A movie star's claim of a cancer cure spreads Cat's Claw fever through the city

A well-tanned, mustachioed star of the Mexican screen, Andres Garcia routinely thrills viewers across the Americas with his cinematic exploits. But even Garcia, who plies his trade in Spanish-language action films, may be startled by the scope of his latest success: his personal testimony is credited with turning a nasty-looking root from the Peruvian jungle into a wildly popular herbal remedy that thousands of Hispanics are snapping off the shelves in pursuit of a cure for cancer, diabetes, AIDS and whatever else ails them.

It's sold as Cat's Claw, and in Houston, one of the largest markets for the "dietary supplement," Latino herb stores have been scrambling for more than a year to keep up with the demand. It's also available at more Anglo-cized purveyors of vitamins and health foods -- the GNC outlet on Gessner, for example, moves about four bottles of Cat's Claw a day. A bit after the fact, doctors, researchers and public health officials have begun pawing at Cat's Claw, too, in an effort to ascertain its secrets.

Andres Garcia thinks he knows. For the past two months, Garcia has appeared almost nightly on the Telemundo network (Channel 48 in Houston) as the star attraction of a rather bleary half-hour infomercial filmed in Miami, New York and the Peruvian Amazon. "I have a mission," Garcia confides to viewers in his distinctive bedroom growl. He wants to tell the world about Cat's Claw. "I don't know if it will cure everyone," Garcia notes modestly. But, he adds, "I was cured E [and] I know it's cured various people with different cancers."

His green eyes accented by an azure turtleneck, Garcia stares arrestingly at the camera; strains of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" surge on the soundtrack. As Telemundo's audience knows, Garcia was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago. It was Cat's Claw, he told guests on a Telemundo talk show 11 months ago, that saved his life. Gingerly avoiding specifics, Garcia now offers a brief outline of the plant's benefits. What the vine contains are antioxidants, Garcia says, and, "basically, it's just a lack of oxygen in your cells, that's what cancer is."

The music swells again, permitting viewers to grab their pens and take down the 800 number that flashes intermittently with scenes of Machu Picchu throughout the broadcast. On the other end of the line wait operators for Nutrivida, a New York-based firm that imports Cat's Claw bark from Peru, then refines it into dusty-brown capsules. A one-month supply goes for $29.95.

Called Una de Gato in Spanish, Cat's Claw belongs to the botanical genus Uncaria tomentosa and prospers in the Peruvian rain forest. For Peru's indigenous peoples, who dubbed it Cat's Claw because of the curved, clawlike thorns that line the bark, the vine has provided home remedies for generations. But until Cat's Claw allegedly saved Garcia's life, most in the U.S. Latino community had never heard of it.

Then Nutrivida, owned by a Peru-based family of planters called the Schulers, touched off a tenfold boom in Cat's Claw exports with its ads. The Schulers, whose patriarch, Oscar Schuler, claims to have identified the six alkaloids that make Cat's Claw potent, repeatedly urge viewers not to settle for any product other than their own. "Autentica!" a loud voice hectors viewers throughout the infomercial. "Correct botanical identification! Up-to-date technology!"

But the Schulers' urgings that seekers settle for nothing less than their botanically correct product have gone unheeded. By all accounts -- from Channel 48, local herb stores and customers themselves -- Cat's Claw has now become a lavish moneymaker, and not just for Nutrivida.

The city's yerberías, Latino grocery stores and GNC all sell different brands of the bark, often at prices more tempting than the Nutrivida offer. And though most buyers are Latino, there are signs -- such as the bimonthly Cat's Claw News out of Georgetown, Colorado -- that Anglos have come down with the fever, too. At the Whole Foods on Shepherd, Cat's Claw has been selling well since it was placed on the shelves a few months back. A Whole Foods spokesman estimates that the customers for the five different Cat's Claw brands that the store carries are half Latino and half Anglo -- and almost all elderly.

Precisely what's inside all those brownish capsules isn't clear. Since Cat's Claw is marketed as a dietary supplement, it never underwent the lengthy testing and analysis required for products sold as drugs.

So far, no adverse reactions have been reported by Cat's Claw devotees. Its salutary effects, which Nutrivida strongly suggests include curing perilous diseases by shoring up the immune system, are another matter. In the Nutrivida infomercial, a Schuler spokeswoman named Dr. Norma Pestano charges through the jungle to quiz Oscar Schuler's son about Cat's Claw's medicinal qualities; the howling of bugs is so deafening, though, that some answers are unintelligible. Back in civilization, Pestano then queries a no doubt carefully selected procession of physicians from Venezuela, Peru and the United States. All fervently agree with her that Cat's Claw contains cell-regenerating antioxidants.

All those claims have some basis in truth. The catch is that most studies of Cat's Claw have taken place only in test tubes. For that reason, most researchers warn, the anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting qualities that show up in some lab tests don't prove anything about Cat's Claw's impact on specific, acute diseases such as cancer.

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