Glandular Therapy Back in the News

Health Tips / Glandular Therapy Back in the News

I’ve always been intrigued by glandular therapies, in which dried animal endocrine gland is used to treat a variety of medical conditions. And while I appreciate their medical benefits (like everything, some work better than others), even more interesting is their role in the history of medicine over the past century.

Just when I thought everyone had forgotten about glandulars except a few doctors writing prescriptions for Armour thyroid (made from dried pig thyroid) and naturopaths, who use glandulars regularly, up pops an article–in the New York Times business section no less–on glandular therapy.

Once the whipping boy of conventional medicine, glandulars are back, now basking in the golden glow of serious money.

A history marred by goat testicles…

Glandular therapy was first taken seriously by physicians in the 19th century, when it was discovered that dried porcine thyroid gland could treat underactive thyroid and dried animal-based adrenal glands could treat Addison’s disease. Before this, neither condition was controllable.

As the years passed, doctors tried other glands with varying rates of success: ovaries for infertility and menopause, testicles for faltering male sex drive, thymus for the immune system, and pancreas for digestion. Later, research moved well beyond glands. Concentrated spleen was tried for anemia, heart for cardiac diseases, lung for pulmonary conditions–even brain for Alzheimer’s. To give you an idea of how seriously medicine took glandular therapies, the 1925 textbook Medical Glandular Therapy was published as a joint project between the AMA and the University of Chicago, edited by Frank Billings, MD, for whom a U of C hospital was later named.

Historically, glandular therapy has been rife with extremes. At one end we have Mayo Clinic rheumatologist Philip S. Hench, MD, who after decades of research was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work with adrenal and pituitary hormones (again, extracted from animals). At the other extreme is medical history’s most notorious charlatan, John R. Brinkley, and please do click to read more about this provocative man. During some of the same years Dr Hench was researching glandulars, Brinkley owned an empire of clinics and hospitals (as well as, oddly, radio stations), literally getting away with murder by implanting goat testicles into the scrotums of old men seeking eternal youth and into women seeking fertility.

There’s a logic to legitimate glandular therapy: that the gland or organ of a mammal that is structurally close to its human version would contain all the micronutrients needed to bolster proper function in people. A few highlights:

  • The most widely used glandular today is Armour thyroid (remember, Armour was originally a Chicago meatpacking company).
  • Before cortisone was synthesized, animal-based adrenal glands were also harvested for their hormone content.
  • The prescription drug Premarin is indirectly a glandular. A pregnant mare’s urine, estrogen-enriched by her ovaries, is collected, dehydrated, and used by millions of women for menopause symptoms.
  • Having been raised in a drugstore, I remember prescriptions written for pancreas extract as a digestive aid and liver extract as a treatment for anemia.

The death knell of glandular therapy was, not surprisingly, the pharmaceutical industry. Beginning in the 1940s, chemists had synthesized hormone molecules that they claimed worked better than those harvested from animals. Conventional physicians were sold on this. To use Synthroid (synthetic thyroid) instead of Armour seemed to indicate you were more progressive and up-to-date. Prednisone replaced adrenal cortex extracts and synthetic testosterone skin cream was definitely gentler than “Doc” Brinkley’s surgery.

…And now by greed

But now a particular glandular is back in the news, and here’s an interesting side note. Maybe because this story is in the business section of the New York Times, and not the science section, no one seems particularly angry at the gist of the story. The fact that we’re supposed to accept this as business as usual tells us a lot about ourselves.

Quick background: the Nobel prize winner Dr. Hench, mentioned above, extracted a hormone from the pituitary gland that was capable of stimulating the adrenal gland to release cortisol. He named it adrenocorticotropic (adrenal-stimulating) hormone, or ACTH for short.

Early in my training, ACTH injections were helpful when you needed to give a patient a short course of corticosteroid drugs, such as for asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, or a flare-up of multiple sclerosis. ACTH is also used to test whether the adrenal glands are working or not (inject ACTH, wait a few hours, measure blood levels of cortisol). When I first opened my office and bought an assortment of medications for injections, I purchased a couple of bottles of ACTH for about $20. It worked great for bad cases of poison ivy—one injection raised blood levels of cortisol enough to cool widespread inflammation.

According to the NYT piece, the original pharmaceutical company that produced ACTH never made much money on it, so the drug languished and then disappeared. In the late 1990s, ACTH was discovered to be the best treatment for a rare childhood disorder called infantile spasms, but there weren’t enough patients to make it financially worthwhile to produce the drug. Then, in 2001 the small company Questcor bought the rights to the drug for a paltry $100,000, soon recognizing they had a potential gold mine in a drug that could save children’s lives as well as potentially treat other conditions. And so, figuring that health insurance companies had deep pockets beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, they jacked up the price.

Are you ready for this? Move your coffee, please. You don’t want an accident. ACTH is now $28,000 (twenty eight thousand dollars!) per vial. This is not a misprint. A vial contains 5 milliliters, or exactly one teaspoonful.

This pricing shot Questcor’s share price from 60 cents to $50 and allowed it to hire a bevy of salespeople, who promoted the product for conditions ACTH hadn’t been proven to help, and which were treatable by vastly cheaper drugs. By the way, the stock fell to $25 when insurers refused to pay for ACTH for any condition except infantile spasms.

And there’s your update on glandulars. From implanting goat testicles to saving the lives of children whose parents are lucky enough to have health insurance to gouging our healthcare system to the max. At the heart of the NYT article in which Questcor’s CEO justifies the price of ACTH–saying he can’t lower it because his shareholders would sue–is the spirit of Wall Street’s arch-villain Gordon Gekko: “Greed is good” (and, in this case, legal).

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

PS: Following up on last week’s post, I learned more about the approach the Illinois Division of Professional Regulation is taking to shut down colon therapists. They’ve ruled that giving an enema is a surgical procedure (only the Illinois State Medical Society could come up with this) and therefore colon irrigation is practicing medicine without a license. I’d bet there’s no single MD in the entire nation who actually offers colonics, and thus you’re watching conventional medicine in real time attempting to drive an alternative therapy into extinction.

Next week: How to use glandular therapies for common health problems

19 thoughts on “Glandular Therapy Back in the News

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    Posted July 6, 2023 at 6:22 pm

    […] Doctors soon discovered : ovaries for infertility and menopause, testicles for faltering male sex drive, thymus for the immune system, and pancreas for digestion. Later, research moved well beyond glands. Concentrated spleen was tried for anemia, heart for cardiac diseases, lung for pulmonary conditions–even brain for Alzheimer’s. To give you an idea of how seriously medicine took glandular therapies, the 1925 textbook Medical Glandular Therapy was published as a joint project between the AMA and the University of Chicago, edited by Frank Billings, MD, for whom a U of C hospital was later named. –wholehealthchicago […]

    Posted November 24, 2021 at 8:54 am

    To Maura and Maria. My Dad is now 100 and deceased. We gave no other raw glandular to him other than prostate and heart. Enzyme Process International makes a Brain Glandular called BRAIN CYTOTROPHIN

    Drew B.
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    Dr R I really do feel like I am bothering you especially as you have not replied so I will apologise in advance that I feel the need to do this
    The exception is I don’t want to go to the time and trouble of buying glandulars on the hear say of Drew B if they don’t work. The company Atrium which I have looked into ceased trading two years ago
    I realise this is of no concern or interest to you but I don’t have Drew B email and I don’t think mine has been passed on to him
    I just want to know if this product of which I could find similar really did work as well as he said it did as I don’t want to get my hopes up
    Look this is my mum and I just want to help her
    This is my last request
    Thank you

    Posted September 20, 2017 at 6:13 pm

      Maria. We at WholeHealth Chicago have little experience with the products Drew B wrote about in his blog comment and therefore cannot advise you on this matter. I reached out to Drew and he wrote a comment to this blog on September 12. I’m sorry but there is nothing else I can do.

      Dr. R
      Posted September 21, 2017 at 8:12 am

    I would like to make further contact with Drew B regarding his dad’s Alzheimers and the use of glandulars
    Would you be so kind and pass my email on to him

    Posted September 18, 2017 at 3:20 am

    Thank you for you reply Drew B
    My mum is 87 so similar to your dad’s age when you tried him on this product
    Did you give him anything else at the same time as the glandulars
    Also is he still on a maintenence dose

    Maria Lawlor
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 3:24 am

    I believe it was Atrium….but some companies have bounced in and out of these products

    Drew B.
    Posted September 12, 2017 at 8:40 am

    This is a message for Drew who wrote in on January 4 2015 about his dad who had Alzheimers and was given raw brain glandular would help
    I would be really keen to hear back from you regarding which company this item was bought from etc
    Sorry I know this is an old post

    Maria Lawlor
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 3:03 am

    Dad’s Alzheimers was diagnosed at a leading University in Baltimore. He was 88…..I asked if raw brain glandular would help…the World known professor whispered the pharmaceutical company’s would never allow him to prescribe it. He said go ahead if u can get it. We gave one pill every morning and my Dad’s symptoms reversed. …we looked back after 8 weeks and he had no alzheimers symptoms. We also did it earlier for his heart bypass and the death part of his heart almost disappeared. ….This was two remark able instances with us. Amen

    Drew B.
    Posted January 4, 2015 at 10:00 pm

    While I’m not in favor of cruelly either, if an animal is going to be slaughtered and eaten, what difference does it make if some of the glands go into bottles instead of hot dogs?

    Mark Evans
    Posted January 17, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Is it coincidence that Mr. Brinkley reminds me of the Wizzard of Oz a bit? Don’t get me started on Premarine! Mares kept pregnant in unGodly conditions and foals stripped awy so young that they can’t be saved by adoption. Canada should be ashamed! It doesn’t have to be done so cruely!

    Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Apart from animal abuse, better natural remedies and charlatanism, there’s the nausea factor. These glandular ideas are best forgotten at mealtime.

    Posted January 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Great article Dr E! Look forward to the next one!

    Mel N.
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    To CP
    To my knowledge virtually all of the glandulars used in supplements are coming from Argentinian and New Zealand farms where the animals are raised in a completely pesticide, antibiotic and hormone free open range environment. Glandulars are used by practtitioners around the world and countries other than the U.S. have very high standards about what is considered an acceptable medical grade product. Actually, I don’t know of any glandulars sourced from U.S. factory farms and I am relieved about this

    Dr E
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Very interesting, Dr. E.!

    You are such a good writer.

    FYI– There is a great book about Brinkley, whose charlatanism reached far beyond goat glands; he was also a politician and paved the way for televangelists with his broadcasting pioneering.

    It’s called Charlatan, and it’s by Pope Brock. Very well written. And instructive. Some aspects of the American psyche run deep and unchanged since those times.

    Posted January 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Thanks for writing about this. I am very curious about the safety of bovine adrenals (having been prescribed them). I have tried to research online but it seems there is an absence of regulation by FDA on bovine materials imported that are intended for supplements– product intended for food is more regulated and imports from countries with mad cow are prohibited. It would seem that safety is up to self policing by supplement makers. Some supplement t companies say they do not import from countries where BSE (mad cow) has been observed but others (the brand I was prescribed– known to be a very safe and respected brand) does not disclose country of source material. It does self attest to rigorous audits. It just seems like in absence of regulation, consumers must trust the supplement companies. I think this is harder for me given that there is no way to know immediately if this specific problem exists with a supplement. And even years later it’d be impossible to trace bse to a supplement taken by a very small number of persons.

    Thank you for your expertise and input!

    Posted January 8, 2013 at 10:03 am

    I agree with david tenenbaum. There are multiple ways to heal the body without subjecting more animals to our selfish “benefits”

    Side effects are common with glandulars and they dobt fix the root cause…..they are a bandaid approach. Plus there are very few companies, if any, that use organic grassfed animals for glandulars….most are left overs from factory farm slaugters. The stress the animal went thru is translated into the glandular….so the adrenal glandular is actually full of cortisol and other stress/fear hormones. Doesnt sound useful for someone with adrenal issues

    Posted January 8, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Glandular therapy? More animal abuse, suffering and slaughter. What does that tell us about the human race?

    David Tenenbaum
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 3:59 pm

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