ALTERNATIVE THERAPY: Tough Road Ahead for Agency Leader
After becoming the first permanent director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) last October, Stephen Straus has his work cut out for him. The federal agency is charged with determining "whether the alternative therapies so popular with the public really work." The results of that research have significant medical and economic ramifications, as some 42% of Americans spent an estimated $27 billion on alternative medicine. With legislators, consumers, alternative practitioners, dietary supplement makers and doctors anxiously awaiting the outcomes, observers say Straus' job requires "more political agility," compared to other NIH directors, the Washington Post reports. David Spiegel, director of Stanford University School of Medicine's complementary medicine clinic, likened Straus's job to "having one foot on the pier and one in the boat," adding, "If you're really strong, you can keep it together -- but it's really easy to go in the wrong direction." But Straus "welcomes the challenge of trying to put alternative medicine on a scientific footing." He said, "The opportunity would provide me with a greater chance of affecting public health." Spiegel thinks that Straus is just what the agency needs to give it credibility. He said, "[Straus is] highly thought of as a medical researcher (and) he's open enough to complementary treatments."
Straus has set "ambitious goals" for the NCCAM, including supporting nine specialized alternative medicine research centers throughout the country and using part of this year's $68.7 million NIH budget to finance large studies on the effectiveness of some of the most popular therapies. Already in progress are studies of St. John's wort for depression; ginko for the Alzheimer's-related dementia; acupuncture for arthritis and shark cartilage for lung cancer. Slated to begin this year or next are trials involving valerian and melatonin for insomnia; saw palmetto for benign prostate enlargement; echinacea for colds and milk thistle for liver disease. Straus said that his priorities include those treatments showing "the greatest promise and those likely to affect the most people" (Okie, 3/29).