead to heart problems.

Even in high doses, policosanol derived from Cuban sugar cane produced no meaningful changes in cholesterol levels during 12 weeks of treatment, said lead author Dr. Heiner Berthold of the German Medical Association's drug commission.

Most previous studies that reached the opposite conclusion were sponsored by a company founded by Cuba's National Center for Scientific Research to market policosanol, the German researchers said. The Cuban scientific center didn't respond to requests for comment.

The German study involving 143 people appears in yesterday's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Patients were randomly assigned to get policosanol in various doses or dummy pills for 12 weeks. There was no difference in the levels of LDL in volunteers in either group.

Berthold, executive secretary of the German Medical Association's drug commission, said his research doesn't rule out that policosanol might be effective in different ethnic groups or that other formulations might have different effects.

But he contends that the product's claims have been overstated because there's no ''mechanism of action" to explain how it might lower cholesterol.

Policosanol is a combination of alcohols that come from plant wax. Cuban sugar cane-based policosanol is sold in more than 40 countries, mostly as a cholesterol treatment, the researchers said. Other sources for the ingredient include wheat germ, rice, bran, and beeswax. Policosanol products are widely available on the Internet and in stores.

Bayer Consumer Care uses sugar cane-based policosanol in its One-A-Day Cholesterol Plus vitamins and calls it ''the leading complete multivitamin specially formulated with heart-supporting nutrients."

Bayer spokeswoman Tricia McKernan said the study ''was not designed to address a claim that along with diet and exercise, policosanol can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels already within the normal range."

''Bayer makes only the latter claim, and agrees with the authors that consumers should always discuss their cardiovascular-risk profile with their doctor," McKernan said.

Policosanol is marketed in Cuba as a natural medicine called PPG with purported benefits that include lowering cholesterol levels, boosting energy, and promoting weight loss.

Juventud Rebelde, the Communist Youth newspaper, reported last year that about 250,000 people in Cuba take PPG and that it is exported.

Andrew Shao, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group for dietary supplement makers, said the new research ''is only one study" and not the final word on policosanol.

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