The huckster understands what people want – an easy route to good health -- and figures out just how to provide it as long as no one asks too many questions.
"Americans are very much prone to this sort of thinking: Give me a pill or give me a magical bean that can make me lose weight!"
The keys to success: Hoopla, fancy technology, and gullibility. And oh yes, one more thing: a blood sample. Well, lots and lots of blood samples. Every testing fee counts.
Sound familiar? It could be the story of the preternaturally persuasive Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos who stands accused of perpetrating a massive blood-testing fraud. But this is a different story from a different time, one that dates back 100 years but sounds almost like it could unfold on the front page of The Wall Street Journal today.
The main difference: Back then, watchdogs thought they'd be able to vanquish fake medicine and scam science. Fat chance, it turned out. It seems like we're more likely to lose-weight-quick than make much of a dent into quackery and health fraud.
Why? Have we learned anything at all over the past century? As we sweep into a new decade, experts says we're not as advanced as we'd like to think. But the fight against fraud and fakery continues.
Quackery: As American As America Itself
In the 17th century, British healers of questionable reputation got a new name -- "quack," from the Dutch word "quacksalver," which originally referred to someone who treats others with home remedies but developed a new meaning along the lines of "charlatan." And these quacks got a new place to sell their wares: the American colonies.
By 1692, a Boston newspaper advertised a patent medicine that promised to cure "the Griping of the Guts, and the Wind Cholick" and – for good measure – "preventeth that woeful Distemper of the Dry Belly Ach." A couple centuries later, the most famous woman in the United States wasn't a first lady or feminist but a hawker of nostrums named Lydia Estes Pinkham whose "vegetable compound" promised to banish "female complaints." One advertisement suggested that the "sure cure" would have saved the life of a Connecticut clergyman whose wife killed him after suffering from feminine maladies for 16 years.
By the early 20th century, Americans were fascinated by electricity and radiation, and both healers and hucksters embraced the new high-tech era. Men with flagging libidos, for example, could irradiate their private parts with the radioactive Radiendocrinator or buy battery-powered electric belts equipped with dangling bits to supercharge their, um, dangling bits.
The Rise of the Radio Wave 'Cure'
Enter radionics, the (supposed) science of better health via radio waves. The idea was that "healthy people radiate healthy energy," and sickness could be reversed through diagnosis and re-tuning, write Dr. Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen in their 2017 book "Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything."
Detecting illness and fixing it required machinery -- Dynamizers, Radioclasts and Oscillocasts – that could cost hundreds of dollars each. Thousands of physicians bought them. Fortunately, they could work remotely, for a fee. The worried-and-potentially-unwell just needed to send a blood sample and, of course, a personal check.
Sting operations revealed radionics to be bogus. A skeptic sent a blood sample to one radionics practitioner in Albuquerque who reported back with news of an infected fallopian tube. In fact, the blood sample came from a male guinea pig. As an American Medical Association leader reported, the guinea pig "had shown no female characteristics up to that time, and a postmortem examination yielded no evidence of ladylike attributes."
When Quackery Refused to Yield
The rise of bogus medical technology in the early 20th century spawned a watchdog industry as organizations like the American Medical Association swept into action, said medical historian Eric Boyle, author of 2012's "Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth-Century America."
"When quackery was recognized as a major problem, the people who campaigned for its demise were confident that they could get rid of it," he said. "A lot of people believed that increased education, the truths of science, and laws designed to protect consumers would ultimately drive quackery from the marketplace. And then throughout the century, as modern medicine developed, and more effectively treated one disease after another, many observers remained confident in that prediction."
There's a bid to "flood the information highway with truth to turn the storm of fake promotional stuff into a trickle."
But fake medicine persisted as Americans continued their quest to get- healthy-quick… or get-rich-quick by promising to help others to get- healthy-quick. Even radionics refused to die. It's still around in various forms. And, as the Theranos scandal reveals, we're still hoping our blood can offer the keys to longevity and good health.
Why Do We Still Fall for Scams?
In our own era, the Theranos company rose to prominence when founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes convinced journalists and investors that she'd found a way to cheaply test drops of blood for hundreds of conditions. Then it all fell apart, famously, when the world learned that the technology didn't work. The company has folded, and Holmes faces a federal trial on fraud charges this year.
"There were a lot of prominent, very smart people who bought into the myth of Elizabeth Holmes," a former employee told "60 Minutes," even though the blood tests never actually worked as advertised.
Shouldn't "prominent, very smart people" know better? "People are gullible," said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist and leading quack-buster who runs the QuackWatch website. But there's more to the story. According to him, we're uniquely vulnerable as individuals to bogus medicine.
Scam artists specifically pinpoint their target audiences, such as "smart people," desperate people and alienated people, he said.
Smart people, for example, might be overconfident about their ability to detect fraud and fall for bogus medicine. Alienated people may distrust the establishment, whether it's the medical field or government watchdogs, and be more receptive to alternative sources of information.
Dr. Barrett also points a finger at magical thinking, which comes in different forms. It could mean a New Age-style belief that our minds can control the world around us. Or, as professional quack-buster Alex Berezow said, it could refer to "our cultural obsession with quick fixes."
"Americans are very much prone to this sort of thinking: Give me a pill or give me a magical bean that can make me lose weight! But complex problems need complex solutions," said Berezow, a microbiologist who debunks junk science in his job as a spokesman for the American Council on Science & Health.
American mistrust of expertise makes matters worse, he said. "When I tell people they need to get vaccinated, I'm called a shill for the pharmaceutical industry," he said. "If I say dietary supplements generally don't work, I'm a shill for doctors who want to keep people sick."
What can ordinary citizens do to protect themselves from fake medicine? "You have to have a healthy skepticism of everything," Berezow said. "When you come across something new, is someone trying to take advantage of you? It's a horrible way to think about the world, but there's some truth to it."
"Like any chronic disease, we will have to live with it while we do our best to fight it."
The government and experts have their own roles to play via regulation and education, respectively. For all the criticism it gets, the Food & Drug Administration does serve as a bulwark against fakery in prescription medicine. And while celebrities like Gwyneth "Goop" Paltrow hawk countless questionable medical products on the Internet, scientists and physicians are fighting back by using social media as a tool to promote the truth. There's a bid to "flood the information highway with truth to turn the storm of fake promotional stuff into a trickle," said Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein, a writer in residence at Yale School of Medicine and author of 2018's "Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything."
What's next? Like death, taxes and Cher, charlatans are likely to always be with us. Boyle quoted the late William Jarvis, a pioneering quack-buster in the late 20th century who believed health fraud would never be eradicated: "Like any chronic disease, we will have to live with it while we do our best to fight it."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.