When Studies Get Misinterpreted

Aug 27, 10:35 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

I belong to several aromatherapy discussion boards and list serves. A few weeks ago, a woman posted to one of the discussion boards to advertise an aromatherapy product she had formulated. In her post, this woman claimed that topical application of her product, a "breast care blend," prevented breast cancer and would completely destroy existing breast cancer cells. She also indirectly suggested that rosemary essential oil (chemotype unspecified) present in the product would cause the user's liver to produce estrone, a weak estrogen, thereby promoting breast tissue health. Another discussion board member questioned the legitimacy of her product claims, and I got curious.

I visited the product website, which touted product attributes by quoting extensively from two scientific studies that the formulator had located on PubMed.

This research really made her product claims look impressive and legitimate. That is, until you actually read the studies.

The research did say that essential oils high in monoterpene hydrocarbons induce apoptosis (a type of natural preprogrammed cell death) in cancer cells. However, said cancer cells were present in rats who were fed large amounts of essential oil. I know of two similar studies that came to the same conclusion, one done by Dennis Pefley et al at University of Chicago and one conducted by Pierre Franchomme in Romania. In all cases, rat subjects were used and oils were administered orally.

This is not the same as topically applying a very dilute solution of essential oils to human breast tissue. Topical and oral metabolic pathways are quite different. To my knowledge, there have been no studies involving human subjects using monoterpene hydrocarbons on cancerous tissue.

Several years ago, I attended an aromatherapy conference where Drs. Pefley and Franchomme formally presented their research. Both emphasized that this area showed a great deal of promise for cancer research, but that it remained to be seen what action oral ingestion of monoterpene hydrocarbons would have on human beings.

Again, I emphasize oral ingestion. This is not the same protocol as as topical application of a subclinical dose of essential oils. Normal essential oil concentration in a topical aromatherapy blend is usually in the 2-3% range.

After visiting the "breast care blend" website and reading the list of product ingredients, I could see how using the synergy might improve the appearance of breast skin and possibly reduce breast edema or fluid cysts when combined with lymphatic massage. The product did contain essential oils that can be effective for skin care and fluid retention. However, based on research cited by the formulator, the claim that the product prevented or destroyed breast cancer was completely unsubstantiated.

Sometimes scientific research is spun so that it suits someone's purposes and helps sell a product. Just as often, a well-intended individual will incorrectly extrapolate scientific data out of sheer ignorance or misunderstanding. Either way, the consumer is misled and is ultimately the one who loses.


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