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
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.