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Can Gingko biloba prevent dementia? Is shark cartilage helpful against lung cancer? Does prayer fight breast cancer? Stephen Straus ‘68 is leading efforts at the National Institutes of Health to study the efficacy of a wide range of therapies that fall outside the realm of conventional Western medicine.

Straus directs the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which in the past has drawn criticism from professionals who are skeptical that alternative treatments can withstand the rigorous scientific scrutiny of the medical community. But Straus, a well-respected virologist with more than 20 years’ experience in clinical research at the National Institutes of Health, insists his work is good, solid biomedical research-no different from any other investigation into causes and cures of disease.

“Alternative” medicine includes any practice not considered part of mainstream medicine-everything from chiropractic therapy and acupuncture to botanical extracts and prayer. “Complementary” medicine uses alternative therapies in conjunction with traditional remedies. Over the past two decades, the popularity of alternative medicine has grown dramatically. A 1999 study revealed that more than one-quarter of all U.S. adults had used at least one alternative therapy over the course of a year. According to Straus, that’s reason enough to study the field.

“In an era in which we have so many things we know do prevent and treat and cure diseases, to leave people doing things without an evidence base seems like a lost opportunity,” he says.

Straus says that the U.S. public is hungry for answers, backed by hard data, about the efficacy of alternative therapies. As proof, he points to traffic on the center’s Web site, which averages about 100,000 visitors a month. And he has hosted three national town meetings, standing-room only. “People are hungry to understand what to do. I go to the chiropractor, and it makes my neck feel better. Am I deluding myself, or is this real?’”

The center was created by an act of Congress in 1998, and today its budget, which tops $100 million, funds about 150 research projects. Those studies include investigations into the use of Echinacea to treat the common cold, yoga to relieve insomnia, and acupuncture to fix a variety of conditions, including cardiovascular disease. As for results, Straus points to a 2001 study, which concluded that for major depression, Saint-John’s-wort is no more effective than a placebo.

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