Kudos To Medical Doctors
Let me be clear. As much as I love to tweak doctors and the medical establishment (and they do so often deserve it), I am not anti-doctor. I'm not even anti-modern medicine. There are things doctors can do that no herbalist or alternative health practitioner can do. Keep in mind that if your name is John Wayne Bobbitt, you were far better off with a surgeon than an herbalist after your wife "adjusted" you. (For those of you who don't remember John Wayne, then go with the fact that a surgeon is a better choice after an automobile accident.)
Anyway, as much as I like to tweak them, I am also more than happy to give them their due when they deserve it. And that's what this newsletter is about -- some kudos to the medical establishment in honor of the things they are finally getting right.
A little over a year ago, I devoted a newsletter to discussing some of the greatest medical advancements of all time. In that issue, I highlighted the development of the latest generation of prosthetics. As I indicated at that time, the advancement in prosthetics is almost mind boggling -- far beyond the capability of alternative medicine. To illustrate my point, I featured links to videos on a Luke Skywalker like prosthetic arm that looked like it came right out of The Empire Strikes Back and to a video on prosthetic vision goggles that come close to matching the capabilities of the visor used by the blind Geordi LaForge in Star Trek, the Next Generation.
Well, the advances in prosthetics, prompted largely by injuries suffered by soldiers in the Iraq War, are continuing apace. Look at the latest advancements in bionic prosthetic legs that almost perfectly simulate a natural walking motion in single amputees.
And for that matter, forget bionic prosthetics. The breakthroughs in materials alone have caused double amputee runners to be banned from the Olympics as having an unfair advantage. Just think about that statement for a moment.
The advancements in prosthetics in the last few years has been pretty remarkable, and driven by computer technology, it looks to be even more dramatic in the next decade. Whereas artificial limbs that were in many ways superior to real limbs once existed only in the minds of science fiction writers and movie makers, it now looks as though we will see just that in our lifetime.
So kudos to the medical community -- or at least to the engineers who design these remarkable devices. Thanks to them, patients are reaping benefits undreamed of just a decade ago.
Probiotics to fight diseases
Just last week, I posted a blog entry talking about a new study out of the University of Cork College in Ireland that demonstrated that probiotics exert a protective effect on three animal diseases that have human counterparts: bovine mastitis, porcine salmonellosis (a gastrointestinal disease), and listeriosis in mice (a potentially fatal form of food poisoning). According to study director, Colin Hill, "In all three animal diseases, we observed a positive effect in that the animals were significantly protected against infection." Equally as important, the researchers found that animals already infected with the diseases recovered as effectively and quickly on probiotics as they would have on the most advanced antibiotic treatment.
As I also stated in the blog, certainly any news that points to a safe alternative to antibiotics is good news. If the scientific community is now becoming convinced that probiotics match antibiotics in efficacy, that bodes very well indeed for all of us, especially given the rising tide of antibiotic-resistant conditions. In fact, almost simultaneous with the release of the results of this study, an article came out in The New York Times about a potentially fatal stomach bug that's spreading like wildfire and is exacerbated by antibiotics. About 15,000 to 20,000 people die each year from the disease, which gets spurred on when antibiotics wipe out the helpful bacteria in the intestinal tract. This is yet one more piece of evidence that antibiotic overuse is creating one of the most dangerous public health threats of the last century.
The bottom line is that although the overwhelming dollars spent in medical research are used to find new patentable, pharmaceutical drugs that can be marketed for billions of dollars, there is at least some research going on that looks to work with nature and the human body -- rather than against them.
So kudos to the researchers at the University of Cork College in Ireland -- even if they did add a potentially pro pharma tag line to their study when they expressed doubt that commercial probiotic products could be targeted enough to be effective against particular diseases. Instead, they insisted that for each disease a specific strain of bacteria must be isolated and administered; but in fact, that's what the better probiotic formulations already do without the need for a pharmaceutical patent.
Using the immune system to fight cancer
For several decades now, I've been saying that standard cancer treatments don't actually treat cancer, they merely attempt to rid the body of one place the disease is manifesting at the moment. Think about that. When your surgeon removes your tumor, is anything being done to address why you got the tumor in the first place? Right! Or when you get a round of chemotherapy, is the chemotherapy doing anything other than trying to kill off the particular cancer you have at the moment? And the answer would have to be no unless you believe you got cancer in the first place because you were suffering from a chemotherapy deficiency.
So how much more sense, then, does it make to actually take on cancer by working with your body and enhancing its natural defense against cancer -- your immune system?
Of course it makes more sense, and finally, some in the medical community are coming to the same conclusion.
Now let me be clear here. I'm not talking about unnaturally ramping up the immune system or using injections or IV drips to lace the body with specific high potency immune factors. These are referred to in the trade as biological therapies. They are only marginally effective and come with a whole range of side effects -- not as bad as is those unleashed by chemotherapy, but unpleasant none-the-less. The problem is that these therapies don't actually work "with the body" as much as they try to isolate out specific immune factors from the human body's total arsenal and then pump those isolates back into your body at ultra high dosages. And if it sounds similar to what's done when doctors isolate out anticancer phytochemicals found in plants, turn them into concentrated, patentable drugs, and then inject them back into the body, that's because it is similar. Same idea; same concept; and unfortunately, same results.
No, what I'm talking about is the whole range of current research that seeks to actually work with the body -- to take the body's normal response to cancer and augment it. For example:
Unlocking the immune system to destroy cancer
Obviously, scientists have long known the body mounts an immune response to cancer for a long time. So why then haven't they worked with that response instead of trying to override it? There are actually several reasons. First, they didn't understand the full interplay of the immune system as it relates to getting cancer in the first place. (I guess they never listened to my talk on cancer.) But in addition, they also noticed something that they couldn't explain -- that once a person actually had cancer, the immune system response was less effective (for the average person) than would normally be expected; therefore it couldn't be relied on as a treatment.
For several years now, they have known that there are cells in the body that inhibit the normal immune response once you have cancer, but they were unable to explain how those inhibitor cells worked or how to overcome them. Last month, however, a new study was released that showed that these cancer promoting cells have a cycling rhythm that can actually be disrupted so that they no longer function as is their wont and, therefore, no longer inhibit the immune response. The protocol involves taking regular blood samples for a couple of weeks to establish the immune system's rhythm for a particular patient; then using that information to determine exactly when that patient should take an extremely low dose of chemotherapy to kill the inhibitory cells, thereby allowing the patient's immune system the ability to do what it was designed to do and kill the cancer. Although not ideal, the dose of chemotherapy used is in fact extremely low and produces minimal harm to the body (at least short term). More importantly, the actual job of killing the cancer is left to the immune system, which can work systemically and root out the cancer throughout the body…down to the last aberrant cell. Again, this is not ideal, but it does represent a major step closer to working with the body in a natural way.
Training the immune system to destroy cancer
Other research involves training the body's T-cells to be more aggressive in destroying cancer cells. How does one go about training the T-cells? It's actually easier than you might think. You first need to understand why, for some people, their immune system stops killing cancer cells in the first place. In a healthy body, the immune system can easily differentiate between normal cells and cancerous cells and destroy those abnormal cells. As that state of health is diminished, the immune system begins to lose that ability and begins to "tolerate" cancer cells -- that is, allows them to survive and take root. This allows them to reproduce and spread throughout the body. Theoretically, by using a carefully constructed vaccine containing either cancer antigens or whole cancer cells, it should be possible to retrain the immune system to recognize those antigens in any cell that contains them. If recognized, the antigens would activate the immune system to produce antibodies that would bind to and destroy those specific cancer cells, just like your body trains itself to recognize and kill a specific flu virus.
So where does current research on cancer vaccines stand? Keep in mind, researchers have been working to develop cancer vaccines for more than 100 years in one form or another, and the main mission has always been to make the immune system's response to the cancer antigens as strong as possible. And now, researchers are finally getting close. Currently, a number of vaccines have shown promise in animal studies. In fact, cancer vaccines have shown promise in clinical trials with many types of cancer. The types of tumors that have proven most vulnerable to vaccines so far are: skin cancer, kidney cancer, lymphoma , bone marrow cancer, and solid tumors, such as lung cancer.
Even more technologically advanced research (albeit at a preliminary level) involves genetically altering immune cells to make them more effective in killing cancer cells. Then again, there certainly are questions about how "natural" a genetically altered immune cell really is and what the long term consequences of its use might be. But that aside, almost even more interesting than the study itself are the details in the study's announcement as to how well the mice used in the trial will be treated. "The mice will be housed in cages with appropriate bedding, nesting material and cage toys to provide a stimulating cage environment. [Mini flat screen TVs showing Stuart Little would be nice too.] Animals will be handled by competent staff trained to inject and measure tumors. And during the course of the study, tumors will not be allowed to grow beyond a size that would cause the animal any discomfort. If any tumor reaches a size that would cause the animal suffering, the animal will be humanely killed." How's that for a change in paradigm when it comes to lab rats -- except for the part about mercy killings?
And so, once again, kudos to the researchers who are trying to find alternative cancer treatments that although medically biased are at least more body friendly than surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. But when all is said and done, these treatments still display either a lack of understanding of how the human immune system works "in toto," or at the very least, a lack of belief in the ability of the immune system to do its job on its own -- without a little help from science. But as we know, the problem lies not with the immune system, but rather, with how we abuse that system and diminish its capabilities. If you work with the immune system naturally, most (not all, but most) cancers simply never happen. Keep in mind that the incidence of cancer has increased anywhere from 800%-1700% over the last 100 years. This is the result of dietary and environmental changes that have compromised the immune system. If you just naturally work with the immune system to restore its innate abilities, 90% of all cancers go away.
Using evolutionary theory to end malaria
While AIDS gets all the attention in the press, the simple fact is that malaria kills over a million people a year, mostly the old and the very young. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Malaria literally debilitates up to a half billion people worldwide -- far, far outstripping AIDS which tops out at approximately 30 million infected. For years, the primary defense against malaria has been insecticides such as DDT which kill mosquitoes at their source and insecticide soaked bed nets to protect potential victims while they sleep. And it has worked with some success. Unfortunately, over time, the mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite have started to become resistant to many of the insecticides used to control them -- including DDT. As for drugs to treat the disease, they have not fared much better. Quinine, the primary drug used for decades to treat malaria, can indeed help control the fever associated with malaria, but does nothing to actually eliminate the disease or any of its other symptoms. With quinine, you have to "deal" with the disease for the rest of your life. More recently, there was great hope for an extract of wormwood called artemisinin, which cured malaria almost 100 percent of the time. Unfortunately, once again modern medicine has blown it. By isolating artemisinin from wormwood, they made the drug one-dimensional thus allowing the parasite an opportunity to mutate around it. Malaria is caused by protozoan parasites of the genus Plasmodium. While it is true that protozoa are more complex than bacteria or viruses, they are nevertheless simple single-cell organisms, which allows them to fairly easily "evolve" around drugs. The net result is that although the malaria protozoa mutate into drug resistant forms more slowly than viruses or bacteria, they do mutate…over time. So, as might be expected, drug resistant forms of malaria have started to appear.
But now, scientists at Penn State University may have found a way to work with nature on eliminating malaria, rather than against it. The scientists have decided to think holistically and combine the effectiveness of insecticides with the reality of evolutionary theory so as to totally bypass the issue of resistance. How? The key turns out to be that only older female mosquitoes are infectious, not younger mosquitoes. The reason is simple. Mosquitoes are not born infected; they have to acquire the disease by sucking the blood of a human who carries the disease/protozoa. Once a female does feed on infected blood, the Plasmodium parasites she ingests require a further 10 to 14 days to mature and migrate to her salivary glands, where they can be transmitted back into a human victim when next the mosquito feeds.
The breakthrough here is that the researchers figured out that if you only killed older mosquitoes with an insecticide, you could bypass the tendency of the mosquitoes to mutate around it. Why? Because older females have already reproduced, thus the evolutionary pressure to develop a resistance to the insecticide is much lower. In fact, mathematical models of their theory found that this technique reduced the number of infectious bites by 95%; and, more importantly, resistance to the insecticide spreads very slowly, if at all. The problem, of course, is to find an insecticide that kills only older mosquitoes and leaves the young alive to reproduce -- thus eliminating the genetic imperative to mutate.
Surprisingly, that's easier than it might first appear since older mosquitoes are more vulnerable to insecticides than younger ones. Thus, one option is to use existing chemicals, but at more diluted concentrations. This kills the old and leaves the young to survive until they reproduce and then die. But a sexier solution might be at hand. It turns out there is a fungus that is deadly to mosquitoes, but that takes about 10 to 12 days to become lethal. That is short enough to kill parasite-infected insects before they become infectious, but long enough to allow them to breed. A trial of this possible solution is now being set up.
Kudos to the researchers for working with nature rather than trying to fight it.
Conclusion -- medical doctors almost get it right
I am always happy to give medical doctors their due. As I have said for years, the vast majority of doctors are extremely competent, highly dedicated, and often even heroic. And for this, they deserve all of our thanks and appreciation. The research I have referenced in this newsletter is testament to that fact and speaks to the best in modern medicine. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that when it comes to the major diseases of our time (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.), the modern medical paradigm of searching for "magic bullets" and managing symptoms with drugs has failed miserably. And even in the discoveries cited above, we see the seeds of that failure ready to sprout yet again.
For even though medical research is beginning to touch on areas that formerly were the province of alternative health, to work with the body as whole rather than fight it in pieces, those same researchers are seeking to bend and twist that research and force it to fit into the traditional medical model. Yet again, medical doctors are seeking to be the sole arbiters and health information dispensers in areas (such as probiotics and building the immune system) that they actually know very little about. Whereas they have dismissed the efficacy and importance of these approaches for decades (only recently becoming advocates), the practitioners of alternative health have promoted and perfected these approaches over hundreds of years. A real renaissance in medicine will come about if, and only if, traditional medicine embraces complementary medicine and its best practitioners as equal partners. Think of it like medical triage. Alternative approaches in diet and supplements are designed to keep people healthy and keep the more serious medical conditions at bay as long as possible. Allopathic medicine takes over to heal those whose bodies have finally begun to break down in their 80's, not in their 20's.
And that day, if it ever comes, will truly be one worth offering kudos to.