Similia similibus curatur: like cures like. Paracelsus (A.D. 1493-1541), the 16th-century physician, developed this doctrine of signatures based on the theory that corresponding organs have the capacity to heal as in heart heals heart, kidney heals kidney. 1 "Like cures like" is the guiding principle of homeopathy and a tenet of glandular therapy, also called live cell therapy, tissue therapy and organotherapy. Glandular therapy - the use of animal glands or extracts to stimulate diseased human glands - is a healing technique that dates back to hunter/gatherer times. Primitive societies used all parts of the animals they killed; bones, skin, sinew and even glands to survive.

The oldest medical documents, from the Papyrus of Elders (1550 B.C.) to the writings of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), mention preparations made from animal and human organs and used for healing.

In this century, Swiss physician Paul Niehans performed pioneering work in what was then called tissular transplantation. In 1927, for one of his first experiments, Niehans injected eosinophilic cells (a type of white blood cell) of the anterior lobe of a calf's pituitary gland into a young human dwarf. The dwarf grew taller by 32 centimeters (12.8 inches). In another experiment, Neihans injected parathyroid gland pulp into a patient dying of tetanya condition marked by cramps, convulsions, muscle twitching, and sharp bending of the wrists and ankles associated with abnormal calcium processing. The patient immediately improved. Niehans successfully continued his work with other tissue and cell culture transplants. He theorized that implanted glandular cell material had a regenerating effect on its corresponding organ. 2

Jump-Starting Organs Niehans' live cell therapy, still considered controversial, gave way to modern hormone therapy extracting vital hormones from glands, such as cortisone from the adrenals or insulin from the pancreas, to be administered to patients to cure disease. It was theorized that the vital hormones were the only valuable parts of the glands. However, in the past 20 years, glandular extracts have been reassessed, and whole processed glands and/or tissue from every part of the body - thyroid, thymus, parathyroid, adrenal, pituitary, pancreas, liver, spleen, ovary, testicle, aorta and brain - are used today to provide organ-specific nutrition to the body.

The theory behind hormone therapy is that glandular extracts contain nutrients and biochemicals that stimulate the reproduction and regrowth of similar tissue. For example, thymus tissue may atrophy with age because it didn't receive enough nutrients when a person was young. Over time, the body has "forgotten" how to help the thymus function. Thymus glandular extracts aim to stimulate the immune system to help the thymus produce antibodies.

Naturopaths caution that, depending on a person's health history and the affected organ system, glandular extracts should only be used for a short time because the gland will continue to function on its own after receiving a jump-start from the corresponding glandular extract. There is little danger of overdosing on glandular extracts, however, since they are thought to build up and restore the function of the gland rather than take over its function or suppress normal hormone production.

A glandular extract's active substances include peptides, enzymes, natural lipid factors, vitamins, minerals and hormone precursors. Once ingested, they pass through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream and are carried throughout the body. Although it was once believed that the intestinal wall was impermeable to such macromolecules, studies now refute that belief and show that proteins, polypeptides (small proteins) and various hormones absorbed intact in the stomach do have effects on targeted tissues. 3

Peptides - small proteins found in glandulars - are believed by some to be the most potent active ingredients in glandulars. An isolated peptide extract may be more organ-specific, a glandulars' version of a "magic bullet." However, proponents of glandulars (the entire chopped and dried gland) argue that throwing away the entire gland and its attendant nutrients and instead concentrating on one component results in a less effective medicinal.

Whether glandulars and peptide extracts should be taken orally or injected is another controversy. A long-standing belief about orally-ingested peptides is that they break down in the digestive tract and never reach the target organ. Yet studies refute this notion and show that small amounts of intact peptides and proteins do enter the circulation under normal circumstances. 4 Injections can and do carry larger amounts of glandular material through the bloodstream; therefore, when using orally administered glandulars a larger amount may be needed.

Conventional medicine maintains that hormones are the only substances of medicinal value in glands. Hormone injections can, however, actually decrease a gland's function by creating an imbalance or negative side effects, whereas glandular nutrients not only nourish the targeted organ but also provide a secondary effect by stimulating the gland to regain its optimal function.

Thymus: Immune Powerhouse Thymus glandular extract is promising for treatment of immune-related disorders such as AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), hepatitis B and recurrent respiratory infections in children. 5-7

Sandwiched between the thyroid gland and the heart, the thymus gland is essential to immune system function because it produces T-lymphocytes, or T-cells. T-cells control cell-mediated immunity - immune mechanisms not governed by antibodies - that fights off bacteria, yeast, fungi, parasites and viruses. In addition to producing T-cells, the thymus gland secretes the hormones thymosin, thymopoietin and serum thymic factor - each of which contributes to immunity. People with depressed immune systems who suffer from HIV or AIDS-related diseases, herpes, CFS, cancer and other infections often exhibit low levels of these hormones. 8

Scientists believe that the thymus has powerful potential for enhancing immunity. They have isolated two biologically active peptides from the thymus and 10 thymic fractions with demonstrable biological activity (although they haven't been precisely characterized). 9 The next step in glandular research is to use these biologically active substances to treat human diseases. A biologically active substance, such as the alkaloid ephedrine in ephedra, affects the body's structure or function.

A study involving calf thymus extract, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is perhaps the most notable among glandular studies because it is the first controlled U.S. study to test glandulars on humans. Seventeen patients suffering from rare but fatal lymphocytic abnormalities involving tumorous growths and organ lesions (Letterer-Siwe disease, Hand-Schüller-Christian disease and eosinophilic granuloma) were injected daily with thymus peptide extract. A control group of 20 people underwent chemotherapy, the normal treatment for these diseases. Ten of the 17 patients who responded to thymic extract experienced full remission after one year. Seven of the 17 showed either no change or clinical worsening after 28 days and therapy was discontinued. This remission rate was statistically comparable to previous study controls who were treated with chemotherapy. 10

But it's thymus glandular extract's potential to raise T-cell counts and mitigate symptoms of AIDS that may be its most important contemporary application. Researchers believe that HIV targets the thymus gland and may be able to penetrate it. In an Italian study of HIV patients, calf thymus peptide extract, orally administered over a period of 50 days, was found to improve the status of Kaposi's sarcoma (an AIDS-related skin cancer), increase T-helper cells and decrease T-suppresser lymphocytes. Researchers believe thymus glandular peptide extract and its derivatives may slow the progression of HIV to AIDS by exerting an immunomodulating effect on T-cells. However, they caution that double-blind clinical trials are necessary to further support their theory. 11

How Glandulars Are Made

People faced with less serious illnesses may find that glandulars rejuvenate their tired adrenals, weak kidneys or sluggish livers. To help your customers choose glandular products, it's good to know their sources and production methods. (Peptide extracts are generally not commercially available in the United States.) Vegetarian customers will eschew glandulars because they are a true animal product. Most glandulars are derived from cows, except for pancreatic glandulars that are usually extracted from pig tissue. Customers unfazed by the animal sources can choose from four popular production methods, described below. Each has benefits and drawbacks.

* Azeotrophic glandulars are made by quick-freezing the substance at 0°F and washing it with a powerful solvent such as ethyl dichloride to remove fatty tissue. The solvent is then distilled off, and the remaining material is dried and ground into a powder that's placed in tablets or capsules. This method captures fat-soluble hormones, enzymes, essential fatty acids and other beneficial materials, but eliminates problems of fat-stored toxins.

* The salt precipitation method involves soaking fresh glandular material in a saltwater solution. The salt increases the density of the water-soluble material, so that when the mixture is centrifuged, lighter fat-soluble material can be separated. The fat-soluble substance is then dried and powdered. High sodium levels can be a problem, but no toxic solvents are used in this method.

* Freeze-drying rapidly freezes glandular material at 40°F to 60°F below zero. The material is then placed in a vacuum chamber that removes water from its frozen state by direct vaporization. It's crucial to consider the source of freeze-dried glandulars since animal glands are often depositories for toxins and other metabolites. Choose only extracts from organically-bred animals that are fed a diet free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals that find their way into animal tissue. Such safety measures increase production costs and the final price tag, but they also ensure a higher concentration of unaltered protein, enzymes and fat-soluble compounds.

* Redigested glandulars are partially digested or hydrolyzed by plant and animal enzymes. The partially digested material is passed through a series of filtrations to separate fat-soluble and large molecules. The purified material is then freeze-dried. This method works well for glandulars such as liver and thymus that contain small polypeptides. 12

Whichever glandular your customers choose, encourage them to purchase products from reputable companies because improperly processed glandulars will have little or no medicinal effect.

Kathleen Finn Mendola is a health and nutrition journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon. She writes nationally for health-related publications.


1. Schmid, F., & Stein, J. Cell Research and Cellular Therapy: 19-20. Thoune, Switzerland: Ott Publishers, 1960.

2. Ibid.

3. Gardner, M. J."Gastrointestinal absorption of intact proteins," Ann Rev Nutr, 8: 329-350, 1988.

4. Ibid.

5. Cazzola, P., Mazzanti, P., et al." In vivo modulating effect of a calf thymus acid lysate on human T-lymphocyte subsets and CD4+/CD8+ ratio in the course of different diseases," Curr Ther Res, 42: 1011-17, 1987.

6. Fiocchi, A., Borella, E., et al. "A double-blind clinical trial for the evaluation of the therapeutical effectiveness of a calf thymus derivative (Thymomodulin) in children with recurrent respiratory infections," Thymus, 8: 831-39, 1986.

7. Valesini, G., Barnaba, V., et al. "A calf thymus acid lysate improves clinical symptoms and T-cell defects in the early stages of HIV infection: Second Report," Eur J of Cancer Clin Onc, 23: 1915-19, 1987.

8. Murray, M. Glandular Extracts: New Canaan, Conn.: Keats Publishing, 1994.

9. Wara, D. "Thymic Hormones and the Immune System," Adv Ped, 28: 229-231, 1988.

10. Osband, M., Lipton, J., et al. "Histiocytosis-X: Demonstration of abnormal immunity T-cell histamine H2 receptor deficiency, and successful treatment with thymic extract," N Engl J Med, 304: 146-53, 1981.

11. Valesini, loc. cit.

12. Murray, M. loc. cit.