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How Nature Saves Your Balls–and Your Heart. (Save the Planet–3)

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 8, 2012

The rate of testicular cancer among white males has almost doubled in the past 40 years, for unknown reasons, and it is now the most common cancer among men ages 15 to 34.

Fortunately, it is also one of the most curable.

Jonny Imerman was 26 and selling commercial real estate in Michigan when he got it.  His oncologist started him on a chemotherapy regimen that featured three potent drugs:  Cisplatin, from the heavy metal platinum, bleomycin, an antibiotic from a bacterium, and etoposide, from the roots of the Indian mayapple in the Himalayas.   The result?   Before this kind of treatment was developed in about 1970, testicular cancer typically spread to other parts of the body and killed 95 percent of its victims.  Today, if diagnosed in time, 95 percent of victims recover and go on to lead normal lives.

When he got his health back, Imerman quit real estate to set up a non-profit, Imerman’s Angels, which matches cancer victims with mentors of the same age, gender, background, and cancer type.  But even with “my head in the middle of all this” cancer stuff, he says, he did not realize that the natural world had saved his life.  “You break down the word ‘chemotherapy’ into ‘chemical therapy’ and we just assume these are all chemicals.  I did not know that so many of them derive from natural things.  I bet most doctors don’t even know.”

It’s the same with cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death for American men and also accounts for 30 percent of mortality worldwide.  In the United States, deaths from cardiovascular diseases have decreased sharply over the past 15 years.   It would be nice to say to that this is because we have learned how important it is to eat smart and exercise more.  But the truth is, it’s a gift from the natural world.

Researchers from Japan and England first discovered the class of drugs called statins in the 1970s, from close relatives of the fungus that gave us penicillin.  Statins went on to demonstrate a remarkable ability to knock down levels of bad cholesterol, the low-density lipoproteins (or LDLs) largely responsible for clogging arteries.  That’s meant fewer heart attacks and strokes since statins became widely available in the 1990s.  Though some critics worry that statins are now overprescribed, British researchers have calculated that giving statins to 10 million high-risk people results in 50,000 lives saved per year.

Our improving cardiovascular health also comes courtesy of a pit viper.  The fer-de-lance is one of the scarier snakes in South America.   I still have bad dreams about a night long ago, when I was staggering out of a rainforest in Peru, and one of them slipped across the trail just behind me and ahead of the next person in line.   A bite typically contains more than twice the venom needed to kill a human adult, and one of the ways it kills is by causing a drastic drop in blood pressure.  Beginning in mid-twentieth century, Brazilian researchers studying the venom found that it acts on a blood pressure control mechanism, angiotensin, which was then completely unknown to science.  The fer-de-lance thus opened a new window into the workings of the human heart—and also gave us a major new class of drugs, the ACE inhibitors (named for their effect on the angiotensin converting enzyme).   Since their introduction in the 1980s, these drugs have become our most effective remedy for hypertension and congestive heart failure.

Ken Cole might not sound like a natural friend of the fer-de-lance.  He’s a petrochemical lab technician in Houston.   But when he made a rare medical visit with a cold a few years ago, age 34, height 5’8,” weight 250 pounds,  his doctor promptly put him on an ACE inhibitor for high blood pressure, and a statin for high cholesterol.  Cole also had undiagnosed type 2 diabetes, and that visit changed his life:  He took up cycling, became a gym rat, and dropped more than 50 pounds.   If he is careful, he says, a drug called metformin should keep him from becoming insulin-dependent.

That makes him a natural medicine triple-hitter:  Metformin comes from a weedy plant called goat’s rue.  

To be continued.

One Response to “How Nature Saves Your Balls–and Your Heart. (Save the Planet–3)”

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