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Our headline is not in the least bit misleading. Stick around for an intriguing tale from the annals of modern medicine.

Michael LeBalanc, 40, was an healthy man who fainted one day. He began to get weaker and weaker as time passed and occasionally blacked out. It became obvious to doctors that something was wrong with his heart and they theorized that a virus may have caused his heart to weaken. One potential cause of a heart attack is a malfunctioning sinoatrial node, the heart’s natural pacemaker.

Brief biology lesson: The sinoatrial node is a clump of cells in the right atrium of the heart which generate the impulse controlling the heartbeat. Interestingly, these cells in the sinoatrial node are modified version of cardiac myocytes (human muscle cells), yet they do not contract.

Mr. LeBlanc had an internal pacemaker implanted which would give his heart a brief jolt to correct any abnormality in its rhythm, thereby preventing a heart attack. That type of pacemaker is formally called an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). Dr. Helen, a Knoxville based psychologist, suffered a heart attack at the tender age of 37 and an ICD is responsible for keeping her alive today. However, her heart problem was not properly diagnosed right away:

Despite the fact that I was short of breath and shaking like a leaf, the doctor decided I was allergic to something in the gym and gave me a shot of benadryl. Actually, I later learned that shortness of breath and a sense of impending doom or death were signs (especially in women) of heart problems. I felt ok once I left the hospital and even for a week or two later. I was on vacation in Charleston, South Carolina when I again got short of breath and could not walk. I was so dizzy, scared and light-headed that I spent the day in bed until finally that night, I went to an emergency room.

There is a whole lot more to the story, so go read the whole thing. Fortunately, it has a happy ending and is a strong endorsement for the effectiveness of ICDs.

Unfortunately for Mr. LeBlanc, his ICD was working a little too well because his heart was deteriorating too quickly:

To keep me going, I qualified for a defibrillator, which basically shocked me if my heart rhythm started to get worse,” Mr. LeBlanc said. “But as I got sicker, the defibrillator kept going off, and it was awful.”

Even with the defibrillator, Mr. LeBlanc suffered a heart attack in April, followed by a stroke in July. Luckily, he was able to get to an emergency room before the stroke did too much damage.

Since Mr. LeBlanc was in otherwise good health and relatively young, UT Southwestern Medical Center in Texas decided he would be a great candidate for the newest generation of implantable heart saving devices, the Left-Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD).

“Mr. LeBlanc has cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart to dilate. The muscle becomes weaker, and it can’t pump efficiently,” said Dr. Dan Meyer, professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at UT Southwestern and Mr. LeBlanc’s surgeon. “UT Southwestern has always had a presence in studying new mechanical assist devices, so we were honored to be only one of two sites in the state selected to implant the HeartWare LVAD as part of a national clinical trial.”

The pump is designed to rest inside the patient’s chest. A small cable attached to the device exits the body and connects to an externally worn controller. The controller is powered by a battery pack. The HeartWare LVAD has only one moving part, which contributes to its diminutive size. The lack of mechanical bearings is expected to lead both to longer-term device reliability and to a reduced risk of physical damage to blood cells as they pass through the pump, said Dr. Meyer, also director of the mechanical support program at UT Southwestern.

“The size of the device means the incision is also smaller. The entire implantation surgery takes about four hours,” Dr. Meyer said. “Mr. LeBlanc is a really great patient. He’s otherwise very healthy, and we believe he will do very well with the LVAD until he can get a new heart.”

Ok, as promised, here is where the story takes a left turn into “unusual land”:

He’s still adjusting to some of the stranger side effects of his new device, including no pulse. The LVAD keeps blood moving continually with no pulsation, so he no longer has a palpable heart beat or traditionally measurable blood pressure.

Think of all the mischief you could get into with an LVAD. Apparently, the infamous castle of Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is up for sale. With the right outfit and a bit of makeup you could show up and simply claim ownership.

Habsburg: I own it.

You: No, I do.

Habsburg: Not unless you’re some kind of vampire.

You: Check my pulse.

Habsburg: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

Habsburg: ::: runs away :::


Gene therapy has been successfully used to restore vision in patients suffering from a rare genetic disorder. The nature of this disorder means that the therapy is much more successful in children than adults.

Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA) causes sight to deteriorate beginning at birth and and resulting in complete blindness before the age of forty.

Children born with one form, LCA2, have defects in a gene called RPE65 that helps the retina’s light-sensing cells make rhodopsin, a pigment needed to absorb light. Without rhodopsin, the photoreceptor cells gradually die.

Gene therapy works by using a modified virus as a delivery system to get specific genes into specific areas. (Take a look at our article Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Caused By A Virus? for some background about how viruses work explained in plain English). Researchers first tested the therapy on dogs and found they could partially restore sight by using a virus loaded with the RPE65 gene. Then the researchers conducted a limited study on six young adult humans, which also resulted in sight improvements.

But the Penn researchers knew from their studies in animals that children should improve even more because they have more intact retinal tissue than adults do. Today in an online paper in The Lancet, their team and collaborators in Europe report full study results for three of the adults they treated earlier and nine more patients, including four children ages 8 to 11. The children gained more light sensitivity than the adults did–their light sensitivity increased as much as four orders of magnitude, versus one–and they made far fewer mistakes in an obstacle course.

This is one of those good news/bad news stories.

The bad news:

  • Older individuals with this disorder have lost more tissue, and therefore the therapy can be significantly less effective.
  • This therapy only applies to blindness caused by a specific defective gene, and will not benefit someone suffering from any other type of blindness.

Now, the good news:

  • Gene therapy sounds great in theory but has had few successes in real life applications. The success of this study will serve as boost to continue research into gene therapy.
  • Other vision diseases are caused by genetic defects. In the near future it may be possible to do a simple blood test to determine which defective gene a child has and then apply the appropriate therapy to prevent a loss of vision from occurring in the first place.

There is a lot of excitement in the air because of the successful results. Take a look here to see a video of one of the patients, Cory Haas, breezing through an obstacle course a mere three months after therapy.

The LCA2 trials are a rare success for the field of gene therapy, which has also cured children with the immune disorder known as bubble boy disease. And they should pave the way for treating more vision disorders. “It’s an incredible launching pad to be able to target other diseases,” says Penn gene therapy researcher Jean Bennett, who led the study.

Showing that the LCA2 gene therapy treatment works best in children is “a big step” for inherited blindness, says geneticist Frans Cremers of Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands, who wrote an accompanying commentary in The Lancet. He notes that eight other vision diseases, including retinitis pigmentosa, have now been treated in mice and are ready to be tested in people. The challenge, he says, will be to expand genetic testing of people with blindness so as to find enough eligible patients for clinical trials of these rare disorders.

Eva Redei, the David Lawrence Stein Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern’s Feinberg School has published new research which explains why antidepressants don’t work for so many people.

There are two prevailing theories about the causes of depression. One is that depression can be caused by stressful life events and the second is that depression results from an imbalance in neurotransmitters. However, medications based on those theories are treating effects, not causes.

Most animal models that are used by scientists to test antidepressants are based on the hypothesis that stress causes depression. “They stress the animals and look at their behavior,” she said. “Then they manipulate the animals’ behavior with drugs and say, ‘OK, these are going to be good anti-depressants.’ But they are not treating depression; they are treating stress.”

That is one key reason why current antidepressants aren’t doing a great job, Redei noted. She is now looking at the genes that differ in the depressed rat to narrow down targets for drug development.

She said another reason current antidepressants are often ineffective is that they aim to boost neurotransmitters based on the popular molecular explanation of depression, which is that it’s the result of decreased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. But that’s wrong, Redei said.

Redei examined the genes involved in both stress and depression. Of the 254 genes related to stress and the 1275 genes related to depression there is an overlap of only 5 genes.

“This overlap is insignificant, a very small percentage,” Redei said. “This finding is clear evidence that at least in an animal model, chronic stress does not cause the same molecular changes as depression does.”

If current medications are only treating effects then research should be focused on finding and treating the causes.

In the second part of the study, Redei found strong indications that depression actually begins further up in the chain of events in the brain. The biochemical events that ultimately result in depression actually start in the development and functioning of neurons.

“The medications have been focusing on the effect, not the cause,” she said. “That’s why it takes so long for them to work and why they aren’t effective for so many people.”

Her animal model of depression did not show dramatic differences in the levels of genes controlling neurotransmitters functions. “If depression was related to neurotransmitter activity, we would have seen that,” she said.

Unfortunately, although we now know those theories are wrong, we still do not have a theory that is right.

We recently discussed the apparent contradiction between the facts that America is fatter than ever and people are living longer than ever. BMI is the determining factor in declaring Americans overweight.

However, the theory which says America should be suffering health problems and increased mortality because of increased obesity is quite wrong.

So why are death rates dropping and people living longer? Something must be wrong with the model — it’s pretty hard to quarrel with the data as being inadequate. Certainly the increased incidence of obesity should have produced something by this time (it started 30 years ago).

In case you have been living in a cave or something, there are several serious flaws with the BMI which make it unsuitable for determining health. A new German study by Matthias Lenz of the Faculty of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Natural Sciences of the University of Hamburg and his co-authors present these and other results in the current issue of Deutsches Ärtzeblatt International:

The Süddeutsche Zeitung published an advance notice of the report (http://www.sueddeutsche.de/gesundheit/140/489526/text/), which shows that overweight does not increase death rates, although obesity does increase them by 20%. As people grow older, obesity makes less and less difference.

For coronary heart disease, overweight increases risk by about 20% and obesity increases it by about 50%. On the other hand, a larger BMI is associated with a lower risk of bone and hip fracture.

In relation to cancer, the overall death rate among extremely obese men (BMI above 40) is no higher than among those of normal weight. Men who are overweight even have a 7% lower death rate. No significant association was found in women.

According to the authors’ analysis, overall mortality is unchanged by overweight, but increased by 20% by obesity, while extreme obesity raises it by up to 200%.

Futurepundit raises a few interesting points:

What I’m expecting: Genetic testing might show us what our relative risks are for a large variety of diseases and this knowledge could push us toward different ideal weights depending on which diseases we have the greater risks for. Also, some people are probably genetically better adapted to carrying more weight.

Note that you have other options for slowing bone decay aside from carrying more weight around. Exercise, better food, and a combination of vitamin D and vitamin K might cut bone fracture risks with age.

Weight studies are problematic because weight can vary due to muscle mass as well (albeit less often). Also, people can lose weight during the early stages of an illness before they even know they are sick. How well did the researchers adjust for these factors?

According to the CDC:

BMI is a fairly reliable indicator of body fatness for most people.

In light of this new study, will the CDC change it stance on using BMI data as a way of reliably gauging the health of Americans?

If the BMI chart is based on an illogical formula concocted over 200 years ago and can only give a general assessment of obesity in a population while failing on an individual level, why is it still in use by the government?

The answer is because government loves to create problems for which it is the solution. Pay close attention to what is happening here because this is a pattern that repeats over and over again.

We would not bet on it because it is not the first time nanny staters in the government have used bogus data to justify their agendas regardless of scientific truth, nor will it be the last. Rather than letting those busybodies get you down, learn how to eat your way to happiness. Being drunk and gassy is one recent formula for living a long life, although can easily be a life of bachelorhood if you are not careful to find the right wine/broccoli balance.

From The New York Daily News:

Two girls who swam with pet turtles in a backyard pool were among 107 people sickened in the largest salmonella outbreak blamed on turtles in the U.S., researchers report.The 2007-08 outbreak involved mostly children in 34 states; one-third of all patients had to be hospitalized. In many cases, parents didn’t know that turtles can carry salmonella.

Despite a 1975 ban on selling small turtles as pets, they continue to be sold illegally.

Pets can be great for kids. However, many species of small turtles are endangered and do not make ideal pets for small children. It becomes difficult to discuss something like caring for the environment or conservation when an illegally acquired endangered species is sitting nearby in a glass aquarium.

Children need to be taught from a young age to wash their hands properly before eating or touching their mouth or eyes. A parent can be negligent and allow a pet turtle to wander on a kitchen counter which is also used to prepare food… unfortunately a pill has not yet been invented to cure that kind of stupid. Proper hygiene could have prevented this outbreak of salmonella.

If you want to get a pet for your child we recommend visiting and checking with a local animal sanctuary like Pets Alive first:

Our mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and place animals in need. Victims of neglect, abuse, and violence, many of them have special needs and have been rejected by other organizations.

Animals at the sanctuary range from dogs and cats to farm animals, exotic birds, and many others. Many of the animals at Pets Alive are older, have special needs or require special care.

Actually, it is possible to help out an awesome place like Pets Alive without leaving your computer or spending even a nickel.

The Animal Rescue Site is hosting a special challenge for shelter and rescue groups. The grand prize is a $20,000 grant, and they will be awarding many other grants to rescue groups with the most votes. Think how many animals we could help for $20,000! Help us win! All you have to do is click this link, and then vote. Enter Pets Alive (two words) and NY for the state and then click VOTE! There is no cost to vote and no registration required. But you need to vote once a day, every day, from September 14th through December 20th, 2009.

Perhaps someone in the Justice Department read our article Drug Prohibition Is A Failure. Perhaps a bit of pragmatism is at work since as more states establish laws permitting the use of marijuana for medical purposes the Justice Department has to use increasingly limited resources without the help and cooperation of local law enforcement agencies.

“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement accompanying the memo. “But we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.”

The Attorney General seems to still be confused on an important fact born out by this unfolding drama:

In emphasizing that it would continue to pursue those who use the concept of medical marijuana as a ruse, the department said, “Marijuana distribution in the United States remains the single largest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels.” Going after the makers and sellers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, will remain a “core priority.”

It is a fact that the single greatest destructive force on the profits from the sale of marijuana lining the pockets of Mexican drug cartels are the mom and pop operation now in business in 14 states. If something as simple as decriminalization for medical purposes can have such a profound impact on such a reliable source of profit for murderously violent criminal gangs, it stands to reason that full nationwide legalization of would eliminate marijuana as a source of income entirely.

Current small operation in states with medical marijuana laws have increased the nationwide supply of marijuana which is both high quality and cheap. Since the overall scale of operations is still small, Mexican drug cartels take advantage of breaks in crop cycles when supplies are low to flood the market with their product. Such lulls would not exist if marijuana was grown in a large scale corporate fashion, the way we do with other crops, like wheat and corn.

There is another factor at work here. Many states are now facing tremendous amounts of debt coming due at a time when the economy is depressed and tax receipts are at an all time low. Although prohibition has proven to be a failure, full legalization has not yet happened because states have had a perverse incentive to continue fighting this futile war. Congress allocates money to the states based on their efforts in combating illegal drug use. If those funds were to dry up because of the bad economy, states desperate for revenue may do the one thing they have been fighting so hard against – legalize it and tax it.

Here is a list of the states which have laws permitting marijuana for medical purposes:

  1. Alaska
  2. California
  3. Colorado
  4. Hawaii
  5. Maine
  6. Maryland
  7. Michigan
  8. Montana
  9. Nevada
  10. New Mexico
  11. Oregon
  12. Rhode Island
  13. Vermont
  14. Washington

This story is far from over. A memorandum is a suggestion, nothing more, and prosecutors ultimately have discretion over which cases they choose to take on. Prosecutorial misconduct along with laws which make everyone a felon is the real problem. Someone should write a book about it or something.

It is a well known phenomenon that when people are in pain, the hustlers and quacks come crawling out from under their rocks to take advantage of the situation. They take advantage of the associative principle, which is that if Y happens after X it is plausible that X caused Y. Since many sufferers of arthritis have pain that comes and goes, a non-scientist may credit the copper bracelet or magnetic wrist wrap with having played a role in reducing the pain in their aching joints.

We refuse to link to any web sites promoting such nonsense, but a quick Google search can turn up many examples of sites selling those items. Some of them babble at length with pages and pages of pseudoscience interwoven with endorsements from satisfied customers.

Here is what they do not tell you: there is no scientific basis for making the claim that a copper bracelet or magnetic wrist strap can cure arthritis or even relieve the pain temporarily. A theoretical framework does not even exist to explain how such a phenomenon can work.

If you have not already done so, we recommend reading The Power of Imagination for a good background on placebos and the placebo effect.

Stewart Richmond, a Research Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York led a randomized, placebo controlled study on the effects copper bracelets and magnetic wrist straps have on pain management.

The trial involved 45 people aged 50 or over, who were all diagnosed as suffering from osteoarthritis. Each participant wore four devices in a random order over a 16-week period – two wrist straps with differing levels of magnetism, a demagnetised wrist strap and a copper bracelet.

We guarantee none of the web sites selling this nonsense make any reference to the results of the study:

“This is the first randomised controlled trial to indicate that copper bracelets are ineffective for relieving arthritis pain.”“It appears that any perceived benefit obtained from wearing a magnetic or copper bracelet can be attributed to psychological placebo effects. People tend to buy them when they are in a lot of pain, then when the pain eases off over time they attribute this to the device. However, our findings suggest that such devices have no real advantage over placebo wrist straps that are not magnetic and do not contain copper.

“Although their use is generally harmless, people with osteoarthritis should be especially cautious about spending large sums of money on magnet therapy. Magnets removed from disused speakers are much cheaper, but you would first have to believe that they could work.”

We consider swindling old and sick people out of a big chunk of their hard earned money to be a cause of harm. This may be complete quackery but it is also big business.

Magnet therapy is a rapidly growing industry, with annual worldwide sales of therapeutic devices incorporating permanent magnets worth up to $4 billion US.

Conclusion: Copper bracelets and magnetic wrist straps do not work for relieving pain.