Critics used these points to cast doubt on Lamas’s findings. Even before the study was completed, self-appointed medical watchdogs published blistering critiques, highlighting the fact that more than half of the clinics in the study practiced alternative medicine, and some offered notoriously unscientific treatments. When Lamas’s results were published in The Journal of the American Medical Association last year, they were accompanied by a scathing editorial from Steven Nissen, the chairman for cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, who called the study a dangerous failure.
Nissen had perused the Web sites of the clinics involved in the trial, and was appalled. “They offer every bizarre treatment possible,” he told me, from stem-cell therapy for growing breasts, to treating diabetes with cinnamon. “They’re warning people not to get immunized. These are the same people that are going to be doing a high-quality scientific trial? You gotta be kidding.” Nissen is adamant that Lamas’s study will be seen as an endorsement of chelation and will lead to a public-health “catastrophe.”
Lamas and his co-authors anticipated pushback, and the study’s conclusion is guarded. He read aloud to me from the copy on his bookcase: “These results provide evidence to guide further research but are not sufficient to support the routine use of chelation therapy.”
“That’s a huge word, routine,” I said.
“I fought for that word. I spoke with the editor in chief of JAMA and said, ‘Listen, you gotta give the clinician a way out.’ So they let routine stay in. I, personally, have no routine patients.”
If you dig into the medical journals, you’ll find that in 1956, a group of Detroit doctors conducted an early, tiny study of chelation’s effect on people with heart disease. Of 20 patients, 19 experienced “unusual symptomatic relief” following chelation, and six showed improvements on their electrocardiograms. The researchers hypothesized that since atherosclerotic plaque contains calcium, it made sense that binding calcium with EDTA and flushing it from the body would be therapeutic. “A way is open,” they wrote, “that must be substantiated by time and the independent results of many competent investigators.”
Those competent investigators never materialized. Pharmaceutical companies did not invest in research, because they couldn’t make any money on cardiovascular chelation—the relevant patents have expired. And so chelation fell into the hands of the practitioners whose Web sites Nissen toured.
Rashid Buttar, an osteopathic doctor in North Carolina, may be the most famous chelation evangelist, thanks to his ties to the anti-vaccination activist Jenny McCarthy as well as his high-profile 2009 treatment of the cheerleader Desiree Jennings. Jennings said a flu shot had left her able to walk only sideways or backward—a symptom that was reportedly ameliorated by listening to Coldplay, and by chelation. News outlets loved the story. Today, Buttar has a thriving clinic that offers 59 forms of IV therapy, advertised with strident anti-establishment rhetoric: “It’s about time, and long overdue, that you are finally made aware of the facts.”