Parents who paid $285 for an experimental head lice treatment for their children might be scratching their own heads now that the doctor selling the stuff says it is really a skin cleanser available for less than $10 a bottle at drugstores nationwide.
Dale Pearlman received widespread media attention and skepticism from some head lice experts last year when the journal Pediatrics published his study detailing results with a product he called Nuvo lotion. He described it as a "dry-on suffocation-based pediculocide" and the first in a new class of nontoxic lotions for head lice.
As of the weekend, his Web site still said the costly treatment was available only at his office in Menlo Park, Calif.
But in a letter to the editor for release Monday in Pediatrics, Pearlman says the treatment "was actually Cetaphil cleanser," available over the counter internationally, and made by a company he has nothing to do with.
Leonard Fleck, a Michigan State University medical ethicist, said Pearlman's lack of disclosure in the original study made it impossible for other scientists to test his methods.
Pearlman acknowledged that he did not disclose the information earlier "because I wanted to get rich" and had hoped pharmaceutical companies would offer him money to further develop a Cetaphil-based product for head lice. When that did not happen, he says, he decided to write the letter.
"I thought it would be so fun to make the world a better place by telling everyone about this," Pearlman said in a phone interview.
He would not say how many patients had sought the treatment or how much money he made on it since his study was published. Pearlman said his treatment should still be considered novel because it uses Cetaphil in a new way, having patients apply the lotion and dry it with a hair dryer to suffocate head lice.
Brent Petersen, communications manager for Cetaphil's maker, Galderma Laboratories LP of Fort Worth, called Pearlman's tactics "a bit misleading" and said the company knew nothing about Pearlman's use of Cetaphil until learning of his letter. "We'll obviously look into it," Petersen said.
He said Cetaphil's label clearly states that it is a skin cleanser and that Galderma has no data confirming or denying that it is an effective head lice treatment.
Jerold Lucey, Pediatrics' editor, called Pearlman "a bit of a huckster" and said that, in hindsight, when Pearlman submitted his study "I probably would have said: 'We can't publish this if you can't tell us what it is.' " However, the editor said, "You've got to give him points for writing" to set the record straight.