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Office of Dietary Supplements Leads National Research Agenda
9 May 2001
by Wyn Snow, Managing Editor

In the six years since its inception, the federal Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) has established itself as the torchbearer for the national research agenda. Its two-pronged mandate is exploring how dietary supplements can improve health care in the US, and promoting scientific study of supplements for maintaining health and preventing disease.

Systematic literature review key to future research

How do we know what kind of research is needed? According to Paul Coates, director of ODS, a systematic evaluation of the literature will answer two key questions:

  1. Does a particular research study support claims of effectiveness and safety for a specific supplement?
  2. What additional research is needed to investigate effectiveness and safety?

Answers to the first question will provide better information for consumers about specific supplements. According to Coates, research that supports traditional use of a supplement may not be applicable to pills or tablets being marketed for other uses. Thus, answers to both the first and second questions will help shape the national research agenda.

Ephedra will serve as model for constructing research agenda

This year's Congressional appropriation for ODS specifically encourages them to support research on ephedra and to evaluate current literature on ephedra safety and effectiveness. Coates welcomes this opportunity for developing a systematic approach that can serve as a model for other supplements.

In the past, ODS has used conferences and workshops as a means of bringing scientists together to review what they know and form agendas for further research. Coates believes that systematic literature reviews will enhance the agenda-setting process by pinpointing specific gaps in our knowledge.

ODS accomplishments

Despite its modest level of funding, the ODS has co-funded thirteen research projects and four botanical research centers, as well as roughly twelve conferences and myriad workshops. It also supports training and career development initiatives for scientists, maintains a website, publishes information about supplements, and provides two databases of information for the public.

Research projects have investigated a variety of supplements in relation to intestinal function, cataracts, bone density loss, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, zinc metabolism, hearing loss, dental health and cardiovascular disease, alcoholism, cognitive function, depression, diabetes, and the nervous system. [See details of cofunded research projects.]

Over the past two years, the ODS has co-funded a network of four botanical research centers. Coates foresees that their expertise in basic botanical to clinical research will serve as a national resource for both public and private organizations. [See details describing botanical research centers.]

Conferences and workshops have brought scientists together to share the current state of knowledge about a range of supplements and to develop research agendas for the future. [See details describing topics covered by conferences and workshops.]

More than 400,000 citations of research on supplements are incorporated into the database called International Bibliographic Information on Dietary Supplements (IBIDS).

Another database entitled Computer Access to Research on Dietary Supplements (CARDS) will provide information on all federally funded research about dietary supplements. Fiscal 1999 NIH research is now being entered into CARDS, which will be operational within several months.

Coates also views the ODS commitment to support training and career development for young scientists as crucial to ODS long range goals.


The Office of Dietary Supplements at NIH - Meeting the Needs of a Modern Research Agenda: With more than 400,000 published articles of research on dietary supplements, a reasonable person might wonder, "Why do we need more?" This in depth report presents highlights from our discussion with Paul Coates, and describes ODS accomplishments over the past six years and its goals for the future.



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