Medicine: Cold Shoulder for a Burn Cure

A touted Chinese treatment earns mostly skepticism in the U.S.

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The claims were little short of miraculous. A simple herbal ointment from China was allegedly accomplishing what the most sophisticated medical technology in the U.S. could not. Victims of severe burns, charred beyond recognition, recovered almost unblemished. Damaged skin that would normally require extensive surgery healed on its own. The searing pain of a blistering wound suddenly disappeared, without the aid of narcotics.

Those were the astonishing reports that appeared in the past year in a variety of publications -- from newsletters to Newsweek magazine -- concerning a substance developed in China called the Moist Burn Ointment. The stories raised hope among 100,000 Americans who suffer from severe burns each year that the Chinese may have made a breakthrough that could help ease the victims' pain.

But last week leading U.S. burn doctors had an opportunity to examine the claims up close, and they saw no miracles -- at least not yet. The Chinese doctor who developed the medication, Dr. Xu Rong Xiang, flew to the U.S. for the first time to present his findings at major burn centers in New York City, Boston and Bethesda, Md. The reception was not as warm as he might have hoped. Said Dr. Cleon Goodwin, director of the respected New York Hospital Burn Center: "Dozens of magic potions have been put forward as miracle cures in the past 30 years. Not one has panned out. So naturally we are skeptical."

The MBO method is disarmingly simple. Doctors spread a thin layer of the ointment over the wounded area with a tongue depressor and keep the skin completely covered until it heals. So far, the treatment has been used on 50,000 burn patients in China and on several hundred elsewhere. Xu and colleagues traveled to Thailand last month to help treat victims of a gas explosion in Bangkok. In the U.S. the doctor has won converts at the New Jersey-based National Burn Victim Foundation. Xu, 32, who comes from a family of herbal-medicine specialists, will not reveal the ointment's formula until he receives a patent, saying only that it contains honey, sesame oil and other "herbal" ingredients.

The doctor is less reticent about his results. He claims the ointment reduces pain almost on contact, lessening the need for narcotics. MBO also cuts healing time one-third for many burns, he says. And that reduction can sharply reduce scarring. Some cases requiring skin grafting operations in the U.S. can be treated with ointment alone, he contends. "I am totally confident," asserts Xu, "that the burn cure will be accepted here in the U.S."

But many American doctors are not so sure. To begin with, they say, unless Xu reveals the formula, the Food and Drug Administration cannot approve clinical trials. And only when such trials have been carried out and the method's effectiveness demonstrated on large numbers of burn patients are U.S. doctors likely to take these claims seriously. Before-and-after photographs prove little, since a few patients have healed surprisingly well under any circumstances. Concludes Dr. Fred Caldwell, president of the American Burn Association: "It's one thing to make claims of a miracle cure. It's another to back up those claims with good clinical trials." The ointment may ultimately prove to be of some value, but in medicine new treatments have to pass the test -- again and again -- before they become miracles.