A new multimillion dollar deal between Swisse Wellness and CSIRO has raised questions about the integrity of Australia’s premier scientific research organisation and the motivations behind the deal. Another important question is whether consumers will benefit from such partnerships.
Swisse manufactures complementary and alternative medicines, which are widely used by different populations. Research has shown people like complementary medicines because they find natural alternatives to be in line with their values and beliefs.
Complementary or natural medicines have often been around for centuries, but frequently research supporting their efficacy, particularly for the treatment of obesity, is weak or lacking.
Are alternative therapies and science a good mix?
Although complementary medicines have received a lot of attention recently due to safety risks, there are a number of complementary medicines that are beneficial for physical health conditions.
Some complementary medicines show potential but require further investigation on a larger scale and over a longer time period. One such example are capsaicinoids, the active components in chilli peppers, which has been shown to have a biologically plausible mechanism of action for weight loss. But rigorous studies with bigger sample sizes are needed to evaluate how effective it is long-term and whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
Likewise, ginger extract and gingerols show potential for preventing type 2 diabetes but must be investigated further in more human studies. Fibre supplements appear to have the best supporting evidence and best potential so far for the management of obesity and associated metabolic disease.
There are also a range of natural medicines that show potential for improving mental health conditions. Curcumin, which is the active ingredient of the Indian spice turmeric, has been compared in head-to-head studies with the antidepressant fluoxetine. It has been shown to work as well as the pharmaceutical drug, in proof-of-concept research. Similar findings have been shown with extracts from the spice saffron and St John’s wort extract, although definitive research is needed.
But there’s also a significant number of complementary medicines with no proven efficacy or often the data that supports their claims has come from poor quality studies with small sample sizes.
There’s also the potential for deception when manufacturers of alternative medicines use research evidence to back up claims for products that may contain similar ingredients to products tested for efficacy, but aren’t in fact the same. A deal like this provides Swisse with the opportunity to further validate their specific products.
People are taking it, so we need to know if it works
Complementary medicines have shown some potential in treating physical and mental illnesses but rigorous research is desperately needed.
Deals like this one between Swisse Wellness and CSIRO have the potential to further address the gap in information where complementary and alternative medicines are concerned. But this must be on the basis this research is objective and peer reviewed.
In a challenging funding environment, industry support is playing an even greater role but there is a risk of bias when the research is not conducted independent of the industry partner or when results are not disseminated to the public.
Collaborations between industry and leading institutions should be encouraged to support research and development into complementary medicines around product safety and the evidence supporting their claims, so long as the research undertaken adheres to strict academic standards.
Complementary medicine may have a greater role to play, especially when taking into consideration the fact people like to take it, and they stick to it. The continuation of good quality research will tell us if the money spent on complementary medicines is money wasted or well spent.
Nicholas Fuller, Research Fellow, Clinical Trials Development & Analysis, University of Sydney and Colman Taylor, Research Fellow, Critical Care & Trauma Division & Conjoint Senior Lecturer, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney.