Curing and Healing

Are pharmaceuticals capable of healing?

A study in the next issue of Science describes a method for discovering new uses for existing drugs. The method compares their off-target effects. “Off-target” is a refreshing and more accurate phrase for the more familiar “side effects.” It’s a recognition that drugs have biological effects, only some of which are intended.

In this method, unrelated drugs are compared—for example, one drug used for depression and another for blood pressure. The comparison reveals unexpected target proteins—for example, proteins and cell receptors that affect heart rate. A famous example is the active ingredient for Viagra, a drug originally developed to control blood pressure. Using this method, the researchers identified 750 drug pairs out of 2900 that had target protein effects not predicted from the original drugs.

The idea behind this study is quite clever: find new uses for existing drugs that are already on the market and have a clinical track record. This could be good news for Big Pharma. Drugs that are about to go off-patent for one use could be re-patented for another.

But let’s return to the idea of off-target effects. The FDA maintains a reporting system for adverse drug effects. Drug companies are required to include this information along with effects that their own research has uncovered. The goal of a pharmaceutical company is to get through the FDA approval process before too many negative effects show up. What this study highlights is that pharmaceuticals have additional unexpected effects.

That this is a dangerous game is highlighted by infamous cases such as Vioxx. It passed the FDA approval process and then killed or caused harm to many people. We’re further reminded of these dangers by the recent report of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission that in Florida in 2007 prescription drugs killed eleven times as many people as illegal, street drugs.

Pharmaceuticals—and for that matter any biologically active substance given to you as a cure—invariably have both on-target and off-target effects. In both instances they prevent or promote a biochemical process. The on-target effect is intended to fix biochemistry that’s allegedly not working right. But they don’t heal. That’s what you do. That’s what your body does. It has that capacity. That’s why I believe that pharmaceuticals are the method of last resort in restoring health. In fact, because health is a capacity not a condition, it includes the capacity to heal.

Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends the use of statins in aggressively treating children with high cholesterol. A member of the nutrition committee said, “The risk of giving statins at a lower age is less than the benefit you’re going to get out of it.” This expert went on to say that “not a whole lot” was known about the use of statins on kids.

To reassure you somewhat, the Times reported today on the resulting uproar among pediatricians. While some strongly agree with the recommendation, others expressed dismay. One response was revealing. The pediatrician regretted the recommendation because it threatens to divert attention from the more effective solutions: diet and exercise, actions that we know can support the capacity to heal.

Magic pills. Magic. And the belief in magic is on both sides of the prescription pad. Children will be given statins because the professional organization responsible for their care believes it is so—even though there’s not a whole lot known about the on-target and off-target effects on kids. However, enough is known about the effects on adults to cause alarm. But never mind. This is magic.

Statins won’t heal those children. The drugs will suppress their cholesterol biochemistry and likely disrupt their endocrine and immune biochemistry. The drugs won’t do anything about the metabolic disruptions and environmental exposures that cause their bodies to adapt by raising their cholesterol. The statins will only cure them of high cholesterol. They won’t help them heal.