Quackery or cure? It's sometimes hard to tell

When Las Vegan Rick Tope showed me a bottle of Canker Cure, pills he advertises as preventing and healing painful canker sores in the mouth, I noted some ingredients had been crossed out with a black pen.

"I have better ingredients now," he said. "I don't want to tell you for proprietary reasons … there's amino acids, too."

The more Tope talked, he said he makes "around six figures" selling his product on his website, www.cankercure.info, the more that scene-changing sound from TV's "Law & Order" - the ominous "clang, clang" - rang in my head.

"I didn't test it on a lot of people because I tested it on a chiropractor and myself," argued Tope, who said he created the formula to heal his own sores. "If it works on a doctor, it's good."

Clang, clang.

Dr. Christine Haskin, a UNLV School of Dental Sciences researcher, says Canker Cure can't do what Tope says it can.

She says claims that more amino acids - the body uses them to build and repair body tissue - can make canker sores go away faster are silly, with "no scientific basis." But she's not surprised Tope has testimonials saying the product works.

It's a common phenomenon for those who've spent money on a product to expect a beneficial effect, she said. Few ever admit they threw money away. Three of Tope's customers told me their canker sores "went away faster."

A 30-pill bottle of Canker Cure costs $19.95 plus shipping.

"If you heal from a paper cut, you've got all the amino acids you need," Haskin said, stressing she's not talking about herpes cold sores, where the amino acid lysine has shown to be of some healing help.

The exact cause of most canker sores is unknown. Stress could be to blame, or tissue injury.

"Sometimes people are sent to a doctor for a possible immune disorder or allergies but most of the time the ulcers go away in a few days," Haskin said.

There's no cure for canker sores, but doctors do prescribe mouth rinses and corticosteroid ointments to reduce pain.

In the world of questionable medicinal remedies available on the Internet, where science is often sacrificed for entrepreneurial spirit and entrepreneurs stay out of the picture to stay ahead of the law, Tope is different. He wants the spotlight.

"I don't have billions for marketing or randomized double blind studies," said Tope, 59. "That's my biggest problem."

Potentially, lack of funds may not be his biggest problem.

According to the FDA, Canker Cure would probably require a new drug application to be legally marketed.

The FDA also wrote: "Failure to promptly correct violations ... may result in legal action including ... criminal prosecution."

Tope calls Canker Cure "a medical food," which need not be regulated. Yet FDA guidelines say a medical food is "a food … formulated to be consumed or administered … under the supervision of a physician … "

"I'm not worried I haven't put my product on the market right," Tope said. "I've got testimonials saying my product works."

Tope, who said he found the formulation for his product on the Internet, not in the lab, may be right in not worrying.

Dr. Stephen Barrett, of the North Carolina-based quackwatch.org, says the FDA has so few enforcement resources that $50 billion a year is spent by consumers on worthless health products. He said the agency generally goes after only treatments that hurt or kill people, as some alternative cancer treatments have done.

Dr. Richard Bakir, the Las Vegas chiropractor Tope tested his concoction on, is happy he got to take the pills.

'I'm glad I was the guinea pig," he said. "My canker sores healed faster."

Tope, who studied chemistry in college, expects better sales of Canker Cure.

"People now buy multiple bottles - I've sold thousands since I started in 2008," he said. 'I've been able to go to Budapest, Hungary, because of this product. … It's great."

Clang, clang.

Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.