Home > Comments and Articles > Mannatech Using Disputed Study to Boost Sales of Its Products
©1999 Bloomberg, LP
August 4, 1999
Mannatech Inc. is promoting its nutritional supplements with a study it says was partially funded by a U.S. government agency and conducted under the auspices of a California medical school. Yet the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency the study cites, denies it sponsored the research. And school officials said they've been unable to find evidence the study, published in February, was ever performed. The study identifies the author as Darryl See of the University of California at Irvine Medical School. What it doesn't say is that the 39-year-old medical doctor resigned 11 months ago after admitting he violated research rules. It also doesn't say he got more than $100,000 from Mannatech in speakers fees and research grants since 1998, and that his wife has been a Mannatech distributor since 1997. More than 400,000 independent distributors are using the study to tout Mannatech nutritional supplements, such as Ambrotose and Phyt-Aloe capsules, sold through a marketing network in the U.S., Canada and Australia. "The results support our claim as a true leader in this industry," Sam Caster, Mannatech's president, says in a recording played for prospective customers. It says See's study was partially funded by the federal government. That's not true, said Leigh Sawyer, an NIH program officer. She said a grant was given to the school to study chronic fatigue syndrome, not the merits of natural supplements. "That grant has nothing to do with Dr. See's work," she said.
See's study was published in the JANA, the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association, in February, the month Mannatech sold $25 million of stock in its initial public offering. The shares, sold at 8, soared to 44 1/2 the day after the IPO. They closed today at 10 1/2. The Coppell, Texas, company warned in May second-quarter earnings would fall below those of last year. First-quarter profit fell 20 percent to $2.9 million as revenue rose 4 percent to $42.6 million, less than the 9 percent growth of 1998 and the 74 percent gain of 1997. See, interviewed by telephone from a hotel near Bordeaux, France, where he was vacationing with his wife, said he's asked the journal to print a correction saying his study wasn't funded by a federal grant. "I don't want to pick a fight with the NIH," he said. When the study was published by JANA, Chris Foley, co-editor, wrote that it was a "landmark effort." See told JANA he was on the medical school's faculty, said Foley. Last week, Foley learned See had left the school five months earlier.
See, who joined the school's faculty in 1992, is the son of Jackie See, a cardiologist. Both men received their medical degrees from U.C. Irvine. Darryl resigned as associate clinical professor of infectious diseases in September after an inquiry found he broke school rules. These included operating on laboratory rabbits without enough anesthesia. The violations weren't related to the supplement study. See now runs the Orange County, California, Institute for Longevity Medicine, near the university. He's written a book, "Disengaging Aging: Live Healthier, Live Longer," with Gary Huber, vice president of scientific affairs for the American Nutraceutical Association, which published See's study. The association is taking orders for the book on its Web site. In the supplement study, See ranks the ingredients in three Mannatech products at the top of 196 nutritional supplements tested for safety and effectiveness against disease. See said his research was supervised by Jeremiah Tilles, chairman of the school's infectious disease department and his "mentor." Tilles said while he's had frequent meetings with See, starting in 1989, when See began a fellowship, he knew nothing about See's six-year study of nutritional supplements.
"That study cannot be considered to be under the auspices of the university," he said, adding See didn't have university approval to use human blood samples. After reviewing the JANA article, he said the study lacks scientific merit because it omits information needed to judge its validity. He also questioned the underlying premise of the study. "Mere lab tests like this are insufficient to show effectiveness or safety in humans," said Tilles. In Mannatech promotional audio tapes and pamphlets, See says the company's products can treat various human diseases. "The supplement is ideal and safe for immune system protection while assisting patients with diseases associated with immune suppression including AIDS, (chronic fatigue syndrome) cancer and hepatitis," says See in "Breakthrough Discoveries in Immune System Disorders." See said he's received about $100,000 in royalties from sales of the tape since last year. Tilles calls the tape's assertions "100 percent wrong." "There is no way of relating that to humans unless appropriately designed studies are done," he said.
Mannatech paid $30,000 for an audit of the study by Cindy Ford, an independent statistician. She said she double-checked the study's calculations, but couldn't verify that the data used came from the lab tests See described. "There were no signatures by any lab technicians," she said, adding that See didn't provide his lab notebooks, as requested. See said that Marikel Chatard, a laboratory technician at U.C. Irvine, did many of the tests for the study. "I don't know anything about this study," Chatard said. "I would remember that." Mannatech stands behind the study. "Dr. See's study did not make false claims," said the company in a written response to questions. "We obtained copies of the NIH grants that funded the study." Meantime, Mannatech distributors are making the most of See's academic credentials. "His credibility is lending tremendous strength to distributor recruiting efforts," says a flyer promoting a tape recorded by See to help sell Mannatech supplements to parents. "Dr. See masterfully explains why they must begin to supplement their children's diet," it says. See said Mannatech paid him between $3,000 and $5,000 per day to speak at 20 sales meetings of its distributors, starting before he completed his study. Tom Cesario, Dean of the U.C. Irvine Medical School, said the school is conducting an internal investigation of See and his study. "You put all these facts together," he said, "and we have some significant concerns about Dr. See."