The initials of the Australian organization Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM) happen to be the same as the Flying Spaghetti Monster but the two are diametrically opposed. The latter began as a satire on creationism and developed into a religion that makes unsupported and untestable claims; the former was established in 2011 to emphasize the importance of rigorous science in health care and to question unsubstantiated health claims. It focuses on Australia but has many members around the world, including most of the writers for Science-Based Medicine. Friends of Science in Medicine is currently challenging Australian regulations regarding “food as medicine”. They have found a marked discrepancy in consumer protection between the standards for therapeutic claims for medicines and therapeutic claims for foods. FSM’s current president, Ken Harvey, has written about Avemar, classified as a “Food for Special Medical Purposes for Cancer”, here. He mentions that the price of a month’s supply is $220 AUD.
Avemar is being promoted in the US with these outrageous claims:
Researchers have proved that Avemar is an effective cancer treatment that unlike other alternative cancer treatments does not treat a single type of cancer but works effectively in treatment of all types of cancer. It can therefore be used effectively in fighting breast cancer, cervical cancer as well as other cancers that have victimized our women for centuries.
Avemar also helps the immune system in identifying and killing the cancer cells. It strengthens the natural killer cells to spot and destroy the cancer cells as well as any other foreign body that may enhance the growth of the cancerous cells and cause more harm to the cancer patient. The cancer cell unfortunately may escape the natural killer cell by masking themselves in a special membrane that the natural killer cells cannot identify as foreign, Avemar helps in this situation as it inhibits the release of this special membrane thereby making it possible for the natural killer cells to spot the cancer cells and kill them.
What is it?
Avemar is a fermented wheat germ extract marketed as a medical food to supplement the diet of cancer patients undergoing standard cancer treatments including surgery, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and radiation. It is said to improve quality of life.
What does the science say?
A 2018 systematic review found 16 studies suitable for analysis. All were on human cell lines cultivated in a lab; none of the studies evaluated clinical outcomes. They found some promising results, but concluded, “further in vitro and in vivo studies are necessary to prove its effectiveness and safety in humans.” An earlier systematic review in Australia had concluded “While the early evidence, particularly at the cellular level are promising, and of interest, the broader questions regarding Avemar as an adjunctive therapy in cancer treatment, and its clinical effectiveness have not been established to date”. So the claim that Avemar is an effective treatment for all types of cancer is not supported by the evidence.
I found a lot of studies of Avemar listed in PubMed, but they were mostly in vitro and animal studies. One clinical study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis found Avemar beneficial; but it was a small, uncontrolled open-label pilot study with only 15 patients. Another pilot study found that adding Avemar to a regimen of chemotherapy for high risk melanoma patients significantly improved survival. I found no rigorous research that compared clinically significant outcomes with Avemar to outcomes with placebo.
More questionable claims
On Amazon.com, Avemar is claimed to be an all-natural, holistic supplement that:
- Supports the Immune System, Quality of Life, Mental Clarity, Physiological Cellular and Hormonal Immune Balance.
- AVEMAR Supports Blood Sugar Levels and Glucose Metabolism. Supports White Blood Cells for Peak Performance.
These claims clearly go beyond the evidence. I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about when they said that cancer cells mask themselves in a special membrane that the natural killer cells can’t identify as foreign and that Avemar inhibits the release of that membrane.
Conclusion: Inadequate evidence
The published evidence didn’t convince me that it doesn’t work, but I didn’t find convincing evidence that it does work. More and better research is needed. Wheat germ is food, but is Avemar a “food for special medical purposes” that warrants promoting this expensive product to vulnerable cancer patients? I’m skeptical.