'It's not my fault it's complex. . . . People say it's controversial because it's another way to say they don't understand.'
--Dr. Bjorn Nordenstrom
A prominent Swedish radiologist who claims to have discovered a new, electrically controlled circulatory system in the body and to have caused malignant tumors to disappear by passing an electric current through them is emerging as one of the major enigmas in cancer science.
Dr. Bjorn Nordenstrom of Stockholm's Karolinska Institute (the medical center that picks winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine) suggests evidence for a discovery so dramatic it could completely alter the perception of how body physiology works and provide a cancer treatment that might give hope to the hopeless.
While many respected experts are fascinated by Nordenstrom's premise, there is a major problem with his work, too. He has avoided disseminating his results or descriptions of his methods through the usual research channels, thwarting one of science's safeguards against inaccuracy.
Nordenstrom says he has discovered that blood vessels may act as electrical cables that govern tissue behavior, forming circuits that make it possible for all types of body chemistry to exist and influence tissue. He calls the system one of "biologically closed electrical circuits."
The electrical properties he has identified, he says, can be manipulated for, among other things, the treatment of cancer--so far, of types confined to the lung and breast but possibly pancreatic and other forms, as well.
If it is valid, the theory establishes the existence of a circulatory system never before imagined and--according even to many scientists overtly skeptical of Nordenstrom's work--would explain many heretofore mysterious phenomena in the body. Assuming the accuracy of what he says, "breakthrough" fails to adequately describe what Nordenstrom has achieved, many experts agree.
Professional Concern and Doubt
Balancing this, though, is concern and doubt by researchers on two continents about Nordenstrom's methods for spreading word of his theories--techniques that run counter to Nordenstrom's long-established adherence to accepted scientific method.
In the process, he has made it all but impossible for many scientists who would like to understand and confirm his work to do so. Nordenstrom contends that he has been too busy with his work to describe it in appropriate scientific publications and that what he is doing is too complex for many of his colleagues to comprehend.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Nordenstrom, 66, has already begun treating advanced cancer patients with his new method--a step many colleagues contend may be premature and even unwise. Of the first 20 patients who were treated, 13 died, but Nordenstrom says about 50% of a larger group of about 100 patients are still alive.
In the reactions of his colleagues there is as much frustration over what is almost a scientific tease--the sweeping implications of the theoretical possibility that Nordenstrom is right--as there is over his so far consistent refusal to discuss his work in the normal way.
Confounding these concerns is the fact that Nordenstrom came to the United States last week for appearances at UCLA and at New York's renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center--but also to gain media exposure for his ideas.
Dr. Gregory Curt, deputy director of the National Cancer Institute's division of cancer treatment, shares the concern of many experts watching the Nordenstrom situation. "There is nothing in science that is unique to one man," said Curt, "and nothing in science that cannot be reproduced by others."
So to Curt, Nordenstrom's work represents something that might be intriguing but that remains a mystery. "The theory sounds flawed," Curt said. "Based on what we know about cancer biology, there is no evidence that changing electrical fields have any impact on a tumor."
Until now, the only place Nordenstrom has detailed his methods and theories is a book he had printed and is distributing himself because no publishing house would accept it. About 700 copies have been sold, Nordenstrom told The Times last week.
"It's not my fault it's complex," Nordenstrom said. "It's not my fault that people don't understand. This is not the first time in history that this situation has occurred. People say it's controversial because it's another way to say they don't understand."
"I found it just fascinating, but it is wild-eyed," said Dr. Morton Glickman, a professor of radiology at Yale University School of Medicine who reviewed Nordenstrom's book last year for a leading journal, Investigative Radiology. Glickman said he approached the work skeptically and is still bothered by Nordenstrom's refusal to conform to scientific norms that would make it possible for colleagues to verify what he says.