This brief research report originally appeared in the February 1992 issue of ForeFront—Health Investigations.

New Research on DHEA

by T. Michael Hardy

New research by Dr. Mark Jacobson and colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco now indicates that low blood levels of the steroid hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) appear to precede the progression of asymptomatic HIV infection to full-blown AIDS. Their study, based on blood samples taken from 108 participants of the San Francisco Men's Study, showed that low levels of DHEA were associated with a doubled chance of progressing into full-blown AIDS within a 3-year period compared to those with normal DHEA levels. This observation was noted after taking into account the influence of such factors as CD4 counts and whether or not antiviral drugs such as AZT had been used.

DHEA is an abundant steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. It is a vital steroid precursor to both male and female steroid hormones. Despite three decades of research into DHEA, its importance and function beyond that of steroid precursor remains something of a mystery. DHEA undergoes the strongest age-related decreases of any of the steroid hormones. Lower-than-normal DHEA blood levels have also been noted in those suffering from breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

Following their preliminary finding, Dr. Jacobson's team investigated the influence of DHEA supplementation on HIV-disease progression in a small group of 23 participants. They hoped to determine whether a 1500 mg daily DHEA supplement would correct abnormally low blood levels of the hormone and whether it would have an ameliorative effect on the progression of HIV disease. Earlier research with DHEA has shown lowered incidence of spontaneous breast cancer in mice.

Jacobson's team now reports that this study has concluded and that preliminary analysis of the data indicate that DHEA may slow down the progression of AIDS. While encouraged by these preliminary findings, Jacobson cautions against persons with AIDS (PWAs) rushing to incorporate DHEA into their treatment regimen until his data are fully analyzed and a more-in-depth full-scale follow-up study has been conducted.

Abnormally low blood levels of DHEA were first noted in AIDS patients in research conducted by Dr. Carl Merril at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1989. In response to this early finding, many buyers clubs began stocking DHEA for PWAs who chose to make it part of their therapy. Dr. Jacobson's latest study provides further encouragement that these treatment pioneers might have been on the right track. However, both Jacobson and Merril emphasize the preliminary nature of their research and the unknown role of DHEA in human health and disease. DHEA may merely be a marker for HIV disease progression.

In early 1991, amidst the growing controversy surrounding the "abuse" of anabolic steroids, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reclassified anabolic steroids as Schedule 3 drugs. This classification includes such drugs as cocaine, morphine and heroin. While DHEA is not technically an anabolic steroid (and it has yet to be classified as such by the DEA), the stiff legal penalties associated with trafficking in Schedule 3 drugs may have scared off suppliers. Two years ago, there were dozens of domestic suppliers. At this time, there is not a single source of DHEA in the United States.

The DEA confirmed over the phone that DHEA has not been scheduled along with the other steroids. It is therefore still legal under current FDA policy to purchase DHEA for personal use.

DHEA is by no means inexpensive, and the only sources we were able to locate were overseas. Readers are cautioned to write for availability and pricing before placing an order. See the CERI sources listing for up-to-date mail-order outlets.

Although this new study by Dr. Jacobson and associates is an essential first step towards discovering the therapeutic potential of DHEA in HIV disease, further study is clearly needed. The central role of DHEA in steroid metabolism (and endocrine function) should prompt widespread investigation into its function, not only in its relation to HIV and AIDS but to cancer, Alzheimer's disease and aging as well.

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