DMSO: A History of Controversy
The history of DMSO as a pharmaceutical began in 1961, when Dr. Jacob was head of the organ transplant program at Oregon Health Sciences University. It all started when he first picked up a bottle of the colorless liquid. While investigating its potential as a preservative for organs, he quickly discovered that it penetrated the skin quickly and deeply without damaging it. He was intrigued. Thus began his lifelong investigation of the drug.
The news media soon got word of his discovery, and it was not long before reporters, the pharmaceutical industry, and patients with a variety of medical complaints jumped on the news. Because it was available for industrial uses, patients could dose themselves. This early public interest interfered with the ability of Dr. Jacob–or, later, the FDA–to see that experimentation and use were safe and controlled and may have contributed to the souring of the mainstream medical community on it.
Why, if DMSO possesses half the capabilities claimed by Dr. Jacob and others, is it still on the sidelines of medicine in the United States today?
Others cite DMSO’s principal side effect: an odd odor, akin to that of garlic, that emanates from the mouth shortly after use, even if use is through the skin. Certainly, this odor has made double-blinded studies difficult. Such studies are based on the premise that no one, neither doctor nor patient, knows which patient receives the drug and which the placebo, but this drug announces its presence within minutes.
Others, such as Terry Bristol, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of London and president of the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy in Portland, Oregon, who assisted Dr. Jacob with his research in the 1960s and 1970s, believe that the smell of DMSO may also have put off the drug companies, that feared it would be hard to market. Worse, however, for the pharmaceutical companies was the fact that no company could acquire an exclusive patent for DMSO, a major consideration when the clinical testing required to win FDA approval for a drug routinely runs into millions of dollars. In addition, says Mr. Bristol, DMSO, with its wide range of attributes, would compete with many drugs these companies already have on the market or in development.
Some 20 years and hundreds of laboratory and human studies later, no deaths have been reported. Since then, however, the FDA has refused seven applications to conduct clinical studies, and approved only 1, for intersititial cystitis, which subsequently was approved for prescriptive use in 1978.
Dr. Jacob believes the FDA “blackballed” DMSO, actively trying to kill interest in a drug that could end much suffering. Jack de la Torre, MD, Ph.D., professor of neurosurgery and physiology at the University of New Mexico Medical School in Albuquerque, a pioneer in the use of DMSO and closed head injury, says, “Years ago the FDA had a sort of chip on its shoulder because it thought DMSO was some kind of snake oil medicine. There were people there who were openly biased against the compound even though they knew very little about it. With the new administration at that agency, it has changed a bit.” The FDA recently granted permission to conduct clinical trials in Dr. de la Torre’s field of closed head injury.