For the last four years I have served in a volunteer capacity among a panel of pharmacotherapy experts queried regularly by the ABC News Medical Unit about breaking or upcoming news involving the efficacy and safety of drugs and supplements. Where appropriate, I provide background information that informs the story.
My incentive is largely to put my time where my mouth is when I say that scientists need to take a more active role in making sure medical stories are reported accurately. An additional dividend is paid to my students who then benefit from my presentation of the science behind timely medical developments.
On occasion, perhaps once or twice a year, I’ll be asked for an on-camera interview. Even when this occurs, the resulting story will contain no more than 15 seconds of the interview and some summary by the reporter of other issues we discussed. I take this responsibility very seriously and prepare as much as I can given the deadlines of the press and my daily education and research schedule.
But given airtime constraints, much of what I prepare would normally end up in the abyss of my files and come out in the classroom when I lecture about that particular topic. Blogging, however, now allows us to expand further on stories where we are consulted, giving us an opportunity to air, albeit to a smaller audience, the information we found important from our perspective. Authoring a blog, therefore, takes away the excuse some scientists and physicians have in not wanting to talk to the press: “There’s never enough airtime to tell the whole story the way I would tell it.”
This post was informed by one of those brief appearances, this time on ABC World News Sunday with Dan Harris. The interview was solicited last weekend following the release of information obtained during the execution of a search warrant in lodging occupied by the self-help guru, James Arthur Ray, who led an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony last October where three people ultimately died and almost two dozen were hospitalized. The segment was not archived to the World News website but some ABC affiliates subsequently aired truncated versions of the story.
On October 8, 2009, paramedics responded to a 911 call at a mystical retreat being held at Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat Center in West Sedona, Arizona, a stunningly beautiful area known widely as a mecca for New Age enthusiasts. Eyewitness accounts compiled in this October 21 New York Times article describes what medics encountered upon arriving at a 415-square-foot “sweat lodge” on the center’s grounds:
Midway through a two-hour sweat lodge ceremony intended to be a rebirthing experience, participants say, some people began to fall desperately ill from the heat, even as their leader, James Arthur Ray, a nationally known New Age guru, urged them to press on.
“There were people throwing up everywhere,” said Dr. Beverley Bunn, 43, an orthodontist from Texas, who said she struggled to remain conscious in the sweat lodge, a makeshift structure covered with blankets and plastic and heated with fiery rocks.
Dr. Bunn said Mr. Ray told the more than 50 people jammed into the small structure — people who had just completed a 36-hour “vision quest” in which they fasted alone in the desert — that vomiting “was good for you, that you are purging what your body doesn’t want, what it doesn’t need.” But by the end of the ordeal on Oct. 8, emergency crews had taken 21 people to hospitals. Three have since died.
Participants paid $9,695 each to attend a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat led by Mr. Ray, an event whose next offering continues to be advertised on the website for James Ray International, Inc.
Yes, the 2010 event is still scheduled for September 18-23, 2010 and registration remains open.
But I wouldn’t put up my ten grand just yet because an investigation of Mr. Ray is ongoing and the Yavapati County Sheriff’s Office has recently released the affidavit from a search warrant executed shortly after this tragedy.
Many other news sources will provide you with details on the circumstances of the tragedy with eyewitness reports and you can read elsewhere of Mr. Ray’s appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show associated with the book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.
But here we would like to discuss some of the pharmacology associated with the Sedona tragedy. Lynne LaMaster in the Prescott News notes that according to the search warrant documents, investigators were originally looking for:
“A saleable/useable quantity of unlawful drugs including but not limited to marijuana, methamphetamine and peyote, paraphernalia for packaging, manicuring, weighing, distributing, including but not limited to scales, baggies, grinders, bindles, envelopes, seals paraphernalia used to administer the drug, i.e., syringes, cotton swabs, alcohol swabs, spoons, razor blades, tubes.”
While investigators did not appear to find any overtly psychoactive substances, they did find a veritable cornucopia of prescription drugs, dietary supplements, and syringes, with prescriptions in the name of Mr. Ray. But it wasn’t the supplements that caught my eye. It was this letter from a Michigan doctor of osteopathy:
Dr. Crisler operates the website, allthingsmale.com, and offers in-clinic and online consultations. The frontpage of his site argues strongly that he is in the business of anti-aging therapies as shown lecturing to the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine and offering subscriptions to Life Extension Magazine. Further exploration of his website reveals that he specializes further in assessment of low testosterone levels, or hypogonadism.
Testosterone cypionate, hGH, hCG, Arimidex (anastrozole) and finasteride (sold previously as Propecia or Proscar, but now available generically). OK, that’s starting to make sense. Testosterone and human growth hormone (hGH) are anabolic agents. That is, they enhance the development of lean, skeletal muscle mass. But you might have some questions at first glance.
(For pharmacology students and professors, dissecting the endocrine pharmacology of this combination would make a great comprehensive qualifying examination question for graduate candidacy.)
Arimidex/anastrozole? Isn’t that used to treat estrogen-dependent breast cancer?
Finasteride? Isn’t that used to treat prostate cancer?
Let’s take a closer look at some of these drugs.
Testosterone cypionate is known as a “depot” form of testosterone that has a half-life of 5-8 days, sold as DEPO®-Testosterone in the US. Testosterone, the steroid hormone primarily responsible for secondary sex characteristics in men, is not active when taken orally because it is rapidly metabolized by the liver. Therefore, if one wishes to boost testosterone, it is commonly formulated into a gel or patch that slowly releases the hormone across the skin. But it is more effectively delivered by injection, usually into muscle. When combined with a fat-soluble compound like cypionic acid, the testosterone is slowly released from the injection site. According to a PowerPoint presentation available at Dr. Crisler’s website (here, 4.5MB), his regimen employs weekly injections of 100 mg testosterone cypionate, about double the manufacturer’s recommendation for treating clinical hypogonadism.
When I was interviewed by Dan Harris for ABC World News Sunday last weekend, we discussed in footage that did not appear whether testosterone qualified as an “anabolic steroid.” The public normally thinks of ultrapotent, clandestine compounds as being the anabolic steroids used by athletes. But in purely pharmacological terms, testosterone is a steroid based on its chemical structure and it has anabolic, or tissue-building, activity. However, testosterone is an anabolic steroid that we make naturally, men and women.
Hence, testosterone is an endogenous anabolic steroid. When injected as testosterone cypionate, this would be called the exogenous supplementation of an endogenous steroid. But true bodybuilders wouldn’t bother with something like testosterone when more potent and effective synthetic anabolic steroids are available on the clandestine market.
Arimidex (anastrozole) is classified as an “aromatase inhibitor.” You may not know that testosterone is the starting material for estradiol, the steroid hormone primarily responsible for secondary sex characteristics in women. Testosterone, which we all make from cholesterol as the starting material, is converted to estrogen by aromatase or CYP19, an enzyme that is highly abundant in the ovaries. When a woman is diagnosed with a form of breast cancer that required estrogen to grow, aromatase inhibitors are given to prevent the ovaries from making more estrogen from testosterone (Older drugs such as tamoxifen can also be given as they directly block the effects of estrogen on breast cancer cells themselves.)
We do not know if Mr. Ray was among the approximately 1% of breast cancers that occur in men. Former drummer of the rock band KISS, Peter Criss, is the most recently public of male breast cancer patients in the US.
However, it does not appear that Dr. Crisler is a board-certified oncologist, so there must be some other reason that he prescribed Arimidex to Mr. Ray. Men have some testosterone that gets converted to estrogen but usually it’s not enough to cause estrogenic side effects such as gynecomastia and testicular shrinkage. But when taking supplemental, supraphysiological doses of testosterone, the small amount of aromatase that men have will convert enough of it to estradiol such that they may experience some feminizing effects.
Interestingly, Dr. Crisler notes on slide #66 of his aforementioned PowerPoint presentation that anastrozole’s #1 use worldwide is in testosterone replacement therapy regimens. Unfortunately, a citation is not available to support that statement.
Finasteride prevents conversion by 5-alpha-reductase of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone or DHT, a form of the hormone that can cause benign prostatic hypertrophy, can promote prostate cancer, and is also partly responsible for hair loss. Hence, finasteride combats several side effects of testosterone supplementation. So, these testosterone injections can be combined with anastrozole and finasteride to maximize testosterone’s anabolic effect while minimizing “unsightly” side effects.
Human growth hormone (hGH) is a peptide normally produced in the pituitary gland that is also anabolic on its own and augments the muscle-building effects of testosterone.
Human chorionic gonadotropin or hCG is normally the hormone produced by the placenta during pregnancy and is the hormone detected in the urine by home and clinical pregnancy tests. Yes, men taking this hormone would give a positive pregnancy test.
Understanding why hCG might be given in this cocktail requires that we revisit the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis (HPGA). Gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH, is produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and signals that pituitary gland to synthesize and release several peptide hormones that each share a common subunit: LH, FSH, TSH, and hCG. LH, or luteinizing hormone, when released from the pituitary gland and causes the testes to create mature spermatozoa and release testosterone. However, when too much testosterone is produced, or too much is available from external injection, a negative feedback loop suppresses LH secretion. Suppression of LH over time will cause testicular atrophy. It is thought that providing hCG will provide more of the subunit shared with LH, restoring LH levels. I am not convinced that this actually occurs. Restoring LH also is purported to increase the conversion of cholesterol to pregnenolone, a precursor or building block of testosterone. Believe it or not, this is an oversimplification of the pathway but I hope that gives you an idea of the rationale behind hCG use.
There were also some other drugs found in Ray’s room at the lodge prescribed by other physicians that included Diovan (valsartan), an antihypertensive of that competitively binds receptors for an endogenous vasocontrictor, angiotensin II, and an injectable relative of vitamin B12 called methylcobalamin. Although we don’t know for certain if Ray was taking the drugs prescribed by Dr. Crisler, investigators did at least find anastrozole and Genotropin brand of hGH, Propecia brand of finasteride, together with pregnenolone, the testosterone precursor. Also found were bags, suitcases, and pill boxes of energy supplements and amino acids. The complete litany of objects confiscated from his possession are detailed at the Prescott News website.
As mentioned at the outset, one of the biggest reasons investigators were interested in any drugs that might have been in Ray’s possession was that there may have been psychoactive substances that could have impaired his judgment or that of followers/clients in the sweat lodge at the retreat. Ray was reported by several eyewitnesses as being aggressive and aloof, and even unhelpful when medics arrived at the sweat lodge. Dan Harris at ABC News asked me if I thought that Ray’s pharmacopeia might have contributed to his state of mind.
This is very difficult to do for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which because I am not a physician nor am I privy to what drugs he was actually taking or his basal personality characteristics. However, I am a pharmacologist and did train in endocrinology during my postdoctoral fellowship and can make some general comments.
A person taking an anabolic steroid regimen (recall that testosterone is a natural anabolic steroid) is prone to mood swings, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. In “TRT: A Recipe For Success,” a Word document available at All Things Male, Dr. Crisler apparently makes note that the intent is not to create an anabolic steroid cycle but rather testosterone replacement therapy, where testosterone levels are targeted to the upper-level of a normal range. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure if Mr. Ray was taking the drugs as directed or at doses greater than those recommended.
A physician colleague also reminded me that some of the drugs on the search warrant could alone cause electrolyte disturbances that could be exacerbated by being in an enclosed area with hot stones where other people were vomiting and begging to get out after fasting for 36 hours. Specifically, testosterone can cause sodium retention and Diovan/valsartan can cause potassium retention. These ionic imbalances can certainly influence one’s state of mind and one can speculate that these imbalances would be made worse by fasting and dehydration.
Off-label drug prescribing
This case also raises some questions as to how these drugs were prescribed in the first place. Sources close to Ray told ABC News that the “practical mystic” was being treated for a hormonal imbalance.
It is peculiar why a man of Ray’s means living in Carlsbad, CA, would be prescribed drugs by a physician in Michigan rather than seeing a board-certified endocrinologist or urologist at one of the outstanding medical centers in southern California.
Nevertheless, there are no laws that would have prevented Dr. Crisler from prescribing this regimen to Mr. Ray. To the contrary, physicians in the United States, whether they are MDs or DOs, are granted the latitude to prescribe any FDA-approved medicine for any indication they see fit. While it is illegal for drug companies themselves to promote “off-label” uses of drugs (i.e., indications for which the company has not received explicit FDA approval), a physician can legally prescribe a breast cancer drug to a man wishing to build lean muscle mass. I will leave it to my physician colleagues to comment on whether this falls under the standards of medical practice. In fact, the ethics of off-label prescribing would be an excellent separate issue to discuss in another post.
But let us not forget that this is a very sad case where three people lost their lives and nearly two dozen people were hospitalized. Press accounts of the sweat lodge incident and subsequent investigation suggest that blame and potential criminal penalties will fall where they may. The Camp Verde Journal noted in its 2009 roundup that:
Lawsuits have been filed by survivors, victims’ families and the Black Hills Sioux Nation, alleging Ray “committed fraud by impersonating an Indian,” thus violating the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
What we have offered here is a perspective on the pharmacology and toxicology of prescription hormone products and considerations of issues raised in publicly available documents and questions posed of us by the press. It is likely that several factors conspired to end up with this loss of life. As always, tragic events are what drive changes in laws and regulations.