June 3 – Chopped Liver

Today’s factismal: At one point, regurgitated raw hamburger meat was used to treat pernicious anemia. (Yuck!)

If you were a typical kid, odds are that your folks served you food that you didn’t want to eat. And liver and onions was probably high on that list. (It certainly was {and is} on mine!) Greasy, stinky, with a taste strong enough to lift battleships, liver and onions is near the top of any kid’s “foods I hate” list. So why in the world would parents want to subject their children to anything so odious? The answer, it turns out, is because they thought it was good for you.

Back at the turn of the last century, one of the most feared diseases was pernicious anemia. The disease was subtle and sufferers rarely showed symptoms until it was too late to cure them; a diagnosis of pernicious anemia was always a death sentence. Pernicious anemia kills by preventing the body from making enough red blood cells. Without those cells, oxygen isn’t spread through the body and carbon dioxide isn’t removed. The toxins build up and the cells break down, with symptoms that look like leukemia, depression, and heart disease (which is why it was so hard to diagnose – it masqueraded as so many other diseases).

The way pernicious anemia worked was by reducing the transport of cobalamin from food into the body via the gut. It turns out that there is a special protein known as intrinsic factor secreted by the stomach of healthy people that joined to the cobalamin in food and made it easier for the gut to absorb it. From there, the cobalamin would be incorporated into the process of building red blood cells. But if you had a stomach ulcer or other health problem, then you weren’t able to secrete enough intrinsic factor to absorb the cobalamin.

The way that this was discovered was a Scottish doctor by the name of William Castle who ate a pound of raw hamburger, waited an hour, and then forced himself to throw it up. He then fed the “procesed” raw hamburger to ten very brave patients and “unprocessed” raw hamburger to another group of volunteers. The group that got the processed batch was able to recover from the pernicious anemia, demonstrating the stomach’s role in this mess. And that remained the only treatment for pernicious anemia for thirteen years.

Fortunately for patients and children everywhere, George Whipple was doing research on blood loss and discovered that anemic dogs recovered faster if they were fed a diet of raw liver. He then tried feeding pernicious anemia patients a diet rich in raw liver and saw that they also improved. His work was then taken up by other researchers, most notably George Minot and William Murphy, who turned it into a reliable treatment. Today, injections of cobalamin (now known as vitamin B12) take the place of piles of raw liver, but the basis remains the same. For their work, Whipple, Minot, and Murphy were awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Medicine. And, for our sins, parents everywhere began feeding their children liver and onions in an attempt to prevent pernicious anemia.

Of course, pernicious anemia isn’t the only condition that needs treatment; there are thousands of other diseases that still haven’t been cured. And the only way to cure them is to give the doctors the information that they need via a site such as Cure Together. Register there and you can provide details on your ailments that doctors will use to create new treatments (regurgitated raw hamburger not included).

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