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."

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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 yerberas, 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.

"It looks like it's not harmful and might have some real value. But it's a little early [to tell]," says Ken Goodrick, an ethnic medicine expert at Baylor College of Medicine.

At the same time, there's no shortage of customers who insist outright that Cat's Claw is a miracle cure. Bernardo Martinez, a retired Houston restaurant owner, is one of them. Last year, he says, his wife was crippled with untreatable osteoporosis. Prompted by Garcia's sales pitch, Martinez sprung for a month's portion of Cat's Claw. After several weeks of taking the capsules twice a day as recommended, he says, both he and his wife began to see amazing results.

"Una de Gato has given her strength and liberty to walk. We've been taking it for one year and two months, without fail," Martinez says. He also believes that Ua de Gato cured him of cancer. Like Andres Garcia, Martinez was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Surgery removed his tumor, but it was Cat's Claw that earned him a clean bill of health three months later, Martinez maintains. Not only that, his eyesight has strengthened.

"I give thanks to Una de Gato," Martinez says.
Physicians and some public health officials, however, are less sure thanks are due. In Florida, the attorney general's office has begun an investigation into Cat's Claw advertising to see if it contains any deception. (The Texas attorney general has shown little interest in the topic; the Houston Health Department had never heard of Cat's Claw.) And Federal Trade Commission spokesman Bonnie Johnson, whose agency only discloses investigations ending in legal action, says that the FTC often prosecutes companies that make false claims for a drug. Those claims, Johnson says, can be conveyed in many ways; some of them include pictures, expert opinions and even anecdotes.

George Guerrero, an east-side physician who is the Martinezes' family doctor, isn't sure what to think about Cat's Claw. On one hand, he doesn't doubt its efficacy: "Something has to be said about people who have faith," Guerrero says. "I always say, if I have the trust and confidence of my patients, I've got 50 percent of the disease licked."

But Guerrero already has seen his patients, about 95 percent of whom are Hispanic, let faith in Cat's Claw get way out of hand. Infatuated with Cat's Claw, some stop taking their medications altogether, Guerrero says. The worst cases he's seen are diabetics who decide their ingestion of Cat's Claw precludes their need for insulin.

Rosa Ybarra, a Houston yerbera owner who sells powdered Cat's Claw, has her own doubts about how well the stuff really functions.

"I haven't heard one testimonial about this little herb [from customers], and that's the truth," Ybarra says from her tiny northwest Houston store stocked with dried herbs and Chinese memory tonics.

"I don't want to lie. In my opinion, Cat's Claw is not better than a lot of other herbs. For cancer? Drink anamu tea," Ybarra says firmly. "I have tried it; I've seen it work personally. For that, I've heard testimonials."

So why the Cat's Claw sensation? After all, no one is threatening a run on anamu tea. The answer, it turns out, lies not in the bug-clouded Peruvian jungles, but in the ill-lit Miami studio where Nutrivida concocts its ads. As low-rent as the Cat's Claw infomercial may look, the secret for selling wonder pills is not necessarily quality but quantity, quantity, quantity.

"It just goes to show you, frequency and consistency, that's the way to sell," says a Channel 48 advertising representative who asked not to be named. "Not only do they have that infomercial, they have lots of 60-second spots during the day, almost every commercial break, it seems. I sure wish I'd been the one who sold those ads."

A little star quality never hurts, either. And in Mexico, Andres Garcia is not just a movie icon, he's a role model. Not only do most in Houston's Latino community know of the 57-year-old Garcia, they've heard much about his, ah, vigorous personal life. They know about his reputed 16 children from three marriages, his nubile new trophy wife and how Garcia purportedly fended off a duo of carjackers during a recent shootout in downtown Mexico City.  

"Of course he's great at selling a prostate medication," says Esperanza Espino, a custodial worker. "He is the living embodiment of Mexican masculinity."

Yerbera owner Ybarra thinks Espino's got it right.
"There may be better healing herbs out there," Ybarra says. "But none with the publicity of Una de Gato.

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