Americans Fell for a Theranos-Style Scam 100 Years Ago. Will We Ever Learn?
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."
Tinu Abayomi-Paul works as a writer and activist, plus one unwanted job: Trying to fill her opioid prescription. She says that some pharmacists laugh and tell her that no one needs the amount of pain medication that she is seeking. Another pharmacist near her home in Venus, Tex., refused to fill more than seven days of a 30-day prescription.
To get a new prescription—partially filled opioid prescriptions can’t be dispensed later—Abayomi-Paul needed to return to her doctor’s office. But without her medication, she was having too much pain to travel there, much less return to the pharmacy. She rationed out the pills over several weeks, an agonizing compromise that left her unable to work, interact with her children, sleep restfully, or leave the house. “Don’t I deserve to do more than survive?” she says.
Abayomi-Paul’s pain results from a degenerative spine disorder, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and more than a dozen other diagnoses and disabilities. She is part of a growing group of people with chronic pain who have been negatively impacted by the fallout from efforts to prevent opioid overdose deaths.
Guidelines for dispensing these pills are complicated because many opioids, like codeine, oxycodone, and morphine, are prescribed legally for pain. Yet, deaths from opioids have increased rapidly since 1999 and become a national emergency. Many of them, such as heroin, are used illegally. The CDC identified three surges in opioid use: an increase in opioid prescriptions in the ‘90s, a surge of heroin around 2010, and an influx of fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids in 2013.
As overdose deaths grew, so did public calls to address them, prompting the CDC to change its prescription guidelines in 2016. The new guidelines suggested limiting medication for acute pain to a seven-day supply, capping daily doses of morphine, and other restrictions. Some statistics suggest that these policies have worked; from 2016 to 2019, prescriptions for opiates fell 44 percent. Physicians also started progressively lowering opioid doses for patients, a practice called tapering. A study tracking nearly 100,000 Medicare subscribers on opioids found that about 13 percent of patients were tapering in 2012, and that number increased to about 23 percent by 2017.
But some physicians may be too aggressive with this tapering strategy. About one in four people had doses reduced by more than 10 percent per week, a rate faster than the CDC recommends. The approach left people like Abayomi-Paul without the medication they needed. Every year, Abayomi-Paul says, her prescriptions are harder to fill. David Brushwood, a pharmacy professor who specializes in policy and outcomes at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says opioid dosing isn’t one-size-fits-all. “Patients need to be taken care of individually, not based on what some government agency says they need,” he says.
‘This is not survivable’
Health policy and disability rights attorney Erin Gilmer advocated for people with pain, using her own experience with chronic pain and a host of medical conditions as a guidepost. She launched an advocacy website, Healthcare as a Human Right, and shared her struggles on Twitter: “This pain is more than anything I've endured before and I've already been through too much. Yet because it's not simply identified no one believes it's as bad as it is. This is not survivable.”
When her pain dramatically worsened midway through 2021, Gilmer’s posts grew ominous: “I keep thinking it can't possibly get worse but somehow every day is worse than the last.”
The CDC revised its guidelines in 2022 after criticisms that people with chronic pain were being undertreated, enduring dangerous withdrawal symptoms, and suffering psychological distress. (Long-term opioid use can cause physical dependency, an adaptive reaction that is different than the compulsive misuse associated with a substance use disorder.) It was too late for Gilmer. On July 7, 2021, the 38-year-old died by suicide.
Last August, an Ohio district court rulingset forth a new requirement for Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS pharmacists in two counties. These pharmacists must now document opioid prescriptions that are turned down, even for customers who have no previous purchases at that pharmacy, and they’re required to share this information with other locations in the same chain. None of the three pharmacies responded to an interview request from Leaps.org.
In a practice called red flagging, pharmacists may label a prescription suspicious for a variety of reasons, such as if a pharmacist observes an unusually high dose, a long distance from the patient’s home to the pharmacy, or cash payment. Pharmacists may question patients or prescribers to resolve red flags but, regardless of the explanation, they’re free to refuse to fill a prescription.
As the risk of litigation has grown, so has finger-pointing, says Seth Whitelaw, a compliance consultant at Whitelaw Compliance Group in West Chester, PA, who advises drug, medical device, and biotech companies. Drugmakers accused in National Prescription Opioid Litigation (NPOL), a complex set of thousands of cases on opioid epidemic deaths, which includes the Ohio district case, have argued that they shouldn’t be responsible for the large supply of opiates and overdose deaths. Yet, prosecutors alleged that these pharmaceutical companies hid addiction and overdose risks when labeling opioids, while distributors and pharmacists failed to identify suspicious orders or scripts.
Patients and pharmacists fear red flags
The requirements that pharmacists document prescriptions they refuse to fill so far only apply to two counties in Ohio. But Brushwood fears they will spread because of this precedent, and because there’s no way for pharmacists to predict what new legislation is on the way. “There is no definition of a red flag, there are no lists of red flags. There is no instruction on what to do when a red flag is detected. There’s no guidance on how to document red flags. It is a standardless responsibility,” Brushwood says. This adds trepidation for pharmacists—and more hoops to jump through for patients.
“I went into the doctor one day here and she said, ‘I'm going to stop prescribing opioids to all my patients effective immediately,” Nicolson says.
“We now have about a dozen studies that show that actually ripping somebody off their medication increases their risk of overdose and suicide by three to five times, destabilizes their health and mental health, often requires some hospitalization or emergency care, and can cause heart attacks,” says Kate Nicolson, founder of the National Pain Advocacy Centerbased in Boulder, Colorado. “It can kill people.” Nicolson was in pain for decades due to a surgical injury to the nerves leading to her spinal cord before surgeries fixed the problem.
Another issue is that primary care offices may view opioid use as a reason to turn down new patients. In a 2021 study, secret shoppers called primary care clinics in nine states, identifying themselves as long-term opioid users. When callers said their opioids were discontinued because their former physician retired, as opposed to an unspecified reason, they were more likely to be offered an appointment. Even so, more than 40 percent were refused an appointment. The study authors say their findings suggest that some physicians may try to avoid treating people who use opioids.
Abayomi-Paul says red flagging has changed how she fills prescriptions. “Once I go to one place, I try to [continue] going to that same place because of the amount of records that I have and making sure my medications don’t conflict,” Abayomi-Paul says.
Nicolson moved to Colorado from Washington D.C. in 2015, before the CDC issued its 2016 guidelines. When the guidelines came out, she found the change to be shockingly abrupt. “I went into the doctor one day here and she said, ‘I'm going to stop prescribing opioids to all my patients effective immediately.’” Since then, she’s spoken with dozens of patients who have been red-flagged or simply haven’t been able to access pain medication.
Despite her expertise, Nicolson isn’t positive she could successfully fill an opioid prescription today even if she needed one. At this point, she’s not sure exactly what various pharmacies would view as a red flag. And she’s not confident that these red flags even work. “You can have very legitimate reasons for being 50 miles away or having to go to multiple pharmacies, given that there are drug shortages now, as well as someone refusing to fill [a prescription.] It doesn't mean that you’re necessarily ‘drug seeking.’”
While there’s no easy solution. Whitelaw says clarifying the role of pharmacists and physicians in patient access to opioids could help people get the medication they need. He is seeking policy changes that focus on the needs of people in pain more than the number of prescriptions filled. He also advocates standardizing the definition of red flags and procedures for resolving them. Still, there will never be a single policy that can be applied to all people, explains Brushwood, the University of Florida professor. “You have to make a decision about each individual prescription.”
There’s a growing need to slow down the aging process. The world’s population is getting older and, according to one estimate, 80 million Americans will be 65 or older by 2040. As we age, the risk of many chronic diseases goes up, from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s.
BioAge Labs, a company based in California, is using genetic data to help people stay healthy for longer. CEO Kristen Fortney was inspired by the genetics of people who live long lives and resist many age-related diseases. In 2015, she started BioAge to study them and develop drug therapies based on the company’s learnings.
The team works with special biobanks that have been collecting blood samples and health data from individuals for up to 45 years. Using artificial intelligence, BioAge is able to find the distinctive molecular features that distinguish those who have healthy longevity from those who don’t.
In December 2022, BioAge published findings on a drug that worked to prevent muscular atrophy, or the loss of muscle strength and mass, in older people. Much of the research on aging has been in worms and mice, but BioAge is focused on human data, Fortney says. “This boosts our chances of developing drugs that will be safe and effective in human patients.”
How it works
With assistance from AI, BioAge measures more than 100,000 molecules in each blood sample, looking at proteins, RNA and metabolites, or small molecules that are produced through chemical processes. The company uses many techniques to identify these molecules, some of which convert the molecules into charged atoms and then separating them according to their weight and charge. The resulting data is very complex, with many thousands of data points from patients being followed over the decades.
BioAge validates its targets by examining whether a pathway going awry is actually linked to the development of diseases, based on the company’s analysis of biobank health records and blood samples. The team uses AI and machine learning to identify these pathways, and the key proteins in the unhealthy pathways become their main drug targets. “The approach taken by BioAge is an excellent example of how we can harness the power of big data and advances in AI technology to identify new drugs and therapeutic targets,” says Lorna Harries, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Exeter Medical School.
Martin Borch Jensen is the founder of Gordian Biotechnology, a company focused on using gene therapy to treat aging. He says BioAge’s use of AI allows them to speed up the process of finding promising drug candidates. However, it remains a challenge to separate pathologies from aspects of the natural aging process that aren’t necessarily bad. “Some of the changes are likely protective responses to things going wrong,” Jensen says. “Their data doesn’t…distinguish that so they’ll need to validate and be clever.”
Developing a drug for muscle loss
BioAge decided to focus on muscular atrophy because it affects many elderly people, making it difficult to perform everyday activities and increasing the risk of falls. Using the biobank samples, the team modeled different pathways that looked like they could improve muscle health. They found that people who had faster walking speeds, better grip strength and lived longer had higher levels of a protein called apelin.
Apelin is a peptide, or a small protein, that circulates in the blood. It is involved in the process by which exercise increases and preserves muscle mass. BioAge wondered if they could prevent muscular atrophy by increasing the amount of signaling in the apelin pathway. Instead of the long process of designing a drug, they decided to repurpose an existing drug made by another biotech company. This company, called Amgen, had explored the drug as a way to treat heart failure. It didn’t end up working for that purpose, but BioAge took note that the drug did seem to activate the apelin pathway.
BioAge tested its new, repurposed drug, BGE-105, and, in a phase 1 clinical trial, it protected subjects from getting muscular atrophy compared to a placebo group that didn’t receive the drug. Healthy volunteers over age 65 received infusions of the drug during 10 days spent in bed, as if they were on bed rest while recovering from an illness or injury; the elderly are especially vulnerable to muscle loss in this situation. The 11 people taking BGE-105 showed a 100 percent improvement in thigh circumference compared to 10 people taking the placebo. Ultrasound observations also revealed that the group taking the durg had enhanced muscle quality and a 73 percent increase in muscle thickness. One volunteer taking BGE-105 did have muscle loss compared to the the placebo group.
Heather Whitson, the director of the Duke University Centre for the study of aging and human development, says that, overall, the results are encouraging. “The clinical findings so far support the premise that AI can help us sort through enormous amounts of data and identify the most promising points for beneficial interventions.”
More studies are needed to find out which patients benefit the most and whether there are side effects. “I think further studies will answer more questions,” Whitson says, noting that BGE-105 was designed to enhance only one aspect of physiology associated with exercise, muscle strength. But exercise itself has many other benefits on mood, sleep, bones and glucose metabolism. “We don’t know whether BGE-105 will impact these other outcomes,” she says.
BioAge is planning phase 2 trials for muscular atrophy in patients with obesity and those who have been hospitalized in an intensive care unit. Using the data from biobanks, they’ve also developed another drug, BGE-100, to treat chronic inflammation in the brain, a condition that can worsen with age and contributes to neurodegenerative diseases. The team is currently testing the drug in animals to assess its effects and find the right dose.
BioAge envisions that its drugs will have broader implications for health than treating any one specific disease. “Ultimately, we hope to pioneer a paradigm shift in healthcare, from treatment to prevention, by targeting the root causes of aging itself,” Fortney says. “We foresee a future where healthy longevity is within reach for all.”