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Ten Amazing Medical Breakthroughs

computer model of a Strand of DNA

Medical breakthroughs change the shape of modern medicine every year, often starting out in the form of what’s considered to be an “alternative” treatment.

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th-century German philosopher

It’s disheartening to hear things like “that’s crazy” or “that’s not evidence-based” from fellow medical practitioners. But it happens on a regular basis to Functional Medicine physicians all around the world.

Sadly, many of the naysayers have never seen and successfully treated (or personally experienced) someone with a condition like PANS/PANDAS or mold-related illness.

This isn’t new, though. History reveals that some of the scientists dismissed as quacks and “crazy” people turned out to be correct in the end. In fact, many have been vindicated many years later by awards and even Nobel prizes, sometimes posthumously.

As a patient, getting a new treatment can be intimidating, especially when it involves enrolling in a clinical trial or following doctor’s orders for a treatment not approved by the FDA.

However, many treatments for major diseases that we now see as “normal” started out this way.

Let’s just take a look at these now well-accepted medical breakthroughs, diagnoses, and treatments that were once considered alternative or even “quackery”.

In each of these circumstances, the individuals who discovered these things were accused of being heretics and/or were ostracized, outcast, or penalized for their ideas.

Perhaps by recognizing the errors of our past, we can work together as healthcare clinicians to give our patients a brighter future.

1. William Harvey & Blood

At one time, it was a laughable idea that blood actually travels through the heart to be circulated throughout the body. (If you’re thinking, “What?!” I’m right there with you.)

Dr. William Harvey, a 17th-century English physician, was the first to describe accurate blood flow through the heart, vessels, brain, and throughout the body.¹ His observations of many types of mammalian and non-mammalian species suggested to him that the liver wasn’t producing blood but rather that blood was continually cycled throughout the body, thanks to the heart.

Mainstream medicine refused to believe him and continued to support the erroneous work of 2nd-century physician and philosopher, Galen.² Galen insisted that blood was produced continually by the liver, then sent throughout the body by the lungs, where it was then used by the tissues (not recirculated).

Harvey was so intensely ridiculed and ostracized by his colleagues, he became a recluse and lived the rest of his life in private. He attempted suicide unsuccessfully before dying of a stroke at the age of 79.³

closeup image of germs

2. Louis Pasteur & Germ Theory

It’s obvious to us now that germs cause disease, but it wasn’t always.

Louis Pasteur, a French scientist in the 1800s, was not the first to propose that germs cause disease, but he was the first to prove it through convincing experiments.

The millennia-old theory of spontaneous generation — the idea that organisms arise from non-living material, such as fleas arising from dust — was the reigning “truth” of Pasteur’s day. Aristotle taught that “life force” or “vital heat” was what caused growth and decay processes, and that when living things came from non-living things, it was because some vital heat existed in those inanimate objects.

Through work with fermentation, Pasteur found that spontaneous generation theory wasn’t correct at all, but that organisms commonly thought of as chemicals were actually living, changing, growing, and impacting that with which they came into contact.⁴

Later, investigating diseases that were killing silkworms in droves, Pasteur proposed the idea that bacteria (germs) were behind all infections. Joseph Lister, a surgeon from Scotland, first confirmed these theories in 1867.

Despite Pasteur’s work, denial of germ theory continued throughout much of the 19th century.

surgeons washing hands

3. Ignaz Semmelweis & Handwashing

Can you imagine your doctor/surgeon not washing their hands? No! Of course not!

You have Dr. Semmelweis to thank for that.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician working in the maternity ward in Vienna in the mid-19th century. After a short period of time observing death rates in mothers after delivery by doctors and medical students vs. midwives or their trainees, he noticed a striking trend.

Post-delivery mortality (at the time, referred to as puerperal fever) occurred in up to 18% of deliveries by doctors, but only 2% when the child was delivered via midwife.

Semmelweis believed this trend was due to the fact that medical students and doctors handled corpses during autopsies before delivering children. He noted that handwashing would decrease the risk of transmission of this disease and the death of new mothers in the maternity ward.

After introducing hand washing policies, mortality rates from the at-risk group went down by 90%, dropping to the same rate as midwife deliveries. Adding an antibacterial wash of medical instruments dropped mortality further to just 1% in the doctor-delivered group.

Still, he was ridiculed even after his experiment worked.⁵ Professor Klein, his superior, insisted that the rates improved because the hospital had new ventilation. The reigning theory of disease at the time, called “miasma,” purported that illness often happened because of “bad air.”

Millions of lives have been saved as a result of Semmelweis and his common-sense practices. But sadly, Semmelweis’ achievements were not well-recorded at the time and the medical community rejected them. The anxiety from this experience landed him in an insane asylum, where he died at just 47 years old. Ironically, he died from an infected wound in his hand that grew after a surgery he underwent before being institutionalized.⁶

4. Gregor Mendel & Heredity

Can you believe there was a time when medicine rejected the idea of heritability?

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, established the laws of inheritance through predominantly plant experiments he performed in his own garden along with some work he did with mice and bees.⁷

His theories were rejected by the medical community who insisted on an idea called “blending inheritance” — where traits from each parent were averaged together.

Because he was considered a simple monk, the educated scientists dismissed him and his theories weren’t accepted until after his death, at least 35 years after he initially presented them. His ideas have formed what we now know as modern genetics.

image of cancer cells

5. Peyton Rous & Viral Cancer Transmission

If you’re female, you’ve probably had a PAP smear and HPV (Human Papillomavirus) test done. Why? Because it is widely accepted that viruses can lead to cancer…and, in this case, cervical cancer.

Peyton Rous, a researcher, was ostracized and severely criticized for his work identifying viral transmission of cancer in 1911.⁸

His critics said that the virus he was studying didn’t cause a true neoplasm (new cancer growth, in this case), but was rather a “reaction” to the virus.

We know now that there are at least seven viruses⁹ associated with cancer development in humans and that up to 20% of all cancers have an infectious etiology.¹⁰

Rous wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize until 55 years after his discovery because he stopped studying cancer as a result of the pressure he received from the medical community.¹¹

That’s a long time of research being put on hold! Think of the number of lives saved as a result of his work and how many more would have been saved if his work had been received differently upfront.

Fortunately, the virus he discovered that was subsequently named after him (Rous sarcoma virus, or RSV) has been used in cancer research for decades. It was even pivotal in the discovery of the RSV gene, which influences whether or not a virus can transform into malignant cells.

6. Andreas Roland Grüntzig & Angioplasty

I bet you know someone who has had a percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA). It is one of the most common procedures performed in US hospitals, accounting for “3.6% of all operating room procedures”.¹²

Andreas Roland Grüntzig, a German cardiologist, was told his idea of balloon angioplasty would “never work” after his poster presentation at the annual American Heart Association meeting in 1976.¹³ One year later, he presented his first four cases of angioplasties in humans.

A subsequent test case that resulted in a patient’s death did nothing to help his case, although Grüntzig pointed out that new procedures should probably not be tested only in end-stage, disease-ridden patients to prove whether or not they work. One outspoken critic, cardiologist Paul Lichtlen, MD, expressed concern about announcing this discovery to the public “with only 10 treated cases and unknown long-term results.”¹⁴

Almost fifty years after his discovery, Grüntzig’s angioplasty is the go-to initial treatment for many coronary artery blockages. He and his predecessor in this research, Charles T. Dotter, were nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1978.

Thank goodness he refused to cave to the mainstream medicine idea that it wasn’t a feasible treatment option!

7. Stanley Prusiner & Prions

Remember hearing about “Mad Cow Disease?”

Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a neurologist, insisted that mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are not caused by microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, and fungi, but rather by infectious proteins that he referred to as “prions”.¹⁵

His work laid the foundation for many developments in the area of neurodegenerative diseases. He endured significant opposition and personal attacks in the media and referred to it as a “firestorm” in his life.¹⁶ He didn’t receive the Nobel Prize for his work until well over a decade after he initially described prions.

image of h. pylori

8. Barry Marshall & H. pylori

Helicobacter pylori are now the most common thing we look for in people with gastric ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux symptoms.

Dr. Barry Marshall, a gastroenterologist from Western Australia, was completely shunned and persecuted in the mid-1980s. Why? It was for his discovery that gastric ulcers were likely caused by bacteria and not a result of spicy foods, overproduction of stomach acid, and stress.¹⁷ The latter was the conventional medical wisdom at the time.

Marshall received the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his discovery and a patent for his diagnostic test for this condition expires in early 2020.¹⁸

  1. Pylori-infected individuals are at increased risk for gastric cancers — a 2010 review names it “the strongest singular risk factor for cancers of the stomach”.¹⁹

What if Dr. Marshall caved to peer pressure from his mainstream medicine colleagues? How far behind would our understanding of gastric cancer be?

9. James Allison & Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is now considered a revolutionary treatment for cancer.

James Allison,²⁰ an immunologist, was discouraged by his mentors and even biotech companies when he studied and developed an antibody capable of treating cancer by removing the signal to the T-cell.²¹

One reason this breakthrough is so significant is that activating the immune response in this kind of treatment works long after the initial cancer cells are gone. It’s a way to immunize the body against a cancer it has already experienced.

Wow! Where would cancer treatment be without the work of Allison? Drugs based on his work are currently some of the most clinically successful cancer treatment options on the market.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts in 2018.

model of a brain

10. Bennet Omalu & Traumatic Brain Injuries

Sports-related traumatic brain injuries — talk about a “touchy” subject! We love our sports and no one wants to hear about the possibility of long-term brain injury as a result.

Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, experienced significant attacks on his reputation and career after publishing a 2005 paper he published on the first diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”) as a result of injuries sustained during the game of football.²²

Not only did the NFL discount his work, but mainstream medicine hesitated to authenticate his work. The NFL and other sports organizations, as well as the medical community, eventually were forced to acknowledge and recognize Dr. Omalu’s work on the impact of repeated brain injuries in sports.²³

Working on ways to decrease these injuries has become a major focus for many sports equipment companies and has significantly impacted the rules in football and other sports.

He is quoted as saying about the experience: “I was naive. There are times I wish I never looked at Mike Webster’s brain. It has dragged me into worldly affairs, I do not want to be associated with. Human meanness, wickedness, and selfishness. People trying to cover up, to control how information is released. I started this not knowing I was walking into a minefield. That is my only regret.”

Functional Medicine: An Uphill Battle

Many of us in Integrative and Functional Medicine practices are at the forefront of seeing patients who have otherwise been shunned by their “regular” doctors for symptoms that don’t make sense or cures that weren’t easily found.

Sadly, many patients have been described as hypochondriacs or depressed and at times were told they were experiencing panic attacks rather than real symptoms. We are often the ones these patients turn to when they are hopeless and overwhelmed.

A big research study isn’t necessary to be able to say it isn’t safe to jump out of an airplane without a parachute — it’s just obvious. The medical discoveries above are now considered some of the most ‘obvious’ things yet were once considered crazy.

Dr. William Harvey, the physician that accurately identified the vascular system and was so significantly criticized has reportedly said, “Much better is it oftentimes to grow wise at home and in private than by publishing what you have amassed with infinite labor, to stir up tempests that may rob you of peace and quiet for the rest of your days.”

I pray for boldness for my Integrative-Functional Medicine colleagues who are censored and targeted for the amazing work they are doing and new discoveries they are making, and that they never choose to “grow wise at home and in private.”

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