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Hard to swallow

<p>George Knapp</p>

George Knapp

It isn’t likely you will read about this story in your daily paper or hear much about it during any network newscast. It isn’t flashy enough to warrant a mention on any of the 973 or so nightly entertainment wrap-up shows, let alone be discussed by the likes of Judge Judy or Dr. Oz.

But a lawsuit filed by a San Francisco attorney on behalf of a research professor from India against an East Coast university could be a monumentally important development for a small Las Vegas-based company, and in the process could save untold numbers of lives and even help restore sight to tens of thousands of blind people. It takes a minute or two to connect all the dots, but I think it is worth your time, especially if you don’t plan to drop dead anytime soon.

Back in the late ’70s through the mid-’80s, Nevada was something of a haven for miracle cures pitched by snake-oil salesmen. Before waves of do-gooders flooded into the state and tightened regulations on pretty much everything, Nevadans tolerated all sorts of products and behaviors that were not necessarily good for us. One of those was a supposed anti-cancer potion called Laetrile. Another was an anti-aging powder sold as Gerovital. Both received reams of attention from local reporters — including me — and both proved to be far less effective than their proponents claimed. I mention Laetrile and Gerovital to demonstrate that I am not entirely naive about specious health-care claims made in connection with magical elixirs or miraculous pills.

A Las Vegas-based natural-products company has been marketing powder-filled capsules called Longevinex. The key ingredient in Longevinex is resveratrol, derived from red wine. Resveratrol made a huge splash in the medical world some years ago when researchers determined it had enormous potential to prevent deaths from heart attack or stroke. Since then, researchers — most of them in countries other than the US — have documented other seemingly miraculous benefits, though, for some reason, American medicine has curiously declined to conduct large-scale human studies to find out just how beneficial resveratrol might be.

That’s no accident, says Longevinex founder and chief spokesperson Bill Sardi. He thinks the mighty pharmaceutical industry has actively discouraged American doctors from studying or using resveratrol, despite plenty of foreign research that has verified its benefits.

Sardi says he hates to make such an accusation, but he feels Big Pharma is far more interested in maintaining its huge profits than in curing diseases. “They don’t find cures for anything,” Sardi alleges. “Big Pharma wants you to take pills forever, and then to take more pills to counter the effects of the first pills.”

The best example, he says, is a his own product. Sardi acknowledges that his industry has its share of shady operators and is largely unregulated. He estimates there might be 30 or more resveratrol-based products on the market, few of which have reliable amounts of resveratrol in their pills and none which have the level of testing and quality control that Longevinex claims. What happens is that consumers might decide to give resveratrol a try but are disappointed with the results because they choose a brand name that contains little or no actual resveratrol.

More than anyone else in his industry, Sardi has sought formal, peer-reviewed research, but he has run into an astounding wall of resistance from Big Pharma and the majority of American doctors, who have their own lucrative side deals with drug companies, deals that are rarely revealed to patients. One physician who managed to side-step Big Pharma’s influence is opthamologist Dr. Stuart Richer, who works with elderly patients at a V.A. hospital in Chicago. Richer found a way to get Longevinex into the hands of his patients and was astounded by the results.

Each year, more than 40,000 Americans become functionally blind because of macular degeneration. The center of their eyes are clouded over because of blood deposits in the back of their eyes. Everyone who lives into their 70s or 80s is at risk for this horrifying, life-changing ailment. (Former sheriff Ralph Lamb and casino developer Steve Wynn are among those who have battled macular degeneration.) The preferred treatment for opthamologists are injections, directly into the naked eyeball, a treatment that costs up to $3,000 per injection, once or twice each month. For many patents, the treatment flat-out doesn’t work, but doctors have a huge financial incentive to continue prescribing them.

Dr. Richer gave Longevinex to 18 of his patients for whom the injections failed to work. Seventeen of them “reported dramatic improvements” in their vision. They were blind, but now they can see.

Dr. Richer figured his colleagues would be thrilled to learn about this breakthrough but, in reality, few have so much as asked questions, and his attempt to publish a scientific paper about his research have been thwarted at every step.

No one seems to want to hear about it. It’s not an accident, Sardi alleges.

One researcher who was willing to take a hard look at resveratrol was a heart specialist named Dr. Depak Das at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Dr. Das was able to replicate the results of European studies showing dramatic improvements to damaged heart muscles from taking resveratrol (specifically Longevinex.) But his work was stopped abruptly when Das was accused a year ago of falsifying results. The story received worldwide attention and has been used by Big Pharma to discourage any further research into resveratrol and the purchase of Longevinex by consumers. And it has worked.

But Dr. Das is fighting back. This week, his San Francisco lawyer filed a $35 million defamation lawsuit against UConn, alleging that someone else tampered with the research results and that the school hung Das out to dry without allowing for a proper investigation. Das will get his day in court, and hopefully, so will Longevinex. Sardi hopes that a court victory will embarrass the medical profession into giving resveratrol a fair shake, which would be a huge boost for his Las Vegas-based company, not to mention the thousands of locals who might be able to benefit.

I would not focus such attention on a pending lawsuit if not for the results that I have seen with my own eyes. Back in November, I wrote a couple of TV news stories about Longevinex. As a result, Sardi was swamped with inquiries from thousands of Nevadans. The full impact is not yet known, but I can tell you that at least a few of the people who heard the reports started taking Longevinex. They were blind beforehand but now, they say, they can see. Put it this way: No story I’ve ever written has made me feel better. Getting a thank-you e-mail from someone who used to be blind is a moving experience.

Sardi says the eye benefits from Longevinex may be the most visible, but that its larger potential is as a cancer and heart disease remedy. It is anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and — as a bonus — also has benefits similar to Viagra for some users.

Will it ever receive a fair shake from American medicine? Not unless doctors are forced to look at it. After our reports about Dr. Richer’s promising results aired in November, not a single Nevada eye doctor bothered to even ask for information. Not one. Look, if a doctor reads the available literature and decides it isn’t worth his time, that’s one thing. But to not even ask a question or seek more info? Something is really wrong with that.

Bill Sardi is holding two free seminars in Las Vegas this week. Hopefully, a few medical doctors will slip into the audience, though they might have to use aliases lest their friends in Big Pharma find out.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at