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Herbal Impotence Pills Get Some Scientific Scrutiny

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She intends to follow the women in her study to determine the compound's long-term effects, and hopes to launch a larger trial. But how does a Stanford professor become involved in testing an herbal supplement in the first place?

The theory behind the product made sense to her, she says. "I felt it was a group of people who understood you need to develop some data. It's a small start-up company, so we're not talking about mega trials, but there should be some critically evaluated information. ... And I think we've shown that."

As for supplements in general, "who knows what all this stuff out there does for people?" Polan says. "Of course, if you live in California, many people use nutritional supplements as their sole source of medication. ... I never know what to tell patients, so when I see medications that at least have data behind them, I feel more comfortable."

Buyer beware, says one of the country's top prostate cancer surgeons, William Catalona, MD, a urologist with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He has seen thousands of men facing sexual dysfunction.

And he's heard bad reviews of the herbals: "A lot of [patients] try these medications. And some feel they help a little bit, but most of the word I get would not suggest that they are effective. ... Patients ask, but I usually don't recommend them because [they] haven't been tested and approved by the FDA to show they are safe and effective."

While the theory about L-arginine "could conceivably work," says Catalona, "I'm not sure there's any practical evidence to show it really does this. ... Even though [Ito's] studies look positive, there's not absolute proof at this point. With Viagra, it's been through the FDA, so we know it's definitely effective. As for its safety, the safety guidelines are pretty good.

"What you see in some advertising for herbals [is] they jump all over the fact that Viagra is said to cause deaths," he adds. "So I have a lot of patients who [don't have heart disease] or anything else that would make Viagra dangerous to them, but their wives won't let them take it. ... So some people who are afraid of Viagra take these things."

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