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Perspectives in MS
Perspectives in MS

The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices

Reviewing some MS medicines through history.

Advertisement for Pulvermacher's Electric Belts, one item in the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices Advertisement for Pulvermacher's Electric Belts, one item in the Museum of Questionable Medical DevicesThe world of medicine is full of people who had “crazy” ideas only to be proven right in the end.  One of the most famous of these is the story of Dr. Barry Marshall who dared to suggest that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, rather than emotional stress. Dr. Marshall was mocked when he first proposed his “heretical” ideas, and in order to prove his theory correct, he went so far as to purposefully infect himself with the bacteria that is now know to cause stomach ulcers, H. pylori.  For his tenacity and willingness to challenge medical doctrine, he and a collaborator were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2005.

Unfortunately, the world of medicine is also full of people who had “crazy” ideas and who, well, turned out to be quite crazy.  One of the most memorable experiences of my childhood was when my grandmother took me to visit the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. Although the museum is now closed, some of the amazing pieces in the museum can be seen at the Science Museum of Minnesota. 

As its name implies, this museum was full of devices and techniques people had developed to treat medical illnesses.  Some devices were just plain weird (check out the foot operated breast enlarger) and posed no harm except maybe to the pocketbook! Other treatments such as radioactive water (no joke!) were probably not so benign.

It is easy to look back on these treatments with derision and scorn—and, indeed, some of the treatments deserve just that.  But it is also important to remember that people act out of desperation when they are ill, and not all of the treatments in the museum were motivated by someone looking to make a quick buck.

In thinking about my trip to this museum, it occurred to me that proposed cures for MS could have occupied an entire wing.  As Randall T. Schapiro, MD, a professor of neurology who happens to be from Minnesota has written:

If we are to believe the press reports of yesteryear and the blogs of today, we have cured multiple sclerosis (MS) hundreds of times. Surprisingly, MS is still here. In the 1970s, the cure was pregnant cow's milk (colostrum); in the 1980s, it was cobra venom and hyperbaric oxygen, and then mercury amalgams, bee stings, vertebral stenosis with surgery, goat serum, and all sorts of vitamins. Some of these treatments had no science behind them, but many were backed by "pseudo" science.

The latest proposed cause (and cure) for MS, as many readers will know, is called chronic cerebro-spinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI).  This theory was first put forth by the Italian vascular surgeon, Paolo Zamboni, in 2008.  It proposes that the cause of MS is due to narrowing of and obstructions in veins in patients with MS, and the cure is to relieve these obstructions through interventional procedures.  It is currently a matter of great controversy as to whether Dr. Zamboni will one day be recognized as a daring innovator like Dr. Marshall, or whether CCSVI will show up as an exhibit in a museum one day.  I will have more to say on the specifics of CCSVI in future posts. 

For now, however, I will say that the whole tenor of the debate regarding this procedure, particularly in social networking sites has been disturbing.  CCSVI has been touted as the cure to MS and those who stand in opposition to this belief have been accused of wishing to perpetuate, rather than cure, the disease in order to protect their financial interests.  The MS society has been subject to entirely unwarranted attacks in some circles for not subscribing to the CCSVI theory entirely. 

Although the passion behind this debate is understandable given the stakes for many patients, these types of accusations can only hurt MS patients in the end.  If CCSVI is indeed a cause of MS, and venous stenting the cure for it, then the proper studies need to be done to show this.  And if they fail to show success, then CCSVI needs to be abandoned.  I would hate for the MS community to follow the path of the autism community where millions of dollars and countless hours of research effort was wasted to show over and over again that vaccines don’t cause autism.

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Tags: Treatments , Living With

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About the Author

Dr. Howard is a neurologist & psychiatrist, and an expert in multiple sclerosis.

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