Making a Difference:
Science, Tenacity Causes Change
Helping his son means helping others
Matthew and his father, Ashton Embry, a 2008 AAPG Public Service Award honoree who believes there is a link between diet and the fight against multiple sclerosis.
Your son, a healthy, robust teenager comes home from soccer practice one day and tells you he thinks he may have had a stroke.
Thinking of a bike crash he recently had, you tell him it’s probably a pinched nerve and not to worry.
Then, inexplicably, he falls down a flight of stairs and complains of dizziness, so you take him to a doctor, who tells you that he has multiple sclerosis.
Like any father, upon hearing the news about his son Matthew, AAPG member Ashton Embry was shocked and saddened.
But Ashton Embry wasn’t just any father; he also is a scientist.
Before the scientist took over, the father did what fathers do: he took his son to doctors and more doctors, insisted on more X-rays, MRIs, tests and consultations.
And then Embry, numb from a series of dark diagnoses and shrugged shoulders – and flabbergasted at the dispassionate resignation of physicians who said there was no cure – decided to think outside the medical, but not scientific, box.
And that’s when he got angry.
Ashton F. Embry, a research scientist with the Institute of Sedimentary Geology and Petroleum Geology in Calgary, Canada and the recipient of this year’s AAPG Public Service Award, said the situation was “unacceptable” – particularly when he discovered some promising leads as to the causes of MS.
“As a scientist, I was appalled at the lack of research in this field, given its great potential for helping persons with MS and that research into alternative causes for the disease.”
“I was convinced that it was possible to narrow down the list of suspects to allow some reasonable therapies to be developed and tried,” he said. “This is how it works in geology and petroleum exploration. You never know with certainty if petroleum is present at a given locality, but you can identify areas that have good potential and then you simply test them.
“You don’t sit and do nothing because you are not certain.”
The Milky Way
And he didn’t sit. Embry read everything he could find on MS, annoyed researchers, wrote to medical journals, visited clinicians, pestered government agencies and, eventually, painstakingly, came upon a possible cause – “a list of suspects” he called it.
“It became very clear that nutritional factors were very likely part of the story and that they were being ignored by the MS community,” Embry said. “It was also clear that such bias was due to the lack of money that could be derived from a nutritional therapy. Everyone was only interested in finding a billion dollar drug” – a dynamic Embry found not only misplaced but infuriating.
“Money was trumping science and best interests of persons with MS,” he said. “Even when faced with an abundance of data, no one was interested in a vitamin that sold for pennies.”
According to Embry, vitamin D, along with a nutritional overhaul, may be an important link to MS.
Specifically, Embry believes a diet heavy in grains can worsen the vitamin D deficiency, as does one heavy in dairy products, gluten and legumes.
It seems counterintuitive that milk, which has vitamin D, would be bad for MS, but Embry says “milk proteins yield antigens (protein fragments), which closely resemble self antigens in myelin (wraps around nerve cells in the CNS).
“Thus ingestion of milk can activate myelin-sensitive immune cells,” he said, “and the destruction of myelin by such cells is what drives the MS disease process.”
Of the diet (see adjoining story) Embry says, “I have little doubt if everyone had adequate vitamin D from birth onward MS would go the way of rickets.”
And then he makes the following startling statement. “Cancer rates would also plummet.”
A Tough Sell
It is a finding, Embry knows, that is a tough sell.
“I have always been a big picture geologist, which means I concentrate on the regional geology rather than on small, site specific projects,” he said. “The identification of the main causal factors of MS required the same type of big picture thinking.
“The main problem of switching from rocks and fossils to T cells and cytokines was having to learn the language of molecular immunology and genetics,” he said.
“This took quite awhile, but once I had the basics, the MS research became relatively easy and similar to geological research,” he continued.
“The big difference between the two is that in geology I gather a lot of my own data and integrate it with the data of others,” he said. “In MS, I am restricted to compiling the data of others and trying to synthesize so that new concepts become apparent.”
Unlike the geological community, however, whose support he says was uniformly encouraging, the majority of those in the world of MS “simply ignored my work.”
The Calgary Chapter of the MS Society of Canada, for instance, while recognizing Embry’s work, didn’t embrace it. Carol Fredrek, director of client services, says, “We don’t have all the information.”
Others, like Dr. Luanne Metz, director of Calgary’s MS Clinic for vitamin D, thinks the work is important but not relevant.
“I just don’t think it’s a huge factor,” she states.
Embry, however, is neither surprised nor deterred.
“The frustrations of the work have mainly involved the fact that the clinicians totally ignore the science which ties nutritional factors to MS,” he said. “They simply brush it off by saying there is no clinical trial data that proves that nutritional factors are part of MS. Thus they never tell their patients that there is a reasonable chance that nutritional factors are part of MS and that they have a great deal to gain and little to lose by giving them a try.
“This lack of common sense on the part of the medical community is potentially having a very adverse effect on the hundreds of thousands of people who have MS,” he added.
Embry believes the lack of vision is due, in part, to the donations those fighting the disease receive from drug companies.
“People expect the charities to act in the best interests of persons with MS, but this is clearly not happening. We would not have had to set up Direct-MS if the main MS charities were doing what they were supposed to.”
Telling the Story
There are some signs of hope, though.
A recent Harvard University medical review has five pages summarizing vitamin D research, including a finding that those who supplemented the vitamin in their treatment regiments lowered their risk of MS by 40 percent.
Embry says that at present, the research on the link between MS and nutrition, generally, and vitamin D deficiency, specifically, is ongoing, but work done on MS and overall nutrition (excluding vitamin D) in North America “is almost nil.”
Embry, who still remembers the chilling effect of being told of his son’s diagnosis (including one morbid observation from a physician who intimated that many MS patients buy cement boots), says the experience “ … has made me a better scientist, and I have learned a lot about how to communicate scientific ideas and information to the public.”
He is heartened, he says, by the letters he gets from the people who write to tell him how beneficial the nutritional therapy has been in their lives.
Matthew Embry, recently married, now has no signs of MS.