Chapter 1: The Century of Biology: The Cure Is Already Inside You CHAPTER 1 The Century of Biology The Cure Is Already Inside You
I’m fascinated by the idea that genetics is digital. A gene is a long sequence of coded letters, like computer information. Modern biology is becoming very much a branch of information technology.
—Richard Dawkins, British biologist and writer
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get at least one question about whether or not X, Y
, or Z
is “healthful.” And yet I encounter a lot of skeptics and naysayers who want to go to battle against compelling, irrefutable data. It’s disheartening to hear that public trust in physicians has plummeted over the past several decades.1
In 1966, almost 75 percent of Americans said they had great confidence in the leaders of the medical profession; by 2012, that percentage had dwindled to some 30 percent. Why is this happening, and what does it mean for our collective and individual health? In another study, Princeton researchers found that people tend to regard scientists as they do CEOs and lawyers: all three types of professionals are perceived as highly competent but cold. Their work earns respect but not trust.
A couple of researchers at the University of Chicago in 2014 conducted a study of more than 1,350 randomly chosen Americans who provided written responses to questions. Astonishingly, half of Americans believe one of the following:2
- Companies knowingly dump large quantities of dangerous chemicals into our water supply.
- A US spy agency infected African Americans with HIV (and some are now saying that viruses with high mortality rates such as Ebola have been used for sinister purposes such as population control).
- The government tells parents to give vaccines to their children even though that could increase their risk of developing autism.
- US health officials withhold information about natural cures for cancer so that pharmaceutical companies can continue to profit.
- The government and health officials pretend they don’t know that cell phones can cause cancer.
- Genetically modified foods (GMOs) are a plot to shrink the global population by delivering foods that can be toxic to unsuspecting consumers.
To my chagrin, the greatest proportion of people in the study—more than one-third—believed that corrupt practices occur routinely in my line of work. They subscribe to the idea that the FDA deliberately suppresses information about alternative cancer treatments that don’t entail drugs and radiation. Do any of these theories have merit? None do. Unfortunately, many people don’t know where to turn for unbiased, trustworthy information, so these dangerous mythologies persist. And merchants of doubt and fear will keep these ideas alive.
After the publication of The End of Illness
, my first book, I went through a revealing experiment. My credibility and “persona” were put to the test when four focus groups categorized by age (two groups of twenty-one- to thirty-nine-year-olds and two groups of forty- to sixty-year-olds) were exposed to a series of clips of me on various television shows. Then they were each interviewed about their general impressions of health and reactions to my message. Mind you, these were people who were chosen because they actively gathered information on health and wellness, and none worked in a health care setting. I won points for coming across as warm, trustworthy, passionate, and knowledgeable, but it didn’t end there. I learned that Americans, broadly speaking, are inherently mistrustful of “experts”; they presume everyone is in someone’s financial pocket and worry doctors could push drugs for kickbacks rather than solely making decisions in the patient’s best health interest.
I also learned, this one to my surprise, that Americans perceive vitamins and drugs differently. They are psychologically averse to taking drugs, but not to taking vitamins. Why? Because, according to accepted wisdom, pharmaceutical companies promote drugs for their
financial interests whereas purveyors of vitamins are motivated by your
health interests. Suffice it to say, I walked away from the experience having learned that it’s more important to express human concern than to launch into a jargonistic lecture about medicine.
It can be hard to change people’s fierce beliefs about health, and that may be because holding on to them is part of our preprogrammed survival instinct. But we’re no longer residing in caves. Now that we live in an era of abundant information and data, we need to develop a new survival instinct that’s deft at navigating through the rapidly changing flow of information, some of it good, some of it not so good. Consider supplements, including those touted by popular physicians in the media. Most people are surprised to learn that supplements are almost entirely unregulated, so you don’t know what you’re really getting when you buy them, and their side effects and potential consequences to you could be hidden or, worse, unknown.
It’s Complicated but Promising
One of my most important pieces of advice to people who seek the secrets to living long and well, and deciphering the good from the bad information, is to honor your body as an exceedingly complex organism with its own unique nuances, patterns, preferences, and needs. And there is no “right” answer in health decisions. You have to make suitable decisions for you based on your personal values and unique health circumstances as your context evolves and changes throughout your life. As it turns out, we’re finally at a time in medicine where we can start to customize prescriptions for people—both general lifestyle interventions and specific drug and dosage recommendations to prevent, treat, or head off a disease. It doesn’t matter if you call it personalized or precision medicine. The goal is the same: to prolong the quality of individuals’ lives by using their personal health profiles to guide decisions about the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. And by profile
, I don’t mean just one’s genetic code.
More than a decade has passed since scientists sequenced the entire human genome of about 30,000 total genes and 3 billion letters, and since then we’ve made many discoveries about the power we can wield over our individual DNA. Disease cannot be predicted by genes alone, for our genes don’t work in a vacuum. Instead, they are significantly influenced by complex interactions with our diet, behavior, stress, attitude, pharmaceuticals, and environment. Every day a new finding correlates these factors with risk for illness. So when a diagnosis does in fact come in, you probably cannot point the finger at any single culprit. The condition is likely caused by an elaborate network of forces interacting within the complex human body. And ultimately, the result is that certain genes get turned on or off, triggering pathways whose endpoints are illness.
Let’s say you have a genetic vulnerability to stomach cancer and heart disease. Does this mean these ailments are your destiny? Far from it. Your lifestyle choices largely determine whether those inherited codes express themselves or not and become your liabilities in life. In other words, you get to choose—to some degree—how your DNA is manifested. Genetics account for about a quarter of aging—how fast or slow you age and whether or not you’re still getting carded at age forty. Habits can sometimes trump genes when it comes to the pace of your aging and how long you live. The nature vs. nurture debate has been clarified by the science of epigenetics—the science of controlling genes through environmental forces, such as diet and exercise. But my thoughts on epigenetics aren’t totally aligned with those of other doctors. I don’t, for example, subscribe to the theory that doing X, Y
, and Z
can change gene A, B
, and C
to effect outcome D, E, F
. This is a complicated area of medicine where the data is still elusive. That said, I do believe that none of us is necessarily a victim of our DNA. And a lot of the advice doled out amid the hand waving is often good general advice, such as “eat real food” and “move more throughout the day.” Who can argue with that?
As an aside, I find it amusing that in the summer of 1960, at another meeting where Wanda Lunsford presented her reports about the power of parabiosis—which were largely ignored by the general media—findings from another rat study zipped out to the nation through the Associated Press.3
To quote the news directly: “How to Live Longer? Slow Eating! An experiment on rats has yielded hope that overweight people can prolong their life expectancy by as much as 20 percent. The Secret: Eat half as much.” Again, can we argue with that? So we can be the architects of our own future health, so long as we’re realistic about what we can control or hope to control.
Now, sometimes certain genes are, in and of themselves, enough to cause disease regardless of how we live. But the vast majority of conditions commonly diagnosed today are those that result from the intricate play between genes and the body’s contextualized environment. This helps explain why most of the women diagnosed with breast cancer, or any degenerative condition for that matter, don’t carry any inherited genetic mutations associated with the disease, nor do they have a family history of it. For example, Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy in 2013 was the right choice for her because she had a genetic mutation known to dramatically increase the likelihood of breast (and ovarian) cancer, but this is uncommon; only 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancer cases in women are attributed to a harmful mutation in BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 genes. Most women who have a mastectomy choose to do it for other reasons. And those who opt for a double mastectomy due to cancer in one breast but who don’t carry faulty genes linked to breast cancer will only increase their chances of survival negligibly—less than 1 percent over twenty years.
Heart disease, for another example, remains our number one killer for both men and women, but the most common causes of heart disease are not congenital heart defects. They are factors such as smoking, excessive use of alcohol or drug abuse, and the downstream effects of poor diet and unremitting stress, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Note that these are all factors that change a person’s context. In 2015, the number of obese individuals in the United States as measured by body mass index (BMI) finally overtook the number of people who are overweight. That wasn’t the year that people’s genes changed to code for obesity. Something in their environment—in their context—changed, leading to more obesity, which is defined as having a BMI of 30 or above. While that sounds like terrible news, the silver lining is that such variables as the environment are often changeable
, thereby making the outcome—obesity—reversible
. And that’s the kind of positive thinking we need going forward. Alongside that positive thinking will be new technologies that make ending obesity, as well as other maladies, possible.
Do you need to have your DNA profiled today? Not necessarily. My whole point is to show you how to take advantage of the most accessible, inexpensive tools in understanding your health and your health care needs. Besides, in the future doctors won’t have to analyze your entire genome. They’ll be able to use a simple blood test to look for genetic markers that are associated with certain risk factors. We already know of about three hundred markers that matter to human health. And dozens more will soon follow, if they haven’t already by the time you read this book.
I am confident that within five to ten years, each one of us can be living a life of prevention that’s so attuned to our individual contexts that diseases of today will be virtually eradicated. But this requires that we each get started now.
Steve Jobs’s Other Legacy
In 2007, I was asked to be on Steve Jobs’s medical team to help with his care and serve as a sounding board for him to discuss all the specialists he had in his circle. He was trying to stay as many steps ahead of his cancer as possible. This particular cadre of specialists not only included a handful of doctors from Stanford, close to where Steve lived and worked, but also entailed collaborations with Johns Hopkins and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as the liver transplant program of the University of Tennessee. We took an aggressive, integrated approach that leveraged the best anticancer technology at our disposal. This meant sequencing his tumors’ genes so we could pick specific drugs that would target the defects in the cells that made them rogue. It was a revolutionary approach and totally different from conventional therapy, which generally attacks cell division in all of a body’s cells, striking healthy ones along with cancerous ones.
For us on his medical team, it was like playing chess. We’d make our move with a certain cocktail of drugs, some of which were novel and just in development, and then wait to see what the cancer would do next. When it mutated and found a crafty way to circumvent the impact of the drugs we were using, we’d find another combination to throw at the cancer in our next chess move. I’ll never forget the day we doctors huddled in a hotel room with Steve to go over the results of the genetic sequencing for his cancer.
This type of sequencing isn’t as black-and-white as you might think. Just as interpreting someone’s genetic profile can be subjective, so can the actual sequencing. Even the best gene sequencers from different institutions can find slightly different DNA portraits for the same exact patient, which is what happened with Steve’s screening. After Steve verbally criticized some of us for using Microsoft PowerPoint rather than Apple’s Keynote for our presentations, he learned that Harvard’s results from testing his tumor’s DNA didn’t line up exactly with those from Johns Hopkins. This made our strategizing all the more challenging and demanded that we all get together to go over the molecular data and agree on a game plan.
I wish we could have saved him or turned his cancer into a chronic condition that could be controlled at the molecular level so he could go on to live a longer life and eventually die of something else. I have faith that one day cancer will be a manageable condition much in the way people can live with arthritis or type 1 diabetes for a long time before succumbing to, say, an age-related heart attack or stroke. Imagine being able to edit not only your own genes to live longer, but those of a cancer to keep it at bay, silence its copying power, and stop it in its tracks. From a rudimentary perspective, genes are your body’s instructions, encoded in DNA. And cancer involves genes with a defect or defects that enable the “bad” cells containing those genes to block their own death or to continually divide, creating more rogue cells that can then maim the body’s tissues and functionality. So with molecular anti-cancer therapies, it’ll be like fixing the typos and misspellings in your personal “document” to live as long as humanly possible. Cancer will become a manageable life sentence, not a death sentence.
One genetic editing tool already exists. It’s called CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. This genome editing tool is remarkably easy to use and effective, but it raises many concerns because of its ability to alter human DNA in a way that can be passed along to one’s children and future generations. On the one hand, it can be used to cure diseases inherited from birth or acquired in life. In a fantastic review of the technology for the New England Journal of Medicine
, Dr. Eric Lander, director of MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute, describes some of its utility:
Genome editing also holds great therapeutic promise. To treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, physicians might edit a patient’s immune cells to delete the CCR5
gene, conferring the resistance to HIV carried by the 1 percent of the US population lacking functional copies of this gene. To treat progressive blindness caused by dominant forms of retinitis pigmentosa, they might inactivate the mutant allele in retinal cells…. Editing of blood stem cells might cure sickle cell anemia and hemophilia.4
But where there’s a yin, there’s a yang. The other side of this story is that this incredibly powerful technology can be used to control qualities that were previously uncontrollable, such as intelligence, athleticism, and beauty. And we just don’t know what revising the human genome to create permanent genetic modifications might mean for future generations. What if you edit one part of the gene to reduce the risk of X
but then inadvertently increase the risk of Y
? As Lander notes, “For example, the CCR5
mutations that protect against HIV also elevate the risk for West Nile virus, and multiple genes have variants with opposing effects on risk for type 1 diabetes and Crohn’s disease.” Indeed, our knowledge is incomplete, but we’ll be learning more as we move forward and try to deal with these possibilities—and challenges—on technical, logistical, moral, and ethical levels. I concur with Lander’s concluding statement: “It has been only about a decade since we first read the human genome. We should exercise great caution before we begin to rewrite it.”
There has been an explosion in the use of CRISPR technology around the world. Labs routinely employ the technology in their research experiments. In April 2015, Chinese scientists reported that, for the first time, they had edited the genomes of human embryos
Wow! This was all made possible by a single discovery in 2012 by Jennifer A. Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, who changed this field virtually overnight.6
Discoveries like this are now happening all the time around the world, and we need to be ready. It used to take a long time for new scientific knowledge or technologies published in the medical literature to enter mainstream medicine and fellow research labs, let alone the average doctor’s visit. While it’s been estimated that seventeen years usually pass before research evidence becomes part of clinical practice, that lag time will diminish quickly in the Lucky Years.7
You’ll be able to benefit from the findings of a new study or from a new technology in a matter of hours or days, not years or decades. But we’ll have to figure out what to do with technologies like CRISPR before we unleash those into a clinical setting.
Unlike Jobs’s binary world of computer programming, my field was a source of agony for him because I had to reconcile the hazy line between the science and art of medicine. He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t “debug” him like an Apple engineer.
But I learned again over those four years how important it is to tune in to your body. Steve had an admirable ability to listen to himself
and know what his body wanted and needed. Although some will argue that he may have made some unwise choices early on in his fight against cancer—rejecting potentially life-saving surgery and turning to acupuncture, diet, and dietary supplements—that’s not the point. I’m a firm believer that each one of us should be able to make our own decisions when it comes to our health. No one can take away the fact Steve was always true to his wishes, values, and personal health decisions. That he may have lowered his chances of survival by taking an alternative route first is immaterial. It was part of his journey, and he wasn’t doing anything unethical. Steve was instrumental in choosing his therapy and his way of life from beginning to end. For him it was about how his choices made him feel
. And he remained very much in tune with himself up to his last breath, letting that intuition guide his every action. I wish for that kind of mentality in not only myself, but in all my patients, friends, and loved ones.
Steve once said to me: “Health sounds like something I’m supposed to eat, but it tastes really bad.” He made sure I kept the word health
out of the title of my first book. But I’m using it this time in the subtitle because health has a different context now. We live in an exciting time, a world that is increasingly affording us all the opportunity to thrive for as long as we choose.
Old Wine in a New Bottle
At the end of the eighteenth century, the British scholar Thomas Robert Malthus wrote a controversial set of six books in which he meticulously calculated the end of the world based on the expanding population. At the time, the world housed 800 million people (to put that into perspective, that’s a little less than half the number of people who used Facebook in 2015). He predicted that once the world population hit 2 billion, there would be apocalyptic famine and war. The planet wouldn’t be able to sustain that number of people given its finite resources and arable land. Although Malthus’s computations were incredibly accurate, and many contemporary people would agree with one of Malthus’s assertions—“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”—take a look around you. Obviously, we failed to elicit his predicted outcome, dubbed the Malthusian catastrophe.
In 2011, we surpassed the 7-billion mark, and we are headed to a whopping 8 billion by 2030, maybe sooner. Malthus could not have foreseen the impact that technological innovation would have. It has allowed us to thrive for millennia, and will continue to do so, but only if we prioritize it like never before. Yes, we need to fix global warming, develop plans for water security, solve poverty and pollution, end world hunger, prevent chronic disease, and discover new energy sources—and we can accomplish all of this through innovation in the Lucky Years.
The notion that experiments performed generations ago, like those of Wanda Lunsford, are relevant today should inspire great optimism. I only wonder how many other long-lost studies are holding the key to effective remedies and cures to our modern afflictions. And I also sometimes wonder if we have all the drugs we’d ever need to treat our ailments, but we just don’t know which ones to try on which diseases.
For another example of old ideas once considered crazy or unbelievable gaining a new life in twenty-first-century medicine, take the story of William B. Coley and his “Toxins.”
William Coley (center) in his surgeon’s jacket attending a Christmas party at the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled (now known as Hospital for Special Surgery) in New York City, 1892. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Coley#/media/File:William_Coley_1892.jpg
In 1891, while a surgeon at the New York Cancer Hospital (which later became Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), Coley reviewed the medical charts of patients with bone cancer and found the sarcoma story of patient Fred Stein. Stein’s cancer regressed after a high fever from an erysipelas
(now known as the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes
) infection. The surgeon realized that this wasn’t the first reported case of cancer retreating after an erysipelas
infection. Coley then deliberately injected cancer patients who had inoperable, malignant tumors with live bacteria first, then with dead bacteria. His thinking was that creating a bacterial infection would stimulate the immune system, which in turn would also attack the tumor. And it occasionally worked.8
Some of the patients’ tumors vanished. For the next forty years, as head of the hospital’s Bone Tumor Service, Dr. Coley treated more than a thousand people with cancers of the bone and soft tissue using his unorthodox technique, dubbed immunotherapy—using the body’s own immune system to treat and sometimes cure a disease.
Coley’s bacterial elixirs became known as Coley’s Toxins, and they weren’t without their detractors. Even though Coley and other doctors who used the toxins reported excellent results sometimes, Coley came under fire from colleagues who refused to believe them. The harsh criticism came at a time when radiation therapy and chemotherapy were developing, causing Coley’s Toxins to disappear gradually until modern science could show that his principles were correct and that some cancers are sensitive to an amplified immune system. Today Coley is revered as one of the fathers of immunotherapy.
The field of immunotherapy has exploded in the last decade, especially as a method of treating fatal forms of advanced kidney cancer, skin cancer, lymphoma, certain lung cancers, and a few other cancers. Though more patients are benefiting, immunotherapy doesn’t succeed in all cases. We need to learn much more if it will ever emerge as a safe, effective treatment for many different types of cancer. Currently, gains in survival can be seen in a patient where there are few to no effective treatment options and median overall survival is usually less than two years. In oncology-speak, median survival
refers to the length of time from either the date of diagnosis or the start of treatment that half of the patients in a group of patients diagnosed with cancer are still alive.
Modern immunotherapy involves either infusing the body with a drug to unleash the body’s own immune system to attack the cancer or injecting a special type of immune system cell called a T cell that has been taken from the patient and then modified in a lab to directly target and attack the cancer cells. These altered T cells become known as CAR T cells, short for “chimeric antigen receptors,” which are proteins that allow the T cells to recognize and assault the specific protein on tumor cells, or antigen. These strategies share the same goal: harnessing the awesome power of the immune system to detect and attack cancer cells, which would otherwise flourish in the body undetected and unregulated.
The drugs getting the most attention are called checkpoint inhibitors. These release the natural brakes on the immune system so it can then launch an assault on the cancer. The treatment itself is called checkpoint blockage therapy. Two “switches” in the body, for example, that prevent tumor cells from attack by the immune system are labeled CTLA-4 and PD-L1. When these buttons are “on,” the immune system is turned down so it can’t recognize and kill cancerous cells. But when we disrupt these switches and block their functionality, this essentially enables the immune system’s sentry—those T cells—to find and pummel the cancerous cells. It’s important to note that cancer isn’t a foreign mass of cells. It’s our own cells run amok, hence it’s difficult for the immune system to “see” them.
In one of the more extraordinary clinical trials taking place today, researchers at Duke University are using a different immune strategy by reengineering the polio virus. The idea of using viruses to attack cancer has been around for more than a hundred years, but we didn’t have the technology or know-how to conduct these experiments until recently. The last case of naturally occurring polio infection occurred in the United States in 1979. These Duke researchers noticed something interesting about the virus: it kills cells by entering them through a “door” called a receptor. The special receptor for the polio virus turns out to be present on most solid tumor cells—lung, breast, brain, prostate—but not on most normal cells. The problem is that it can also attach to nervous system cells called neurons. When it kills them, the result is the muscular paralysis of polio. By extracting the disease-causing part of the virus that infects normal neurons, replacing it with the benign cold virus, and keeping only the part that attaches to and kills cancer cells, we can create a safe virus. Once injected directly into the tumor, it infects a few of the cancer cells and kills them while at the same time nudging the immune system. The immune system wakes up and thinks, This is polio!
and kills the “bystander” tumor cells as well. The virus essentially tags the tumor as a “foreign” object and arouses the body’s immune system to attack.
The studies using the polio virus have thus far been done mostly on patients battling advanced glioblastoma, one of the deadliest and most aggressive types of brain cancer, which often leads to death within weeks after standard treatments have failed. Researchers have managed to prolong the lives of some people by months, even years.9
Brain scans of a twenty-year-old college student treated with the engineered polio virus (PVS-RIPO) by an infusion through a catheter directly placed into the tumor. The first panel shows the tumor (shaded area in upper left of the brain); the second panel shows the tumor after two months of treatment (where the tumor actually appears larger in size due to the inflammation of the antitumor response); and the third panel shows the tumor shrinking at nine months of treatment.
The idea that we can leverage our own immune systems to cure cancer is a romantic one, but it’s not without its dangers. Our immune system, after all, is powerful on its own when allowed to operate at full speed. It can be risky to release its brakes, even in the hopes that it can clobber those devilish cells gone mad. Some patients who have tried immunotherapy died after developing devastating complications caused by an unrestrained immune system that indiscriminately attacks not only the cancer but also healthy and essential tissues and organs. Through ongoing clinical trials, researchers hope to overcome this challenge in the future. Immunotherapy is and will continue to be an important weapon against cancer, but it’s currently limited in the cancers it targets and the patients it benefits. The challenge is to figure out in advance who will benefit. We also need to improve our understanding of which combination of checkpoint inhibitors or other immune-altering intervention best equips the body’s immune system with anticancer ammunition.
As it happens, the more mutations a cancer has, the easier it often is to target with some immunotherapies because its cells become more “foreign looking” to the body’s own immune system. Put another way, the more abnormal a tumor becomes, the harder evading detection by the immune system becomes, especially after some drug therapy puts that immune system on high alert and fits it with special “night-vision” goggles. This phenomenon was recently revealed in a standout paper for the New England Journal of Medicine
by a team from Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.10
DNA is constantly being repaired in the body, and the tools to do so are called “DNA mismatch repair.” The Hopkins group looked at the presence or absence of DNA mismatch repair genes, which code for the system the body uses to recognize and fix bad DNA. They noted that regardless of the type of cancer, tumors that didn’t have this repair system working properly were more likely to respond to the immune-brake system-altering, anti-PD-1 drug than those with tumors that had an intact mismatch repair. In other words, the worse the tumor cells were at repairing DNA, the better the patients responded to treatment. Immunotherapy likely won’t stand on its own; it will be used in combination with other therapies, including chemo, radiation, and molecularly targeted drugs. But it will nonetheless become an indispensable tool made all the more powerful with adjunct weapons.
One of the surprising findings about immunotherapy is that many people who have tried it often report feeling better though their cancer is still there and may have even grown. But that’s the problem with my specialty. Our only metric for success is shrinking a tumor. Slowing its growth, making somebody feel better, or watching a person continue to live longer than expected isn’t classically accepted as “success” in cancer treatment.
If you come to see me in the office with a cancer that measures 5 centimeters, and if I give you a treatment, and when we remeasure the cancer in several months, it is 7 centimeters, did the treatment work? Would your cancer have been 15 centimeters without treatment? Most of the time with new drugs that stop or slow cancer, doctors and their patients are flying blind. In any randomized clinical trial, the drug might help a group of patients live longer, but it’s very difficult to know what it’s doing in the individual patient. Also, success will mean something different to each patient. If you can live another two good years, for example, on drug X
, do you care how big your tumor is so long as you can tolerate the side effects and gain those extra quality years? I’ve never had a patient tell me, “I wish I had died last year.” Even my sickest patients don’t regret living longer than expected. They will do pretty much anything to live one more day, and they are often willing to try new strategies no matter how absurd they sound. They will, put simply, take risks with me in our fearless flight.
Good Bacteria Finally Gain a Good Reputation
Let’s go back in time again. At roughly the same time Coley was experimenting with his toxins and trying to keep his critics from silencing his message, the Russian scientist Élie Metchnikoff was revealing how Lactobacillus
bacteria could be related to health.
A photo of Élie Metchnikoff, father of natural immunity and 1908 Nobel Prize laureate in Physiology or Medicine, in his Ukraine laboratory.
Metchnikoff is considered the father of natural immunity. His work set the stage for the current popularity of consuming beneficial bacteria to nourish the gut’s microbiome—the tribes of microbes in the intestinal tract that collaborate with your entire physiology. Metchnikoff predicted many aspects of current immune biology and was the first to suggest that we can benefit from lactic acid bacteria (or Lactobacillus
). According to his theory, illnesses and aging are accelerated by the release of toxic substances in the gut by certain bacterial organisms, and lactic acid could prolong life by replacing the harmful microbes with useful ones. His ideas came from noticing the longevity of Bulgarian peasants and hypothesizing that it might be the result of their eating fermented milk products (principally yogurt). Metchnikoff himself drank sour milk every day based on his theory. More than a century ago, he said that “oral administration of cultures of fermentative bacteria would implant the beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract.” Yet only in the past decade has science validated and begun to understand Metchnikoff’s bold assertions. In 2015, more studies emerged showing the power of the microbiome, some of which showed how certain foods you eat can change the composition of the bacteria colonies in your gut to either lead your body down the path to metabolic syndrome and obesity, or keep you slender and humming to the right metabolic tune.11
We’ll be exploring more about these findings and the microbiome in chapter 4. In the future, leveraging your microbiome for the better will likely be part of your health equation.
In 2008, the European Journal of Immunology
paid tribute to Metchnikoff on the hundredth anniversary of his Nobel Prize in a beautifully written article chronicling his life and his contributions to society.12
He was the first scientist to understand natural immunity to infection, the significance of inflammation, the role of digestion in immunity, the importance of gut flora, the implications of “self” versus “nonself” within the context of immunity so the body knows the difference between its own cells and foreign invaders. He even led the way in shaping the essence of the scientific study, for Metchnikoff taught how to go from observations to hypothesis for experimental testing. By the end of his life, he believed strongly in the power of ingesting good bacteria, principally lactobacilli
, and he urged others to do so as well but was often ridiculed. Cartoons depicted him administering probiotics to people who wanted to live to one hundred.
Metchnikoff believed his sour-milk (fermented) therapies could also help stop the aging process. When his work in the area was described publicly, a French cartoon (shown here), titled “Manufacture de Centenaires,” spoofed Metchnikoff’s enthusiasm for probiotics as a panacea, portraying him as one who would manufacture centenarians.
If only he could see the world today! The scientific community is finally catching up with Metchnikoff’s ideas. May other “old bottles of wine” from the past be uncorked to spill their wisdom in the Lucky Years.
Today, you might not know whether or not a glass of red wine at night is helping you, if a daily baby aspirin is a good or bad idea, or which probiotic could help your digestion. But sometime soon, a blood test will be all you need to find out what’s best for you. Even without that definitive knowledge today, you can take action. While we await definitive studies demonstrating the impact of every aspect of your unique lifestyle and environment, we do have an enormous amount of evidence from other areas of medicine to help you make the best choices.