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Germanium

Other common name(s): germanium sesquioxide, germanium 132, GE OXY 132, organic germanium, oxy-G2, pro-oxygen, vitamin O; other forms of organic and inorganic germanium

Scientific/medical name(s): bis-carboxyethyl germanium sesquioxide, Ge 132

Description

Germanium is an element. Small amounts of organic germanium are found in some plant-based foods. Inorganic germanium is mined and widely used as a semiconductor in the electronics industry. Both organic and inorganic germanium have been sold as dietary supplements, though the organic forms are more commonly used today. Ge-132 is a compound that contains germanium, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It is often called organic germanium, because chemists refer to carbon-containing compounds as organic. This might confuse some people, since the word “organic” in also used in non-technical language to describe “natural” products. However, Ge-132 does not occur naturally and is a synthetic (man-made) substance.

Overview

Available scientific evidence does not support claims that germanium supplements are effective in preventing or treating cancer in humans, and there are numerous reports showing that they may be harmful. A study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that supplements containing germanium present a potential hazard to humans. As a result, the FDA issued an “Import Alert,” which allows germanium imports to be seized if they are to be used as a food supplement. However, the amount and type of germanium naturally found in foods do not appear to be toxic.

How is it promoted for use?

Proponents claim germanium can be used to treat leukemia and cancers of the lung, bladder, larynx, breast, and uterus. They also claim it can help neurosis, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, cardiac insufficiency, Parkinson’s disease, neuralgia, chronic fatigue, hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver. Supporters say germanium stimulates the body's production of interferon, a naturally occurring anti-cancer agent. Some say that it helps the immune system by boosting the activity of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that attacks invading germs.

What does it involve?

Germanium supplements are available in powdered form and in capsules ranging from 35 to 500 milligrams. There is no standardized dose. These supplements are available in health food stores and over the Internet.

What is the history behind it?

The late Dr. Kazuhiko Asai of Japan began investigating the biological properties of germanium after reading reports from Russia that said the mineral had tremendous therapeutic value. In 1969, Dr. Asai founded the Asai Germanium Research Institute. He reported that he had developed a way to produce germanium that was chemically identical to the germanium extracted from plants. Dr. Asai also found that germanium was present in many common herbal remedies, including ginseng, garlic, comfrey, and aloe.

Dr. Otto Warburg, a Nobel Prize winning biochemist, stated that germanium helped to increase the delivery of oxygen to cells. He believed that boosting the oxygen supply to healthy cells slowed the growth of tumors.

What is the evidence?

Available scientific evidence does not support claims that germanium supplements promote health or increase the body's production of interferon. It also does not support the claim that germanium is an essential nutrient in animals or humans.

A study conducted by the FDA found at least 31 cases of kidney failure linked to germanium products. A number of deaths have also been reported. Most of these effects were from inorganic forms of germanium, but the FDA has also found severe kidney damage in people taking germanium that was sold as organic.

Because of the way it is processed, organic germanium is easily contaminated with inorganic germanium, which appears to be more toxic than the organic form. It is uncertain whether the kidney damage and other toxic effects reported in people who took organic germanium were actually caused by the supplement’s contamination with inorganic germanium. Because of this problem with purity, supplements containing germanium of any sort might pose a hazard to humans.

In the early 1980s, small studies were done using germanium on people with various types of cancer. In the first study, even those who received the lowest doses had toxic effects, and none of the patients got better. Later, a group of 25 patients were given spirogermanium (an organic germanium product) 3 times a week for 2 weeks. Most patients got worse, and toxic side effects were common. Because of these results—many toxic effects and little effect on the cancer—studies on spirogermanium were stopped.

In 2005, researchers in Arizona started a study to find out if taking pure organic germanium (bis-carboxyethylgermanium sequioxide) might help with radiation-related fatigue. The patients, who have early stage prostate cancer or breast cancer, will be watched carefully for side effects and abnormal laboratory values. The study is still going on, and is expected to finish at the end of 2012.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike companies that produce drugs (which must be tested before being sold), the companies that make supplements are not required to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their supplements are safe or effective, as long as they don't claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease.
Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Actual amounts per dose may vary between brands or even between different batches of the same brand. In 2007, the FDA wrote new rules to improve the quality of manufacturing for dietary supplements and the proper listing of supplement ingredients. But these rules do not address the safety of the ingredients or their effects on health.
Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Germanium supplements may pose danger for humans. Several deaths have been reported in the medical literature, with serious illness in some who survived. While organic germanium appears to be less toxic than inorganic germanium, it has been reported to cause kidney damage, liver changes, and heart problems. Other reported effects include anemia, poor appetite, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, tiredness, muscle weakness, skin rashes, and numbness in the hands and feet due to nerve damage. The toxic effects build up over time and get worse the longer it is taken. Many of these effects improve after the supplement is stopped, but kidney and nerve damage persisted and became chronic for some people.

Germanium may interfere with certain other medicines and may make seizures worse. Drugs for which side effects include kidney problems may be more likely to cause harm if taken with germanium. Very little testing during pregnancy has been reported, but at least one form of germanium caused ill effects on fetuses in animal tests. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not take germanium. At this time, germanium is not recommended as a dietary supplement for anyone due to the potential for serious health hazards.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

To learn more

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Clinical Trials.gov. Use of Organic Germanium or Placebo for the Prevention of Radiation Induced Fatigue. Accessed at www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00651417?term=germanium&rank=1 on July 26, 2011.

Food Standards Agency (UK), Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals. Risk assessment: germanium, 2003. Accessed at www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/evm_germanium.pdf on July 25, 2011.

Gerber GB, Leonard A. Mutagenicity, carcinogenicity and teratogenicity of germanium compounds. Mutat Res. 1997;387:141-146.

Lück BE, Mann H, Melzer H, Dunemann L, Begerow J.Renal and other organ failure caused by germanium intoxication. Nephrol Dial Transplant. 1999 Oct;14(10):2464-2468.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Germanium. Accessed at www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69232.cfm on July 25, 2011.

National Products Association. Germanium. Accessed at www.naturalproductsassoc.org/site/PageServer?pagename=rr_bg_germanium on June 4, 2008. Content no longer available.

PDRhealth. Germanium. Accessed at www.pdrhealth.com/drug_info/nmdrugprofiles/nutsupdrugs/ger_0119.shtml on June 4, 2008. Content no longer available.

Schauss AG. Nephrotoxicity and neurotoxicity in humans from organogermanium compounds and germanium dioxide. Biol Trace Elem Res. 1991 Jun;29(3):267-280.

Tao SH, Bolger PM. Hazard assessment of germanium supplements. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 1997;25:211-219.

US Food and Drug Administration. Import Alert #54-07, Germanium Products, 3/18/11. Accessed at www.accessdata.fda.gov/cms_ia/importalert_139.html on July 25, 2011.

US Food and Drug Administration. Memorandum in response to new dietary ingredient notification, November 13, 2002. Accessed at www.fda.gov/ohrms/DOCKETS/dockets/95s0316/95s-0316-rpt0155-01-vol113.pdf on July 25, 2011.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.


Last Medical Review: 10/14/2011
Last Revised: 10/14/2011