With all the talk of drug shortages, third-world health needs and over-the-top health-care costs, I’m absolutely dumbfounded by the inability of science to harness the drug-pumping magic of the lowly grapefruit.

We’ve known for decades that grapefruit consumed with some pharmaceutical concoctions can be dangerous – even lethal. That’s supposedly because grapefruit contains furanocoumarins – compounds that enhance the body’s ability to absorb certain drugs. They apparently interfere with the liver’s normal removal of drugs, leaving more of their active ingredients floating around in the bloodstream to do their work.

Why does this always have to be a bad thing?

The researchers creating the scientific literature on the subject, bolstered by media with ever-decreasing science-writing expertise, routinely report the phenomenon as a danger, warning people not to mix medicines with grapefruit.

Why don’t more researchers delve into the potential benefit of grapefruit as a low-cost adjuvant? A useful way to get more bang from your meds.

Our materia medica are rife with therapies derived from plants, animals and fungi, including penicillin from bread mold, the cancer therapy Taxol from the Pacific yew and, of course, aspirin from willow bark.

Conversely, the power of grapefruit is its ability to jazz up other drugs.

I could cut my pills in half

I’m one of those told not to eat grapefruit because of some medicine I’m taking. But I’m also on a high-deductible health-savings plan. Research scientists could save me a lot of money on my medicine if they could figure out how much boost I’d get in therapeutic benefit by eating, say, half a grapefruit each morning. Maybe I could cut my pills in half and get the same benefit from them – for twice as long per refill.

It’s a challenge for those in personalized medicine and nutritional medicine. But it might be useful for someone to accept that challenge.

What other benefits might come from this medicine mega-booster? Reducing drug shortages, perhaps?

Even though President Obama signed new drug shortage legislation into law in July 2012 — the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act of 2012 — this week we’re hearing more news about drug shortages. People with Hodgkin lymphoma – many of them children — are having relapses because of the shortage of the drug mechlorethamine, also known as nitrogen mustard.

I have no idea whether grapefruit could have extended the therapeutic life of dwindling nitrogen mustard supplies. But those parents watching their kids relapse and die would probably like to know. And there are plenty of other access problems out there. The website of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists lists more than 450 drugs in short supply.

Where Are the Academics?

Obviously there are some delicate economic issues at play in this whole thing.

Drug companies wouldn’t be likely to support pharmacokinetic studies into the effects of grapefruit or perhaps even a less-variable extract of the fruit, if such development could cut into some of their sales – even if it could also provide them alternatives in case of shortages.

But understanding the power of grapefruit ought to be grist for academic scientists and for national and global health organizations.

Ironically, according to an article in The Packer, a publication covering the fresh produce industry, University of Florida citrus scientists are developing a low-furanocoumarin hybrid grapefruit that probably won’t cause drug levels to increase.

That’s cool If it tastes good and works, I’m up for that. I miss my grapefruit. But I won’t die without it.

I wonder, however, if more people could live better if we’d harness this amazing, underappreciated power of grapefruit.

(C) NC Biotech Center

Editor’s note: Jim Shamp is Director of Public Relations for the N.C. Biotechnology Center. He writes and edits news and other web copy, brochures and other internal and external Biotechnology Center materials, and supports the Corporate Communications unit’s marketing and media relations activities.