February 22–March 1, 2001
part 1 | part 2
Nov. 28, 2000, early afternoon, Veterans Stadium:
At first glance, you might assume that a Dockers commercial is being shot in the Phillies’ clubhouse — you can’t turn around in here without bumping into a camera operator or a guy in khaki pants. But in fact it’s the first in a series of media lunches featuring Larry Bowa, the latest man bold enough (or perhaps deluded enough) to take the helm of this perpetually struggling ball club.
Bowa stands near the middle of the room, arms crossed, chatting easily with four or five reporters. Not one is taking notes or holding a tape recorder; the reporters seem to be enjoying just shooting the breeze for a few with the new manager, who was a fan favorite when he sucked up grounders as the Phils’ high-intensity shortstop from 1970 to 1981. Bowa holds forth on matters baseball, and they nod solemnly. Bowa cracks a joke, and they smile. Put beers in their hands, and a spatula in Bowa’s, and it could be a scene from a backyard barbecue.
"They won’t get out-hit," Bowa says about some future foe or other. His face is serious, as if he expects the reporters to argue. "They will not get out-hit."
Several hours later, in a meeting room at the Radisson Valley Forge Convention Center:
The guy setting up the video camera stops and looks up. "Larry Bowa is going to be here?" he asks.
"Yes!" says the woman who’s been explaining to him what’s going to happen tonight. "That’s why we’re so excited!"
Bowa, wearing the same black pants and gray pullover he wore to the media lunch, arrives a few minutes before the scheduled start of the seminar. The room is filling up. Half the people — those sitting and standing near the front — seem to know each other. They laugh and joke and network. The rest — seeming to prefer to sit as far from the display table as possible — appear to know no one, except for the few who came with a spouse.
Some, presumably, are here because of the ad in the Nov. 24 Daily News, in which Larry Bowa personally invited them to call 800-690-BOWA to find out how to get in on "the opportunity of a lifetime." ("Please, only call if you are serious about making money," the ad advised.)
Everyone is here tonight to learn more about Transfer Factor, which, according to the folks doing the presenting, is a medical breakthrough on a par with penicillin, and a business opportunity roughly comparable to being able to go back in time and buy Microsoft stock.
Bowa takes the floor about an hour into the show. Professional baseball players travel 60,000 to 70,000 miles per year, he tells the group; little wonder, then, that he’s averaged four colds per year over the course of his career. But all that changed a couple of years ago, he says, when an old friend asked him to try Transfer Factor. Now, Bowa says, he hardly ever gets sick. And for the first time in years, he can run every day.
When one of his cocker spaniels got an ear infection, he continues, he gave the dog some TF. "In 10 days," he recalls, "the ear infection was gone. It was unbelievable. Now I use it on all four dogs.… I am definitely a believer in this."
And if you can make a little money while spreading the good word — hey, why not? "Everyone likes to make money," Bowa says. "But when you’re helping people out, that’s a bonus.… The more we can get this [product] on the street, the more people we can help."
Lots of pro athletes and coaches endorse products. But Larry Bowa’s relationship with Transfer Factor is not a typical endorsement deal. He says he is not paid for appearing in newspaper ads and at seminars like the one in Valley Forge — unless you count the products he receives every month for his personal use as payment.
But 4Life Research is not a typical health supplement supplier, either. The various Transfer Factor products generally are not sold in retail outlets, but by self-employed distributors who operate within a classic multi-level marketing plan. Their goal is not only to sell the products, but to entice others to become distributors as well — that’s where the real money is. A distributor who spawns others, who in turn spawn still others, supposedly can make five or even six figures per year with shockingly little effort. Kevin O’Connor, a top seller in the area — and the man who got Bowa involved — told attendees at the November seminar that he moves about $400,000 in Transfer Factor products per month. His take in October 2000, he said, was $26,000. The previous June, he claimed, he took the entire month off — and his income went up by $4,000.
"My alarm clock never goes off," he brags. "The opportunity here is literally without limits."
Bowa says his income is considerably lower; he jokes that the most he could do with what he makes from Transfer Factor sales is go out to dinner. Still, the 800 line touted in that newspaper ad in November continues to be operational, even as Bowa begins spring training — in fact, now it’s called "The Larry Bowa Hotline." And 4Life has set him up with a web page, on which he welcomes readers to "be part of my winning team." His new full-time gig will make it hard to attend seminars during baseball season, but 4Life will continue to use his name and likeness to draw more people in to this supposed "opportunity of a lifetime."
Combined, it’s a high level of involvement for a man who admits to harboring doubts about the company’s bolder claims.
So what is Transfer Factor? And is it as revolutionary as its proponents would have us believe?
"What you are about to hear over the next few minutes from medical doctors, biochemists, microbiologists and consumers, may be the most important health information you will ever receive.… What we are going to talk about is a revolutionary new approach to immune function and disease treatment which scientists and physicians are heralding as the most exciting discovery in immunology to come along in decades. The implications are nothing less than stunning."
—from "From Here to Immunity," a promotional tape from 4Life Research
In Lawrence’s work, transfer factor referred to "an extract of human white blood cells that could transfer a type of immunity called cell-mediated immunity," says Dr. Burton Zweiman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who worked in Lawrence’s lab 40 years ago. "Investigation of TF has been somewhat erratic over the years, with both supporters and deniers of its biologic importance."
4Life Research would fall squarely in the category of supporter. The company’s promotional materials, and the websites of the many distributors who have taken their sales efforts online, are rife with bold statements, comparing Transfer Factor to penicillin and the polio vaccine, and suggesting it can be used to treat (not necessarily cure, mind you, but treat) everything from the common cold to AIDS.
And while Dr. Lawrence’s work is often cited in these materials, Transfer Factor is not made from human white blood cells. 4Life says its products are derived from colostrum from cows. Colostrum is a liquid, a sort of pre-breast milk, secreted by the mammary glands immediately after a mammal gives birth. Colostrum conveys antibodies from a mother’s immune system to her offspring, and Transfer Factor supposedly "helps our bodies build up immunity to all the foreign invaders which the cow has been exposed to in her lifetime."
At the November seminar in Valley Forge, self-described health care professionals and others cited examples of extraordinary recoveries that they attributed to Transfer Factor. One doctor described a patient suffering from breast cancer whose jaundice and energy level improved, and whose tumor reduced in size "by a factor of 10" in just a few months. Marc Blatstein, former president of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation in Philadelphia, said that Transfer Factor improved his kidney function in three months.
Such boasts are easy to find. Scientific support for them, however, is another matter.
4Life states in its literature that more than 3,000 studies, costing a combined $40 million, have been conducted in the 50-odd years since Dr. Lawrence’s discovery. The statement seems to invite the reader to assume that this research supports the claims of proponents of 4Life’s product, Transfer Factor. But as Dr. Zweiman noted, the phrase "transfer factor" has many different uses in science. There may well have been more than 3,000 studies of transfer factors over the years, but whether any involved 4Life’s product isn’t clear. City Paper ’s extensive Internet and database searches turned up nothing resembling objective scientific information on studies of the product Transfer Factor specifically, or on the use of bovine colostrum in humans in general. Public relations specialists at several immunology organizations said they were unable to find members familiar with such products, nor could any reference to them be found in the Journal of Immunology ’s online archives, which date back to 1965.
"I am not aware of any studies of transfer factor… being obtained from cow colostrum and [transferring] immune reactivity to humans," says Dr. Zweiman. "Nor could I find any reference to it in a Medline search of the medical literature."
A spokeswoman for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, says, "NCCAM has not funded any research on this therapy, nor have I heard of it before now."
William J. Hennen, Ph.D., vice president of research and development for 4Life, says two studies — one involving Transfer Factor’s use by people with HIV, and another involving autistic children — showed promising results and are now awaiting peer review before publication. He also cites a 1994 study by Drs. Hugh Fudenberg and Giancarlo Pizza that supposedly demonstrated the value of bovine colostrum to the human immune system.
But Dr. Fudenberg, reached at his office in Spartanburg, SC, says the report — which he described as the results of a review of other scientists’ work — stated nothing of the sort. "The conclusion," Fudenberg says forcefully, "was that the commercial firms making this for humans were invariably run by people who were not scientists and who didn’t care whether their products were harmful or not."
4Life Research was formed several years after this report was published. However, Fudenberg insists there is nothing to support the supposed efficacy of products made from cow’s colostrum — and even contends they are potentially harmful to people with allergies to lactose or any other substances derived from cows.
"Beware of any transfer factor not made from human cell lines," he warns.
Hennen and O’Connor, in a subsequent interview via conference call, were at a loss when informed of Fudenberg’s remarks. "Obviously," says O’Connor, "he’s either changed his mind or there’s a contradiction going on that we’re not in a position to explain."
They refuted the contention that Transfer Factor contained anything that could cause an allergic reaction in anyone. Hennen conceded, when pressed, that no articles on peer-reviewed studies of products derived from cow’s colostrum currently exist, but he insisted that they’re coming. "To do clinical research at that level is very expensive," he says. But reaching that point "is what we are all about right now."
When asked if 4Life’s materials are potentially misleading on this point, Hennen says, "The question goes back to, What is transfer factor," Which was Dr. Zweiman’s point.
City Paper forwarded a transcript of 4Life’s promotional audio cassette "From Here to Immunity," which was distributed at the seminar in Valley Forge, to various immunologists, microbiologists and biochemists. Those who responded were skeptical.
"Speaking from a standpoint of… mainstream medicine, there is not a lot of familiarity [with] or support for this kind of practice," says Dr. James T. Li, professor of medicine at the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, MN, and member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. "This is a form of alternative treatment," he says, which, he adds, almost by definition means there is little evidence to support its proponents’ claims — at least not the kind of evidence doctors and scientists generally like to see.
Li hesitates to call 4Life’s claims misleading or false, but says, "I would be skeptical, and I would advise others to be as well."
Others are more blunt.
"Most of the clinical studies of transfer factors have been based on the specificity of each transfer factor," says Dr. Charles Kirkpatrick, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology — who says he once declined 4Life’s offer to act as a consultant.
For example, he explains, "a transfer factor that is specific for Herpes simplex will prevent recurrent infections with this virus… The approach being used by 4Life and other companies is to ignore the specificity issue and make non-specific claims for boosting the immune system.’" Kirkpatrick believes "the long-term outlook [for use of transfer factors] is strong," but says the scientific community and federal agencies like the FDA will require a lot more than the "testimonials" in 4Life’s materials.
Gilbert Zink, Ph.D., an associate professor teaching immunology and anatomy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, doubts whether humans can significantly benefit from any substances derived from cow’s colostrum. "Cows and humans are not susceptible to many of the same diseases," he says. "The fact is, microbes down on the farm can be significantly different from microbes in an urban area."
Hennen says, however, that there is "significant" crossover.
Zink also contends that even if Transfer Factor does work, it may do more harm than good, in the long run. "It may be detrimental," he explains, "if it prevents a person’s immune system from undergoing genetic changes in immune cells to create immunological memory… and so you don’t make your own immunity to whatever you encounter.… So what happens if and when the person gets off that product?"
Zink, like Fudenberg, also expresses concern over the possibility of allergic reactions in some people. "The human is going to see these bovine molecules as foreign — and some people are going to be allergic to them," Zink says.
Thomas Rogers, Ph.D., a professor in Temple University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, is frank and dismissive: "It is appropriate that the material being sold by this company is extracted from cows. My response [to 4Life’s claims] is simple: Bull."
And in the fine print, 4Life Research’s own materials include startlingly blunt disclaimers such as this one: "Transfer Factor and Transfer Factor Plus do not claim, nor should it be interpreted, to cure, prevent or mitigate any serious disease." And this: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."
part 1 | part 2