Asia week Jan 29, 1999

Is chelation the answer to blocked arteries?
By Dr. Gopal Baratham

THE MEDICAL ESTABLISHMENT SPENDS great time, effort and money to find alternatives to surgery – particularly for heart problems. (As one who has undergone a coronary bypass, I can confirm that just about anything, including taking your own arm off with a spoon, is preferable to the discomfort of that procedure.) In dire cases, cardiac surgery is the only option. But in some circumstances, there are other means. One of them is a relatively little-known process called chelation.
The word derives from the Greek chele, meaning claw. The theory is that certain chelating agents, especially a substance called ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (or EDTA for short), can claw out the calcium from the walls of arteries. EDTA is more commonly used to prevent blood collected for tests from clotting in test-tubes.

Calcium build-up is part of the aging process, in which raised patches form on the inside walls of arteries and narrow them. This plaque is made up of a variety of fatty substances, including cholesterol, old blood and scar tissue. Into these calcium is incorporated, adding to the blockage, hardening the arteries and reducing the degree to which they can pulsate. Chelation techniques claim to reduce the amount of calcium, especially in those arteries supplying the heart.

Dr. Mohd Ebrahim, 61, works in a small office in the center of Kuala Lumpur. A Muslim Burmese, he has practiced in Malaysia for 16 years and has used chelation on over a thousand patients. The technique is simple. All it requires is a couch and a basic infusion set to deliver a measured dose of EDTA into the bloodstream over a period of some three hours. The patient can then go home – though not for good, as numerous treatments are usually necessary to maintain the benefits. Says Mohd: “In the U.S., I have met people who have undergone the procedure 500 times in 15 years.”

The doctor uses chelation for a broad spectrum of conditions. Itemized in a handout available at the front desk of his office, they range from angina to fatigue to impotency. He says: “The basic cause of all these problems is an accumulation of calcium in arteries.” He quotes a case in which chelation reduced the calcium content in a patient’s coronary arteries by 8.2%. But not all treatments are this successful. In one instance, a patient’s calcium level increased. This is not necessarily viewed as a matter for concern. Mohd says doctors who use chelation report that patients speak of an improvement in cardiac function irrespective of their calcium scores.

What about controlled trials to prove the value of chelation therapy in heart disease? “There must be some in the books somewhere,” says Mohd, “but I can’t show you them.” This apparent lack of scientific basis leaves chelation on the fringes of medical practice. Dr. Yahya Awang, head of the National Heart Institute of Malaysia and the surgeon who performed a bypass procedure on Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1989, says: “We don’t use it.” Is Mohd deterred? Apparently not. His wife is one of his patients.

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