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Science And Voodoo

Notes from and emergency room doctor: The local news is doing its best imitation of tabloid journalism in making headlines about "flesh eating bacteria." This is not an epidemic they're announcing. The cases have been rare. And when diagnosed in time, they are treatable with simple antibiotics.

Toxins from bacterial organisms have always had the potential of causing significant tissue damage and life threatening disease. One hundred years ago, you never read about "flesh eating bacteria," not because such symptoms didn't occur, but because everyone knew they did. Back then, when bacterial toxins began to eat away a limb, they simply cut it off before it killed the rest of you. There was no other effective cure. That kind of desperation medicine changed in 1928 when, in a London laboratory, a scientist noticed that a piece of green mold that had accidentally fallen onto a culture plate, destroyed the bacteria around it. That scientist was Alexander Fleming who isolated the effective substance in that mold of the genus Penicillium and called it Penicillin.

Antibiotics stop infections by interfering with the growth or reproduction of microbes. However, because of the overuse of common antibiotics, many bacteria mutate and develop resistance to these drugs. Broader spectrum antibiotics are then required. Logic assumes that when these newer antibiotics become more extensively used, more resistant bacteria will develop. Therefore, it's important that physicians not only use antibiotics judiciously, but that medical science continues to pursue new drugs to fight new microbes.

In the 1980's, Dr. John Forrest at Yale was experimenting on dogfish sharks. He chose the shark because it was an animal in abundant supply, had large organs, had no commercial value, and no environmental lobby supporting it. It was his lab rat. Forrest noted that when he operated on a shark and put it back in dirty water, it never got infected. In fact, the sharks almost never got any disease, including cancer. And just as Fleming had pursued the bacteria destroying source within the Penicillium mold, Forrest and other scientists pursued the substance within the shark that made it resistant to infection. When they finally found it, they called it "squalamine," from the shark of the Order Squaliformes.

Squalamine, a substance with the potency of Penicillin but with broader effects against other bacteria and fungi, is now being tested further. But it will probably not be available until the turn of the century.

Because sharks don't get cancer and they are primarily cartilaginous animals, some people have stretched reason and concluded that something in the cartilage can cure cancer and other diseases. So, a cottage industry has developed in shark cartilage pills. "They're recommended for psoriasis, arthritis, and muscle aches," one health food store told me. Another mentioned that "some people think they may be effective for treating cancer and AIDS." A month's supply of powdered shark cartilage pills can cost more than $200.

It is certainly possible that something within the shark, be it Squalamine or another substance, may be helpful in treating or preventing cancer, but chopping up a lot of sharks and stuffing whatever into a pill is no more a reasonable way to proceed than if we chopped up ants, which can lift many times their weight, and sold them as muscle building pills.

Where would we be today, if Alexander Fleming had decided to grow a lot of green mold, stuff it into pills, and sell it? That wouldn't have been science. It would have been greed or voodoo.