Sand Tiger Sharks: The Truth About The Shark Cartilage Scam

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If you use shark cartilage or shark liver oil you are wasting your money, endangering your health, and contributing to the wholesale slaughter of helpless animals. You have fallen victim to what can only be described as an unconscionable scam and fraud that preys on cancer victims and their families.

Read more in Scientific American – Mythbusting 101: Sharks will cure cancer

June 30, 2000 – The Federal Trade Commission ordered two companies to cease selling shark cartilage as a cure for cancer, and fined Lane Labs-USA, Inc. one million dollars for false advertising in connection with shark cartilage sales. Click here to read the story.


Contemporary Snake Oil

The scam began when, some years ago, marine biologists made the discovery that some species of sharks seemed to have unusually low rates of cancer. With questionable logic and using the unsubstantiated claims of a few publicity-seeking ” researchers, ” it was then suggested that shark cartilage can cure cancer in humans. Some shark cartilage, it is said, contains a protein that may act as an anti-angiogenesis agent, inhibiting the growth of new capillaries that a cancer tumor needs to grow. Self-proclaimed “researchers” operating overseas and without any oversight or peer review mechanism declared that eating shark cartilage can cure cancer, and immediately wrote books and established companies selling… shark cartilage.

But studies conducted since the early 1970’s by such institutions as Harvard have failed to show a shred of evidence that suggests that consumption of shark cartilage by humans will cure cancer. On the contrary, it has been demonstrated that any beneficial anti-angiogenesis proteins in shark cartilage are destroyed in the human stomach by digestive acids, and therefore cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream through the digestive system anyway. Even if it did have any effect, a person would have to eat pounds of it a day due to the minuscule amounts of anti-angiogenesis proteins present in the cartilage. On top of it all is the fact that shark cartilage also contains an angiogenesis stimulant which encourages the growth of blood vessels and would counter any positive effect with a negative one. While it hasn’t been demonstrated yet, it’s even possible that shark cartilage is dangerous due to this angiogenesis stimulator. In a 1997 clinical trial sponsored by the Cancer Treatment Research Foundation, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and Cartilage Technologies (a shark cartilage manufacturer), the shark cartilage was found to be completely ineffective against cancer. The cartilage therapy caused no positive effects, but DID cause nausea and vomiting in many of the patients. A 1998 study by the Independent Cancer Treatment Research Foundation and published in the Journal of Oncology concluded that “shark cartilage powder has no effect on slowing the cancer, improving the quality of the participants’ lives, or shrinking the tumors.”

In those experiments that have shown that shark cartilage reduces tumor size (in lab animals), the cartilage has been surgically implanted into the tumor, and the reduction in tumor size is only temporary. For any anti-angiogenesis agent to work, it would have to be surgically implanted or administered intravenously, not ingested orally. The agent would have to reach the tumor through the bloodstream to have any effect.

Lies for Money

The Mote Marine Institute’s Dr. Carl Luer is perhaps the one man most often misquoted and misrepresented as supporting shark cartilage as a cure for cancer. Dr. Luer’s research in the early 1970’s led to the discovery that sharks are resistant to cancer, prompting I. William Lane’s book “Shark’s Don’t Get Cancer, ” the book that started the entire shark cartilage debacle (in fact, sharks do get cancer, including cancer of the cartilage). Dr. Luer’s past research is commonly used as the foundation for the shark cartilage manufacturer’s claims that cartilage can cure cancer. Dr. Luer, however, has publicly disputed that claim and stated that shark cartilage does not and can not cure cancer. Dr. Luer directly disputes the claims of the cartilage distributors with his own web page on the subject at the Mote Marine Institute’s Home Page.

In their blind greed for money, money, and more money, however, so-called “homeopathic” and “health food” manufacturers and distributors are not only ignoring the real evidence, but practicing deceptive marketing; misquoting scientists, misrepresenting the results of scientific study, misinforming consumers, preying on and giving terminal cancer patients false hope, (and taking their money), by pushing the product as a cure for cancer in humans. Even K-Mart proudly advertised, “We now have shark cartilage!”

Some companies, in an apparent effort to broaden the market, are also touting shark cartilage crème and pills as a cure for arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, and even acne, and more than one distributor has hinted that it might be effective against AIDS! The evidence for these claims is far less than substantial… These assertions are, simply, utterly ridiculous.

Claims of the Shark Cartilage Peddlers

As an example of the slipperiness of those distributing shark cartilage, International Health Technologies, who boast that they ONLY exist on the Internet, finishes their spiel on the benefits of shark cartilage with a disclaimer apparently designed to shield them from litigation or false advertising complaints that they might engender: ” Note: All of the above material is for education purpose only and is not intended as a prescription for any illness.” This comes immediately following their “recommendations” for the use of shark cartilage. Their ignorance is further manifested by their claim that sharks have existed unchanged for 400 million years, an outright falsehood.

A Canadian company selling shark cartilage, Aqua Blue, proudly displays their logo on their web page: A pair of jumping killer whales! Killer whales, however, are members of the dolphin family and are indeed mammals, not fish, let alone sharks. Aqua Blue’s “information brochure” is chock full of phrases such as “No claims can be made…” “certain well publicized tests have led people to believe…” “anecdotal cases,” “appears to work…” The liberal use of these phrases throughout their website ought to set off the credibility alarms in anyone’s mind.

By far the most outrageous deception I’ve seen on the Internet is a so-called “Notice to Health Care Professionals.” This little gem is an advertisement masquerading as a scientific study on the purity and potency of various brands of shark cartilage. Unlike a valid and properly formatted scientific publication, it gives absolutely NO supporting documentation, no information on the procedures, no information regarding the institution conducting the “research” or the qualifications or credentials of any of the “people” supposedly involved in the study. There is no e-mail or snail-mail address, and no hyperlinks to this page’s owners. It’s the type of thing you see in the supermarket tabloids with the word “advertisement” at the bottom in fine print. It’s a farce; an insulting and misleading advertisement for one brand of shark cartilage pills.

And don’t forget, the Australia-based distributor of Benefin, only one of many brands of shark cartilage, is the son of Dr. I. William Lane, author of the book “Sharks Don’t Get Cancer” and the man who started the entire shark cartilage debacle.

The truth is that any goofball can order a manual pill-making machine and powdered shark cartilage by the pound over the Internet or by mail order. There are no regulations or qualifications, restrictions or government oversight, and so what some of these jokers sell might not even BE shark cartilage, or may be “cut” with inert ingredients to dilute the product and maximize profits.

Genocide in the Seas

The direct result of this misinformation campaign has been the devastation of shark populations. North American populations of sharks have decreased by up to 80% in the past decade. As the National Marine Fisheries Service put it, “The fisheries service has determined that the Atlantic shark fishery is severely over-capitalized.” One American-owned shark cartilage factory in Costa Rica destroys more than 111,000 sharks per year — some estimates place the figure for sharks killed in American waters for cartilage above 200,000 sharks every month. Considering that some large sharks take 12 or more years to reach sexual maturity and bear only one or two baby sharks every year or two, it is obvious that this is over fishing on a catastrophic scale. Additionally, Chinese and Japanese factory ships troll the waters off North and Central America as well as the rest of the world, strip-mining the seas clean of sharks with forty to eighty mile “long-lines.”

The scale of the slaughter of these incredible animals can only be compared to the annihilation of the American bison, the African elephant, the humpback whale, the harp seal, the sea otter… the list goes on and on. Shark populations worldwide have already suffered a dramatic and devastating decrease in numbers. In fact, since it is very difficult to estimate shark populations, several species of shark such as the Great White, Tiger, Bull, and Mako, may already be endangered. Marine biologists are becoming skeptical about the sharks ’ chances for long-term survival or recovery.

The reason for this stupid, useless attack on sharks is simple, one that has driven otherwise successful animals to the brink of extinction, and beyond, many times before: Human greed and ignorance. Sharks, particularly those larger varieties such as the Great White, Thresher, Mako, Tiger, Hammerhead, and Reef Sharks, are sought for their valuable fins and, more recently, cartilage. The Japanese, Chinese, and Hong Kong in particular are ravenous consumers of shark products, especially in the form of shark fin soup, and the use of shark cartilage (which makes up the shark’s skeleton) began skyrocketing in the U.S. and abroad with the revelation that sharks may not get cancer.

The fact that this practice of senseless, systematic murder of magnificent animals continues in the 21st Century is absolutely outrageous and distressing. By now, the human race should know better, having established by example time and again the effects of unlimited hunting of any animal. But, as has also been demonstrated time and again, human greed and basic stupidity seems to always outweigh common sense. The saddest part is that it is completely unnecessary, since anti-angiogenesis agents can be obtained by other, easier means, including from calf cartilage. No fewer than 24 other anti-angiogenesis agents, such as endostatin, are being seriously studied as possible treatment for cancer, but none of them are derived from shark cartilage.

Squalamine, for example, is a substance recently discovered in the livers of some species of shark. This chemical is produced naturally by some sharks, and has shown great promise as an effective anti-angiogenesis agent in lab animals. So successful, in fact, that FDA-approved clinical trials evaluating the effects of squalamine in humans are set to begin this fall. Fortunately, squalamine is more easily and cheaply synthesized in the laboratory, which means that its manufacture does not require the destruction of sharks. This is good for us because squalamine is not present in the livers of all sharks, and is not present in high enough concentrations to make extraction from shark liver oil practical.

Unfortunately, shark liver oil is being sold as a cure for cancer in the same manner as cartilage, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. As mentioned, however, the active cancer-fighting agent in shark liver oil is not present in all sharks, and is not present in quantities great enough to be beneficial to humans. Squalamine consumption may also be subject to similar problems as those associated with shark cartilage, i.e., inability of the body to absorb it and destruction in the digestive system. It may also pose the risk of side-effects, since it is untested, and squalamine in shark liver oil comes with a variety of other chemical compounds present in the oil, many of which may be harmful.

OK, so you’re sitting there and you’re thinking to yourself, “”So, what? Sharks are mean, nasty creatures that eat people. Why worry about killing them?” The truth is, sharks eat a lot of different things, but “people” is definitely NOT on the menu. Shark attacks are rare, and your chances of being killed in a car wreck or plane crash are infinitely greater than your chances of being attacked by a shark. To really put it in perspective, more people die each year by choking on toothpicks than have been killed by sharks in the last DECADE in North America, despite media sensationalism of shark attacks. Those shark attacks that do occur rarely result in death, and are usually attributed to mistaken identity. Swimmers in wet suits often look like seals, (some sharks’ natural prey), from the shark’s perspective, and it has even been shown that certain shapes and sizes of surfboard are more likely to be subject to an attack. Chances are good that if you have been swimming in the ocean you’ve been swimming with sharks and never even knew it, because the fact of the matter is that sharks are not “man-eaters.”

Sharks are magnificently successful animals, apex predators perfectly attuned to their environment and occupying an important niche (read: “job”) in the Earth’s oceans. The benefit that we, as humans, may gain by preserving and protecting sharks are as yet untold. Sharks may yet help us gain a beach-head in the fight against cancer and other diseases… through properly conducted scientific research, not faulty logic and questionable experiments. When conclusively identified, the biological mechanism by which sharks defeat cancer could give us valuable insight, but if we kill them all for their useless fins or cartilage (useless to us, very important to the shark) we may never know exactly what we can learn from them.

SOS – Save Our Sharks

If sharks were small, furry, cute animals, this practice would have been stopped years ago; public outrage would have forced legislation to shut down the cartilage industry. It is the shark’s very magnificent alien-ness, however, that makes them so unique and special.

Helping stop this catastrophe is simple, really, and doesn’t require that you send money anywhere, or sign a petition, or generate a migraine composing a letter to your Congress person. All you have to do is avoid purchasing or using any product on the market that uses or contains anything made from sharks (including cosmetics), and encourage your family and friends to do the same – inform them of this colossal, tragic scam that is being perpetrated. A lack of demand for shark products will help force the fishermen to look elsewhere for profit. It worked for the baby harp seals, it’s working for the whales and the elephants, and it can work for the sharks! You can completely boycott those businesses that offer shark products for sale and write to them and let them know it.

You can write to the Federal Trade Commission at: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580

Inform them of the deception being practiced by those who sell shark cartilage and liver oil.

Call your local Attorney General and complain about the fraudulent advertising and promotion of shark cartilage and shark liver oil products.

Contact the local office of the Food and Drug Administration, listed in your phone book under Health and Human Services in the federal government section, and push for stricter regulation of the “health food,” and shark cartilage in particular, industry.

Write your Congress person (or other appropriate legislative representative) too, and let them know you support legislation protecting sharks, and putting the scam artists out of business!

In the long run, the best thing that we can do to preserve the beauty and majesty found everywhere around us is to teach our children the wonder of the natural world, and to respect those life forms with which we share the planet.

© 1997, 2000 Kevin A. Lundquist

Read more – Shattering Shark Myths