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Shark Cartilage:
The Myths and Possible Truths of its Health Benefits

Scientists have been studying shark cartilage as a potential treatment for cancer for decades, based on the fact that sharks do not appear to get cancer as often as humans.

shark cartilage

Scientists suggest that shark cartilage contains compounds that may fight cancer -- but it may not be effective in the powdered form sold over-the-counter.

"Scientists have believed for over 35 years that since sharks do not appear to develop as much cancer as humans, there may be something in their systems that protects them from getting cancer," said Gabriel Feldman, MD, director of prostate and colorectal cancer for the American Cancer Society.

The most popular theory behind the idea that shark cartilage may cure cancer has to do with the composition of the cartilage itself. Cartilage does not contain blood vessels, which makes it difficult for cancer to grow in it.

It's thought that cartilage actually makes substances that block the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) that would feed a tumor. Therefore, using cartilage to treat a tumor may keep blood vessels from forming in it, and cause the tumor to stop growing or shrink.

As news of this "breakthrough" cancer treatment hit the media, its popularity soared, and surveys from the late 1990s showed that over 25 percent of patients with varying illnesses used shark cartilage supplements as complementary or alternative medicine.

However, the debate is still going strong as to whether or not shark cartilage is beneficial or just a marketing gimmick.

Is Shark Cartilage a "Triumph of Marketing and Pseudoscience"?

According to Gary K. Ostrander, a research professor in the departments of Biology and Comparative Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University, the use of shark cartilage as a cancer treatment has had dangerous effects on both humans and sharks.

"Since shark cartilage has been promoted as a cancer cure, not only has there has been a measurable decline in shark populations, but cancer patients also have been diverted from proven, effective treatments," he says. "People read on the Internet or hear on television that taking crude shark cartilage extract can cure them of cancer, and they believe it without demanding to see the science behind the claims."

Out of the many studies that have examined shark cartilage as a cancer treatment, some have, in fact, found no benefit, including a 1998 study by the Cancer Treatment Research Foundation that found "shark cartilage powder has no effect on slowing the cancer, improving the quality of the participants' lives, or shrinking the tumors" of 60 advanced stage cancer patients.

Other laboratory studies on animals have found no effect from shark cartilage, while still others have found the substance to be beneficial in slowing the growth and spread of cancer cells.

The Form of the Shark Cartilage May Make a Difference

Although the Food and Drug Administration has found no conclusive evidence that shark cartilage is beneficial as a cancer treatment, clinical trials are underway using substances that are isolated from shark cartilage.

shark cartilage

Shark populations have declined significantly in the last decade due to an increased demand for shark cartilage and other shark products.

"The fact is that it is possible that highly purified components of cartilage, including from sharks, may hold some benefit for treatment of human cancers," Ostrander said. "The key will be to isolate these compounds and design a way to deliver them to the site of the tumor."

It turns out that powdered shark cartilage and substances isolated from shark cartilage may have very different effects. Shark cartilage itself, scientists say, contains molecules of the active ingredient that are too large to be absorbed into the bloodstream when they're taken by mouth. Instead of being beneficial, the cartilage passes through the body without breaking down or being used.

"Everybody in [the field of oncology] knew way before this article was published that shark cartilage cannot possibly be beneficial," said Barrie Cassileth, PhD, author of The Alternative Medicine Handbook, referring to the 1998 study.

However, "there are possibly chemical components in shark cartilage that may have a tumor-reducing effect," he said.

As it stands, shark cartilage that's available over-the-counter has gotten mixed reviews. Studies vary on whether it provides benefits or not, it can be outrageously expensive, and environmentalists point out that global shark populations have declined significantly in the last 15 years due to over-fishing and an increased demand for shark products.

Meanwhile, isolated shark cartilage components may one day hold promise of benefiting cancer patients. These compounds -- being developed and tested by several pharmaceutical companies -- would likely only be available by prescription, and reportedly come from sharks that have already been slaughtered for meat (or one day might be made synthetically).

Recommended Reading

The 8 Most Unusual Sources of Potential Cancer Cures

Ellagic Acid: One of THE Most Potent Weapons Against Cancer & Other Disease!


National Cancer Institute

American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute: Cartilage

Science Daily

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