In vitro studies, or test tube/petri dish studies, used to support a health product’s efficacy claims: these kinds of proof make me want to hit somebody.
Because when people put their trust in products that don’t have real proof of safety and efficacy, they can die.
It’s like jumping onto a safety net — except the net isn’t really there.
Natural treatments that work
Now don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against natural products.
In fact, my family’s first-line treatment for cough is Vitex negundo (lagundi). And I eat Moringa oleifera (malunggay) to combat my chronic anemia. Also, we treat the baby’s rashes with a soak in guava tea.
But the thing is, there is at least one study that shows Vitex negundo’s benefit as a cough suppressant in humans.
There is also at least one study that shows moringa’s benefit as a milk supply enhancer in humans.
Now I must admit, I have not found a study that proves guava tea can treat rashes in humans. I only found a study that shows it works in mice.
But you see, I am not presenting my anecdotal experience with guava tea as proof that it works, and I am definitely not selling guava tea to anybody as a treatment for rashes.
I use the tea mainly because it would hurt my aunt’s feelings if I didn’t.
Test tubes are not humans
Now it’s a different story when somebody takes a product that has been proven to work only in test tubes and sells it as a “proven” treatment that can be used by humans.
No, no, no. That’s not what test tube tests are for!
In vitro studies are for preventing unnecessary testing on animals and humans.
These tests are used to reveal what a substance can and cannot do when it interacts directly with other substances or with living cells.
If it works in the test tube, only then will it be tested in animals.
But consider this: sulfuric acid, when poured directly on cancer cells inside a test tube, will absolutely kill those cells. And so will sunlight, if you expose the cancer cells to it long enough.
Therefore, by in vitro standards, sulfuric acid and sunlight have been proven effective in killing cancer cells.
But real life application is seldom as simple as that.
The problem with living things
The problem when you use a substance on a living thing is that, first, you’ve got to make sure that the substance will not cause that living thing to die.
Imagine if you gave sulfuric acid to a rat. Sure it would kill the cancer cells — as well as every other cell in the rat’s body.
As for sunlight, yes, it may be great for killing cancer cells in a test tube. But what if the cells were supported by your body’s life-giving blood supply? It could be a very different story then.
Traveling through the body
There is also the question of bioavailability. In other words, how much of the active chemical reaches the part of the body it was meant to act upon?
Health products, in particular, need to be concerned with bioavailability because they are usually drunk or eaten, not injected directly to the part of the body they were meant to heal.
Now let’s say you ate a cup of chopped carrots for its antioxidant benefits:
- How much antioxidant does that cup of carrots contain?
- How much of that antioxidant content will actually be absorbed by your body and delivered to your blood stream? (And how much will be directly excreted instead?)
- From the amount that reaches your blood stream, how much will complete one circulation around your body before it is metabolized?
- How much will stay in your body long enough to do the work it needs to do?
- Finally, how many cups of carrots do you actually need to eat to ingest the amount of antioxidants you need to gain healing? And how often do you need to consume that amount?
Undoubtedly, nature is full of potent chemicals that can fight human diseases. Some of them are potent enough to do their work as is. Others need to be distilled, concentrated, or delivered directly to the site, either by topical application or injection.
The question is, under which category does a certain product fall? What benefits will it impart if you simply eat it? What benefits will only come about if you apply the concentrated product directly upon the afflicted site?
In vitro studies will not give you reliable answers to those questions. Only in vivo studies, or studies done on living beings, will tell you how a product really affects living things.
So the next time somebody “proves” to you their product works by giving you a list of studies, take some time to search Google Scholar or Pubmed to find out whether those studies were done on humans or, at the very least, animals.
If most of the list is made up of in vitro studies, you know where to put it.