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Thursday February 28, 2013

Maverick bridged Eastern, Western science

'Double doctor,' at first skeptical, embraced acupuncture, explored alternative therapies while warning of dangers of prescription drugs

Special to The Globe and Mail

In the time-honoured tradition of scientific rigour, Dr. Bruce Pomeranz set out to disprove something, and in the process, ended up proving it.

Dr. Pomeranz was among those naysaying scientists who thought acupuncture was "full of beans," as he once put it, and, quoting his mentor, "just placebo, a distraction." Then, two things happened. First: A Chinese student of his began studying acupuncture on anesthetized animals, and showed that it helped alleviate, if not eliminate, their pain.

"If it was placebo, then it should not have worked, because for placebos you need consciousness," Dr. Pomeranz later observed. "I thought it was very fishy that acupuncture worked in farm animals. That it also worked on infants had me wondering as well."

He didn't publish these results "because I knew nobody would believe me. It didn't make sense, because you had to give acupuncture for half an hour. You can block pain by rubbing yourself, or with electrical nerve stimulation, but that works in milliseconds. Acupuncture took a half hour to get going and lasted an hour or two. It made no sense in ordinary neurophysiological terms, where things happen rapidly in fractions of a second."

So, he began a series of experiments to disprove the theory that acupuncture worked by triggering the body's own natural painkillers.

The second development: Dr. Pomeranz - a neuroscientist, one of whose specialties was pain - was at a conference in 1975 that announced the discovery of endorphins, a naturally occurring analgesic that blocks pain pathways in the brain. He rushed back to Toronto "because I suspected that it was endorphin effects that we were seeing [in acupuncture]. I suspected that it took half an hour for endorphins to build up, which is why it takes half an hour for acupuncture to start working."

Shortly after that, he produced the first scientific evidence to show that acupuncture indeed relieves pain by inducing the body to release its own morphine-like compounds, endorphins. And unlike drugs, the ancient procedure had no side effects. "He changed the whole medical paradigm," said his daughter, Elyse.

Equally at home in a laboratory or classroom as he was sitting in a mud bath pondering the nature of consciousness, Dr. Pomeranz helped bridge Eastern and Western medical traditions by normalizing acupuncture in North America, bringing relief to millions - including drug abusers. In 1980, he found that acupuncture alleviated morphine withdrawal in animals, leading to the treatment of human addicts.

He also ruffled medical feathers when his other research showed prescription drugs were killing tens of thousands of people needlessly, and by keeping an open mind about homeopathy, a practice widely derided by doctors as quackery.

Dr. Pomeranz was the maverick scientist from central casting: quirky, irreverent, and unafraid to buck medical conventions (the frizzy hair and dancing eyes were nice touches). One former colleague said he appeared to dabble in the "fringe." A one-time student of his blogged: "He did research into a lot of kooky subjects, mostly to do with alternative medicine, but also into ESP and telekinesis. Wacky stuff."

But he was hard to ignore, for here was no lightweight flake but a "double doctor," as his mother loved to point out - he was a graduate of McGill University's medical school and had a PhD in physiology from Harvard University. In 2003, he was honoured by Columbia University as "the father of alternative medicine."

He died in Toronto on Feb. 15 of cancer. He was 75.

"He was more rigorous than any scientist I have ever come to know since," said Jason Lazarou, who studied under Dr. Pomeranz as a graduate student. "And it was only because of this level of rigour that he was able to sway medical dogma in favour of acupuncture. As a direct consequence of his work, an untold number of people suffering from pain have been successfully treated with acupuncture while avoiding serious side effects of pain pills. Bruce accomplished the greatest goal that all practitioners of medical science strive for: to have a positive impact on the lives of people living with illness."

Bruce Herbert Pomeranz was born in 1937 into the Montreal romanticized by Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler. He was the only child of Goldie and Abe, who had fled Eastern Europe and operated a dry-goods store on the city's fabled St. Laurent Boulevard. As class clown, young Bruce often found himself out in the hall.

But as a high school graduate with the third-highest marks in the province, he beat McGill's quota on Jewish students and earned bachelor's and medical degrees. He soured on a simple practice when, as a resident, he had to tell a family their baby had died but was forbidden from saying it did so as a result of a botched procedure. He briefly flirted with becoming a psychiatrist. Instead, he went off to Harvard, where his 1967 doctorate got noticed for its fresh take on kidney functions.

For two years, he was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - at just 29, its youngest yet. He returned to Canada in 1968 to teach zoology and, later, physiology at the University of Toronto. He retired in 2003.

"What is mind? What is consciousness? Can our minds exist without our brains? No? Then how do you explain ESP?" recalled Dr. Lazarou, now a neurologist, of his mentor's first class before budding scientists. "How do you fit that in our current model of how the brain works?"

By the end of that first lecture, "he had 200 students hooked on brain science. And I was one of them."

A life-altering moment came in the 1970s, when Dr. Pomeranz's first wife sought alternative medical treatment in England. Dr. Pomeranz himself suffered from a degenerating spinal disc and he wore a small brace. Following treatments he had not planned to get, he never had back problems again, and his skepticism about so-called alternative and complementary remedies shrunk. "He said that once you see a white crow, you can no longer say there's no such thing," recalled his daughter.

Apart from his findings on acupuncture, Dr. Pomeranz is most closely associated with two other studies. In 1988, he co-authored a paper in the journal Nature that presented data seeming to show that briskly shaken solutions containing human antibodies could provoke their usual biological response even when they had been diluted trillions of times. What confounded scientists was that well-established theory says at that level of dilution, no molecules of the original substance and therefore none of its properties could be left in the solution. The paper seemed to support aspects of homeopathy involving "water memory."

It blew up in the authors' faces, with widespread denouncements and vicious attacks. "Unfortunately, the scientific community went after us like the Spanish Inquisition going after heretics, but that's another story," Dr. Pomeranz recounted in a 1996 interview. But asked if he still believed homeopathy works, he replied: "I don't know. I would love to do more research, but there is no grant money for homeopathy research."

A decade later, in a study that made headlines around the world, Dr. Pomeranz and Dr. Lazarou revealed some of the dangers of Western medicine. Their paper showed that an estimated 100,000 Americans are killed a year and another two million are hospitalized as a result of improperly prescribed pharmaceuticals. Prescription drugs, they found, were the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States.

In all, Dr. Pomeranz published 66 papers on acupuncture research in refereed journals, and eight acupuncture textbooks.

There's no evidence he ever ran afoul of his profession in the way of censure or warning. Except for the homeopathy study, no one spoke out against him publicly. He had nothing against doctors, but merely tried to correct Western misconceptions about alternative medicine as placebo.

Dr. Pomeranz leaves his wife, Miriam Varadi, daughter Elyse, two stepchildren and four grandchildren.

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