Eating organs to cure a disease

The first attempt at a cure was obvious.  Feed a pancreas to a patient with diabetes.  One such experiment was reported in 1910:  a man suffering from diabetes was fed several raw pancreases daily for a month.  However, the levels of sugar in his urine was unchanged.  Other attempts to cure diabetes included grinding up the pancreas and injecting this mileu into a patient.  All attempts failed.

This strategy of curing particular diseases through feeding patients parts of organs was not unique.  In 1891 Dr. George Murray examined a 46 year old woman who had been suffering from myxoedema for over four years.  Myxoedema is characterized by swelling of the extremities and puffiness in the face.  It is usually accompanied by a loss of mental acuity.  The symptoms are now known to be caused by hypothyroidism.  Dr. Murray recommended that the woman take an intravenous extract prepared from a sheep’s thyroid.  The woman began this treatment and within two weeks showed marked improvement.  She eventually transitioned to taking a pill made from sheep thyroid once per day.  She fully recovered, and lived until 1919 when she died at age 74.  Dr. Murray estimated that she consumed the thyroid glands from 870 sheep in her life.

Our modern knowledge has shown that the thyroid produces two hormones (small molecules) known as T3 and T4.  These hormones regulate the body’s metabolism. If the thyroid fails to produce the correct amounts of T3 and T4, disorders like myxedema can occur.  Today, T3 and T4 can be easily synthesized and are sold as pills to be taken orally. However, some still prefer the natural thyroid, which is made from the thyroid glands of pigs.  One brand is Armour Thyroid.

In pernicious anemia, the focus of George Minot’s research, a similar strategy also proved fruitful.  First, an animal model of the disease was established.  George Hoyt Whipple and Frieda Robscheit-Robbins found that dogs exhibited symptoms similar to anemia when they lost a significant quantity of their blood.  The cause of anemia was not known, but once a model of the disease was found strategies for treating the disease could be systematically tested.   They took a group of dogs that had been experimentally set into an anemic state and fed each dog a diet from a single organ: one dog only ate spleens, another lungs, a third liver, a fourth intestines, etc.  They found that the dog only eating liver recovered the quickest.