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UPI investigative report: Maverick scientist at center of NutraSweet controversy

By GREGORY GORDON

WASHINGTON -- Dr. Richard Wurtman was an ardent defender of NutraSweet's safety at public hearings six years ago. Now he is one of the artificial sweetener's harshest critics.

'I think the likelihood is very strong that NutraSweet does produce serious and potentially damaging brain effects in a number of people,' the nationally known neuroscientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a recent series of interviews.

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Wurtman's seemingly enigmatic flip-flop from a position as a G.D. Searle Co. consultant to a role as a foe urging restrictions on marketing of the firm's best-selling product appears to be much at the center of the controversy over NutraSweet's safety.

Wurtman says his views simply changed with the evolution of his scientific studies and his growing skepticism of industry's attitude toward research.

His sometimes stormy relationships with the company and an industry-funded foundation, the International Life Sciences Institute, provide a glimpse of the maneuverings surrounding research into a major food additive.

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Wurtman, a brash-talking, hard-driving head of a major research laboratory, said he unilaterally severed his consulting relationship with Searle in 1985 after he grew concerned about NutraSweet's effects and the company's inaction. He said he rejected several approaches by the firm -- called The NutraSweet Co. since its sale that year to the Monsanto Corp. -- to rekindle the arrangement.

Wurtman accuses NutraSweet Co. officials of 'misrepresenting' the nature of company-financed studies into links between the sweetener, generically known as aspartame, and epileptic seizures, of sidestepping key safety issues and of threatening to veto his grant application to ILSI's aspartame committee.

A spokesman for the company described Wurtman's public attacks as a 'political issue,' but declined to elaborate.

Wurtman's relationship with Searle, The NutraSweet Co. and many of the companies that sell NutraSweet-flavored products dates to 1978. Beginning that year, according to public records, ILSI provided more than $200,000 to finance his research on caffeine, a common beverage ingredient that was under FDA scrutiny.

Wurtman said he found no ill health effects during his caffeine research, and his relationship was 'excellent' with ILSI -- a spinoff of the National Soft Drink Association.

During the same period in 1978, he said, he rejected a Searle offer of financial support for research on amino acids. Phenylalanine and aspartic acid, two such amino acids, are the main components of NutraSweet.

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He said Dr. Sanford Miller, chief of the FDA's bureau of foods, later sought his testimony before a 1980 Public Board of Inquiry because he had openly stated his belief that neither glutamate nor aspartic acid, a similar compound to that in NutraSweet, would not cause brain damage. Wurtman strongly defended aspartame at the hearing.

He said he did not focus on phenylalanine until about 1983 when he learned the FDA was considering expanding use of the low-calorie sweetener -- approved two years earlier for dry foods -- to include carbonated soft drinks.

From his caffeine research, Wurtman said, he was aware of the exploding soft drink market and concluded 'that the use of aspartame was going to go up considerably.'

'I was genuinely concerned that there might be an increase in brain phenylalanine levels.'

Wurtman said that, while phenylalanine is vital to the brain, it can serve as a barrier to 20 other amino acids that provide protein.

At a meeting in July, 1983, Wurtman said he told National Soft Drink Association officials that 'if you put large amounts of aspartame in soft drinks and people drink as much as I think they will, there are going to be problems.'

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Wurtman said that after the industry accepted his idea for combining NutraSweet with saccharin to cut the danger level, he accepted a Searle offer to serve as a consultant and relations were 'all very friendly and chummy.'

He said he became convinced that 'these people really want to know the extent to which their product may be a real problem.'

Shortly after he took the consulting job, he began getting letters from seizure victims who believed their problems stemmed from NutraSweet.

Wurtman said when he advised Dr. Gerald Gaull, Searle vice president for nutrition and medical affairs, in the spring of 1985 that he thought there was a link, 'there was a very rapid souring of the relationship.'

During a visit to his MIT laboratory, Wurtman said, Gaull asked to review a proposal for a seizure study by him and his collaborator, Harvard University neurologist Donald Schomer. He charged that when he advised Gaull the pair would seek funding from ILSI, Gaull 'got very angry and said, 'We, meaning Searle, are active members of ILSI and we will veto your study.''

'I was incredulous that he would say it to me, and I was dumbfounded that he would say it in front of witnesses,' Wurtman said.

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Schomer said he did not recall the comment. Gaull said, 'There is no way that I can veto anything at ILSI,' because Searle has only one of 12 votes on the ILSI aspartame committee. He did not deny making the threat.

Wurtman charged that Gaull later advised ILSI that two company-funded seizure studies already were under way, and the foundation declined to approve the grant.

In July of 1985, Wurtman said, he and three other scientists who had expressed concerns about NutraSweet were among a group invited to Gaull's home in Northeast Harbor, Maine, for a two-day conference.

'I left there with the conclusion there was no way these people were going to do an honest job in assessing the possibility that aspartame contributed to seizures,' Wurtman said.

He said he also was skeptical because, as a company consultant, Searle had asked him to chair its scientific advisory committee -- a role in which the company could use his name to defend the integrity of its own research. But, he said, Searle refused to let him see protocols and data from its studies.

'They wanted the name, but not the reality,' he said.

Frustrated by these developments, Wurtman said he wrote a letter to Robert Shapiro, president of Searle and later of The NutraSweet Co.

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'Dear Bob,' the letter said, 'I know you'll agree that my value to Searle ... derives in part from my telling the company some things that it would rather not hear ... and then from helping the company to deal with those things.

'One such thing is that some consumers may develop significant medical symptoms after consuming very large amounts of aspartame, particularly if they happen concurrently to be on low-calorie, low-protein weight-reducing diets.... If Searle-supported studies are going to contribute to our understanding of these people and their symptoms, then the studies have to include them -- and not be restricted to people who have a can or two of soda per day.'

He said Shapiro never answered the letter. Wurtman said he resigned his consulting role a short time later and rejected company efforts in the ensuing months to reinstate the arrangement.

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