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A Supplement Script
The story of MSM might be fit for the big screen

"MSM: THE MOVIE" may not entice any big-time producers, but the story of this popular nutritional supplement has many of the makings of a Hollywood movie: invention, rediscovery, promise, competition, money, obstacles, misdirection, quandary, controversy, surprise, uncertainty — and, of course, faith and hope.

The story of MSM begins in 1866, when a Russian chemist first synthesized a solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide or DMSO. Not much was done with it until after World War II, when chemists began to appreciate its ability to dissolve many substances and carry them in solutions.

In the 1960s, Dr. Stanley Jacob, a professor of surgery at the University of Oregon Medical School, experimented with DMSO while trying to improve the preservation of kidneys awaiting transplantation.

"We learned that it would pass directly through the skin," says Jacob, "and that it relieved pain, reduced swelling — particularly swelling from inflammation — improved blood supply and tended to enhance healing."

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In 1978, the FDA approved DMSO for treatment of interstitial cystitis, a bladder condition, and for a time it was popular as a topical treatment for arthritis and renown for the strong garlic odor its users tended to emit.

Meanwhile, Jacob had discovered that when the body broke down DMSO, it produced another substance with medical potential, DMSO2 or methylsulfonylmethane, better known as MSM. Under a 1992 federal law, MSM could be considered a nutritional supplement, enabling it to be sold as long as disease-related claims weren't made. In this country, it's synthesized from lignin, a substance found in trees.

Jacob, author of "The Miracle of MSM: The Natural Solution for Pain," believes MSM reduces pain and inflammation, softens scar tissue, improves blood circulation, reduces muscle spasm, stimulates healing and is especially valuable in treating symptoms of the autoimmune disease scleroderma. Favorable side effects of MSM include quickened hair growth, thickened nails and increased movement in the digestive tract. Some people experience headaches, and MSM can have a mild blood-thinning effect. Jacob commonly recommends building up to 2 to 8 grams of MSM daily, taken with breakfast or lunch (taken in the evening it might hinder sleep) and, as always, letting your physician know what you're taking.

But, Jacob says, "There are so many mistakes and unsubstantiated claims on the Internet. One is that MSM possesses all the pharmacologic actions of DMSO. That's a major error: DMSO may have upwards of 1,000 pharmacologic actions. MSM has, at most, maybe 50.

"Another mistake is people say MSM is a free-radical scavenger and antioxidant. DMSO is the most powerful free-radical scavenger . . . but MSM is not a free-radical scavenger."

One major problem, as skeptics point out: There is little reliable research on MSM and humans. Jacob agrees, though he thinks some small but good studies in rodents have shown MSM to help with rheumatoid arthritis and delay the onset of breast and colon cancer.

A major problem is funding: Even a small study with, say, 40 patients, can cost $80,000 or more, Jacob says, and a large clinical trial in the vicinity of $1 million. Pharmaceutical companies with exclusive rights to drugs may direct that kind of money into research with realistic expectations of a comparable return. But small companies often can't afford research on nonexclusive products, or the legal cost of pursuing patent violators: The patent on MSM expires next year but already is ignored by some overseas producers.

So what happens? A researcher looks for funding, and a company looks for credibility. Jacob, who still teaches at what's now called the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, became medical adviser for Cardinal Nutrition of Vancouver, Wash., the world's largest manufacturer of MSM. He encourages and facilitates research and handles doctors' questions about the supplement. Jacob doesn't own stock in the company and is on a fixed monthly retainer, so he doesn't profit more from increased sales, but he recognizes the relationship may color how some people view his enthusiasm for the supplement.

Consumers, meanwhile, get to choose their own ending to this story: Take MSM now. Hold out for more research. Or, perhaps, wait for the sequel.

Molly Martin is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. She can be reached at 206-464-8243, or P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

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