Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Time Magazine - February 11, 1952, on BWH

Time Magazine Cover
Monday, Feb. 11, 1952


When the naval officer blew on his ice cream to cool it, the medics raised their eyebrows but did not laugh. Nor did they think he was wacky; he was just getting over a kind of fish poisoning which the medical profession calls ichthyotoxism. It is the only disorder doctors know of in which temperature reactions are reversed, e.g., a victim complains that his hot soup is cold, or that his ice water is scalding his tongue.

Why this is, nobody knows. Nor does anybody know why a victim thinks his teeth are loose when they are not. In fact, there are plenty of mysteries about ichthyotoxism, and the chief of them is that doctors do not really know what causes ichthyotoxism. It is not to be confused with poisoning caused by the bite of a venomous fish, however, or by eating stale fish in which bacteria have been at work. It comes from eating fresh, healthy fish, of species that have been used as food for generations, e.g., the amberjack that poisoned the naval officer.

In the Tropics. One notable case occurred on Saipan in 1949, when 55 Filipinos sat down to a feast of eel. Before the night was out, two were dead, one had to have his larynx slit to save him from choking to death, and the rest had suffered from a variety of symptoms ranging from vomiting, diarrhea and cramps to the staggers, paralysis and convulsions. Last February in Hawaii, there were 24 similar cases, all traced to fish imported from Palmyra Island. So far, there have been few clear-cut cases reported from the temperate zone; nearly all have been from the tropics.

Last week a research physician named Bruce W. Halstead was hard at work at the College of Medical Evangelists in Loma Linda, Calif, sorting out a mass of puzzling data and trying to find answers. In his laboratory, four assistants were slicing little samples from the flesh, liver, intestines and gonads of a batch of frozen fish from Johnston Island. After grinding and centrifuging, a cubic centimeter of fluid from each sample was injected into the belly of a mouse. If the sample was weakly poisonous, the mouse got sick but lived; a moderately poisonous sample should kill it within 36 hours, and a strongly poisonous sample within an hour.

Across the Reef. Dr. Halstead has learned to take nothing for granted. Once he was testing two puffers, identical except that one came from Hawaii and the other from the Phoenix Islands. The Hawaiian fish was harmless. It seemed pointless to test the other, but he did so anyway: the mouse died in convulsions in 4½ minutes. In this case the fish came from waters 2,000 miles apart, but Halstead has found that fish taken on one side of a reef may be safe, while those on the other side, a mile away, are deadly.

Some fish live by eating marine plants and others live by eating other fish. Both kinds can cause the mysterious poisoning. Dr. Halstead's hypothesis: the poison comes from plants, with the fish-eating fish picking it up from the plant eaters. The poison itself is probably an alkaloid, but Dr. Halstead has not been able to identify it. Next month, Dr. Halstead will head for Okinawa and Japan to get fresh material for his study: the western Pacific is full of it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Herb Hunters - 1958 Time Magazine on BWH

Lewis Strauss
Time Magazine Cover

June 15, 1959


The Herb Hunters

The Herb Hunters Around the world, from alpine heights to sluggish deltas, and even down into the coralline depths of the Pacific, legmen for U.S. medicine were busy last week in a single-minded search.

The objective: folk remedies, plants, lichens or marine slimes that might, through modern chemical analysis, yield useful drugs for treating man's ills, from toothache to cancer.

In some regions, notably South America and Africa, the herb hunters were all over. Led by Dr. John Wurdack, the New York Botanical Garden's Expedition No. 21 was at the headwaters of the Orinoco. Seeking new or rare plants, its professional botanists were especially alert for any with medicinal promise.

On five continents, 750 physicians and other medical people at 170 Seventh-day Adventist hospitals and clinics run by California's College of Medical Evangelists were collecting plants, getting patients to bring in samples of folk remedies, sometimes peering over the shoulders of witch doctors to see what went into their brews.
Lion Fat.

Like many similar efforts, the College of Medical Evangelists' search was bankrolled by business. In the hope that it would turn up marketable items, New York's Sterling Drug Inc. had just underwritten the four-year program for $240,000. Virtually all major U.S. drug companies had herb hunters afield, either directly employed or under contract.

All their people have been enlisted as part-time hunters: when Francis C. Brown, president of New Jersey's Schering Corp., was in Port-au-Prince for the recent opening of the Haiti Psychiatric Institute, he heard of a red nut used by voodoo practitioners to calm disturbed patients, brought back samples that are now under laboratory test.

Schering chemists are also analyzing a concoction which an African vendor labeled Mafuta Bhubesi—lion fat.
The costly and intensive search for what the oldtime druggist called botanicals is based on solid historical fact. Checking an old wives' brew used in Shropshire to bolster failing hearts, William Withering found in 1775 that the active ingredient came from the common foxglove, thus stumbled upon digitalis—still a sovereign remedy.

Only 28 years ago, Western-trained physicians in India concluded that there was more magic than myth in ancient snakeroot remedies for high blood pressure and some emotional disturbances, pointed the way to the isolation of reserpine—now flourishing as a multimillion-dollar prescription item.

Ephedrine, which was isolated only in 1885, and is valuable in treating asthma, was the active ingredient in Ma Huang, a herbal drug the Chinese had been using for 5,000 years.

Leafy Poultice. There is good reason to believe that there are many more potentially valuable drugs where these came from. Says Dr. Alfred Taylor of the University of Texas' Austin campus: "In plants we have more compounds than the chemists could synthesize in 1,000 years. And as a rule, the naturally occurring compounds are less likely to be poisonous than the synthetic, because they've developed in association with life."

Cancer Researcher Taylor's team is testing plant extracts against cancer in mice, reports "more hopeful results with the natural compounds than with synthetics."

Hope of finding a treatment for human cancer is stimulated by incidents such as the one related by Dr. Bruce W. Halstead (until recently with the C.M.E.).

An Indian walked into a mission hospital in Nicaragua with a huge growth on his cheek. The mission doctor took a specimen, diagnosed it as skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma), told the patient he must have surgery and X-ray treatment at once. The man refused and vanished into the jungle. A witch doctor treated him with a leafy poultice. Three months later the patient was back, "his face was clear as a baby's bottom.''

In the backwoods of India, several tribes brew a herb tea which lowers the blood sugar—a natural oral treatment for which Western diabetics waited until a mere three years ago.

Dr. Halstead, 39, a restless and imaginative scientist, is launching a World Life Research Institute in Colton, Calif.

Its fact-finding franchise will extend from lion fat to Mexican yams (major source of raw material for the cortisone family of steroid hormones) to submarine slime.

Already noted as an authority on poisonous fish (TIME, Feb. 11, 1952), Dr. Halstead is also a skindiver. Groping near the 100-ft. sounding in the Galápagos Islands he has scraped off marine growths from which antibiotic substances (still in the lab-testing stage) have been isolated.

The stakes in the herb hunt are high: for the scientist, the possibility of such fame as came to Penicillin Discoverer Fleming; for the company that gets a year's jump on its competitors with a widely useful product, $2,000,000 or $3,000,000 in profit—a hundred times more for a breakthrough against major forms of cancer; for mankind in general, cheaper and more effective drugs for many ills, and always the hope of victory over a still-defiant killer or crippler.