The central figure in the American TV series Dr. House is a doctor who is brilliant in the diagnosis of unusual medical conditions but personally very difficult. When I first saw this series I found the character so unpleasant that I did not want to watch the programme. However in the course of time I got drawn in to watching it by the interest of the medical content. While some aspects of this series are quite exaggerated and far from reality the medical parts are very accurate and well researched. As I learned yesterday even details seen there like the numbers on heart monitors accurately reflect the situation being portrayed. I have this information from a lecture I attended yesterday at the Medizinische Gesellschaft Mainz [Mainz Medical Society]. The speaker was Professor Jürgen Schäfer, a man who has become known in the media as the German Dr. House. I am pleased to report that I detected no trace of the social incompetence of Dr. House in Dr. Schäfer.
Jürgen Schäfer is trained as a cardiologist. He and his wife, who is a gastroenterologist, got so interested by the series Dr. House that they would spend time discussing the details of the diagnoses and researching the background after they has seen each programme. Then Schäfer had the idea that he could use Dr. House in his lectures at the University of Marburg. The first obstacle was to know if he could legally make use of this material. After a casual conversation with one of his patients who is a lawyer he contacted the necessary people and signed a suitable contract. At this time his project attracted considerable attention in the media even before it had started. In the lectures he analyses the cases occurring in the series. The students are encouraged to develop their own diagnoses in dialogue with the professor. These lectures are held in the evenings and are very popular with the students. In the evaluations the highest score was obtained for the statement that ‘the lectures are a lot of fun’.
This is only the start of the story. During a consultation in one of the episodes of Dr. House he suddenly makes a deep cut with a scalpel in the body of the patient (one of the melodramatic elements), opens the wound and shows that the flesh inside is black. The diagnosis is cobalt poisoning. After seeing this it occurred to Dr. Schäfer that this diagnosis might also apply to one of his own patients and this turned out to be true. In addition to serious heart problems this patient was becoming blind and deaf. He had had a hip joint replacement with an implant made of a ceramic material. At some point this became damaged and was replaced. In order to try to avoid the implant breaking again the new one was made of metal. The old implant fragmented and left splitters in the body. These had acted like sandpaper on the new joint and at the time of removal it had been reduced to 70% of its original size by this process. As a result large quantities of cobalt was released, resulting in the poisoning. The speaker showed a picture of the operation of another of his patients with a similar problem where the wound could be seen to be filled with a black oily liquid. Together with colleagues Schäfer published an account of this case in The Lancet with the title ‘Cobalt intoxication diagnosed with the help of Dr. House’. Not all his coauthors were happy with this title but Schäfer wanted to acknowledge his debt to the series. At the same time it was a great piece of advertizing for him which lead to a lot of attention in the international media.
Due to his growing fame Schäfer started to get a lot of letters from patients with mysterious illnesses. This was more than he could handle. He informed the administration of the university clinic where he worked that he was going to start sending back letters of this type unopened, since he just did not have the time to cope with them. To his surprise they wanted him to continue with this work and arranged from him to be relieved from other duties. They set up a new institute for him called Zentrum für unerkannte Krankheiten [centre for unrecognized diseases]. This was perhaps particularly surprising since this is a privately funded clinic and the work of this institute costs money rather than making money. The techniques used there include toxicological and genomic analyses.
Here is another example from the lecture. Schäfer’s institute uses large scale DNA analysis to screen for a broad range of parasites in patients with unclear symptoms. In one patient they found DNA of the parasite causing schistosomiasis. This disease is usually got by bathing in infected water in tropical or subtropical areas. The patient tested negatively for the parasite and had never been to a place where this disease occurs. The mystery was cleared up due to the help of a vet of Egyptian origin. He was familiar with schistosomiasis and due to his experience with large animals he was not afraid of analysing very large stool samples. He succeeded in finding eggs of the parasite in the patient’s stool. The diffculty was that the numbers of eggs were very low and that for certain reasons they were difficult to recognise in this case, except by an expert. The patient was treated for schistosomiasis as soon as the genetic results were available but it was very satisfying to have a confirmation by more classical techniques. The mystery of how the patient got infected was solved as follows. As a hobby he kept lots of fish and he imported these from tropical regions. The infection presumably came from the water in his aquarium. We see that in the modern world it is easy to import tropical diseases by express delivery after placing an order in the internet
I do not want to end before mentioning that Schäfer said something nice about how mathematicians can help medical doctors. He had a patient who is a mathematics professor and had the following problem. From time to time he would collapse and was temporarily paralysed although fully conscious. A possible explanation for this would have been an excessively high level of sodium in the body. On the other hand measurements showed that the concentration of sodium in his blood was normal, even after an attack. The patient then did a calculation (just simple arithmetic). On the basis of known data he worked out the amount of sodium and potassium in different types of food and noted a correlation between negative effects of a food on his health and the ratio of the sodium to potassium concentrations. This supported the hypothesis of sodium as a cause and encouraged the doctors to look more deeply into the matter. It turned out that in this type of disease the sodium is concentrated near the cell membrane and cannot be seen in the blood. A genetic analysis revealed that the patient had a mutation in a little-known sodium channel.
I think that this lecture was very entertaining for the audience, including my wife and myself. However this is not just entertainment. With his institute Schäfer is providing essential help for many people in very difficult situations. He has files of over 4000 patients. This kind of work requires a high investment in time and money which is not possible for a usual university clinic, not to mention an ordinary GP. It is nevertheless the case that Schäfer is developing resources which could be used more widely, such as standard protocols for assessing patients of this type. As he emphasized, while by definition a rare disease only effects a small number of patients the collection of all rare diseases together affects a large number of people. If more money was invested in this kind of research it could result in a net saving for the health system since it would reduce the number of people running from one doctor to another since they do not have a diagnosis.