Imagine, for a moment, that there is a drug a doctor can inject into your body by intravenous tube that can cure the following: hardening of the arteries, angina pain, abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, senility, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and perhaps even bone loss connected with old age.
And, in the process, it will make the wrinkles disappear from your face and take 10, maybe 20 years, off of your appearance. Not only that, but if you're young and don't have any of these diseases or displeasures, the cure can probably prevent your ever being afflicted with them.
From a Greek Word
The subject in question here is something called chelation (pronounced "key-LAY-shun") therapy. The name comes from the Greek word chele , which means "to claw," and it graphically illustrates how the treatment is said to work--grabbing evil particles of calcium from the bloodstream and tossing them out of the body.
While even its advocates disagree on whether it can do all of the above, its most expansive backers describe it in language a plumber might use. They call it a sort of Roto-Rooter of the arteries, swirling away the fatty plaques that clog major vessels leading to the heart. And all of this, they note, at a cost that is only a fraction of the price of bypass surgery, whose effects, not even a heart surgeon could argue, are merely temporary.
Unfortunately, there are two problems clouding the chelation picture: Despite the fervor of the treatment's advocates, the claims made for it--other than as a generally recognized treatment for lead poisoning--have never been confirmed in any scientifically defensible study. (This is a nettlesome and unfortunate problem, its backers say, but one that will soon be rectified.)
More serious, as its supporters see it, is that chelation therapy is being actively suppressed by all but about 2,000 of the nation's doctors. This is a political problem, not a medical one, say the advocates. It was made so by the mischievous work of the vast majority of the nation's physicians who, though most of them are not surgeons, have banded together to protect bypass surgery and its concomitant profits.
While chelation therapy is being widely advertised by its practitioners, Dr. Peter Frommer, deputy director of the federal government's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, dismisses it as the "Laetrile of cardiology." It's a dispute that has raged between 10 and 20 years. It is nowhere near resolution.
Two to Three Infusions
A patient undergoing chelation receives two or three infusions of a drug called EDTA a week, each administered over a three-hour period, at a cost of as much as $100 each. After several weeks or months of intensive initial therapy, treatments are often reduced to once a month or once every two months, but, with laboratory tests and charges for such adjuncts as megavitamins and books about the therapy that are widely sold in chelation clinics, the cost of the experience easily tops $3,000 and can reach $10,000.
Weight-loss and anti-smoking therapy are usually ordered in addition to chelation. The sense of well-being, critics argue, probably is due to better dietary habits and the absence of tobacco.
It is an emotional and political dispute that threatens to become as disruptive for medicine as the controversy that boiled up over Laetrile before it was ultimately dismissed as a quack drug.
The dispute over chelation is a national one, but one of its focuses is in Albany, next door to Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. In a suite of offices in a nondescript building behind a Wells Fargo Bank branch, Dr. Ross Gordon carries on a busy chelation practice and presides as president of the American Academy of Medical Preventics--a name that sounds a great deal like that of a mainstream medical organization. But it is a trade group founded about a dozen years ago by a small group of doctors--including Gordon and his brother, Garry, who also is a veteran of Laetrile advocacy--who wanted to keep chelation alive in the face, Ross Gordon says, of action by health insurance companies to stop paying for it because its claims could not be supported.
But if the chelation movement has the trappings similar to the situation that surrounded Laetrile--and even if the doctors who practice chelation therapy include a disquieting number who are veterans of the malpractice courtroom and license revocation proceedings--it also suggests a question that haunts even its most vociferous foes.
The question was put most graphically and succinctly more than halfway across the country, in a hotel dining room in Springfield, Mo.