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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Prescribes a Diet Plan For Cardiovascular Disease Patients; Lunasin is a Possible Treatment for ALS; Man With Type 2 Diabetes Changed His Lifestyle and Saw Significant Results. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired May 20, 2017 - 14:30   ET



[14:31:03] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Imagine receiving a diagnosis and then learning that there's not much you can do to fight your disease. That's the reality for so many people around the world. But as technology catches up and we learn more about our own biology, the concept of reversing disease may now become a reality.

This is "Vital Signs," I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Before we begin, I want to be clear on something. Today, we're going to be talking about extraordinary cases. These are the exceptions, not the rule. We don't want to give anyone false hope, but it is worth exploring it is worth exploring the possibilities presented by these unique outcomes.

And there is a precedent here, it happened with HIV. A select, very small group of patients known as elite controllers contracted HIV but then never got sick. Studying these patients taught us about the biology of the virus and even how to treat it.

Reversals can offer a glimpse into these illnesses like never before, from rare diseases to some of the most common.


GUPTA (voice-over): When you think of foodborne illness, what comes to mind? Probably salmonella, E.coli, hysteria, but would you ever include heart disease on that list? Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn thinks you should.

DR. CALDLWELL ESSELSTYN JR., AUTHOR, PREVENT AND REVERSE HEART DISEASE: Let the truth to be known. Coronary artery heart disease is nothing more than a toothless paper tiger that may never, ever exist. And if it does exist, it may never progress. This is a completely benign foodborne illness.

GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Esselstyn has been studying and treating patients with cardiovascular disease at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute for 30 years. But he's not prescribing drugs or surgeries. For his patients, it's all about the right food.

IMIR MCNAMARA: This should be good. We should use the rice cooker. GUPTA (voice-over): Jim McNamara is one of those patients.

JIM MCNAMARA, PATIENT: No, I got it right here. I'm good.

GUPTA (voice-over): After experiencing a stroke 10 years ago, Jim underwent five operations to fix his carotid artery and the blockage in his leg.

MCNAMARA: When I turned 55, that year, things changed drastically for me. I had a stroke.

GUPTA (voice-over): Frustrated and facing yet another operation, Jim felt he was at rock bottom. Then his wife, Imir (ph), heard about Dr. Esselstyn's program, which promotes a plant-based diet.

MCNAMARA: I thought, oh, I can't do that, you know. And I pictured walking around with a head of broccoli and a handful of alfalfa sprouts, and I can tell you now, nothing is further from the truth.

ESSELSTYN: How many times have you ever heard of a person who walked into the emergency room and said, "My god, help me out, I'm omega-3 deficient."

GUPTA (voice-over): Within a week, Jim was sitting in a seminar just like this. Dr. Esselstyn holds them once a month for visiting medical professionals and interested patients.

MCNAMARA: Thank you. Thank you, thank you. I did doubt it, but it's amazing when you have a feeling of desperation, how that can trump any doubts that you might have. I mean, I think I was at the point where, what else can I do? I have to give this a shot.

GUPTA (voice-over): Cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of men and women in the western world. According to the American Heart Association, nearly 86 million Americans alone live with some kind of cardiovascular disease.

But you don't find those kinds of numbers in other regions of the globe, like Central Africa or rural China. Dr. Esselstyn, along with his wife, Ann (ph), decided to completely change their diets to plant- based, which means no meat, fish, dairy, or oils. So, what should you eat? Are you ready?

ESSELSTYN: Bok choy, fish, chard, kale, collard greens, beet greens, mustard greens, carrot greens, Napa cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cilantro, parsley, spinach, and arugula, and asparagus.

And it is a significant lifestyle change. But remember this, it is a lifestyle change that millions of people across the planet have had for hundreds and hundreds of years.

GUPTA (voice-over): After successfully converting to the diet himself, Dr. Esselstyn began prescribing it to his patients in the 1980s. And what he found was remarkable.

ESSELSTYN: As we've shown, on multiple occasions, not only we can stop it, but we can reverse it.

GUPTA (voice-over): Critics of this diet maintain that nutrition is just one part of heart health, in addition to exercise and lowering cholesterol. Meat, dairy and eggs all remain part of the U.S. dietary guidelines for a healthy, balanced diet.

But Dr. Esselstyn points those same critics to the science and the results he's seen time and time again over the course of 30 years.

In one of his own studies published in 2014, he had a 90 percent compliance rate with the diet. Of those 177 compliant patients, 99.4 percent, as in all of them except for one, had no major cardiac events.

ESSELSTYN: This is seismic revolution. We're at the cusp of it right now. It's not going to happen from inventing another pill. It's not going to come from inventing another procedure.

GUPTA (voice-over): With all the evidence, you might be wondering why more doctors aren't pointing their patients in the same direction. Dr. Esselstyn believes it comes down to a lack of training.

For Jim McNamara, the support from his family, and particularly his wife, was the key to his success. Just six months after starting the diet, he was dancing at his daughter's wedding, something he wasn't sure he would be able to do at all.

Five years after he first sat in that seminar, Jim's blood pressure is normal. He's maintained his weight loss and he can walk for long periods of time with no discomfort. He has completely turned his cardiovascular health around.

MCNAMARA: I know it works and I know it's something that everybody can do. There's no better feeling than driving the boat yourself. You're in control of your health.

GUPTA (voice-over): Cardiovascular disease is common, but what can we learn from rare diseases?



GUPTA: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. You probably know it better as ALS. It comes from the Greek language, it means no muscle nourishment. And that's exactly what happens when someone has ALS, a neuro- degenerative disease that impacts nerve cells. The brain can no longer communicate with muscles. That leads to extreme weakness and disability.

There's no cure for ALS, and doctors can only manage symptoms for their patients. For a very small group of patients, there has been some improvement, and that's practically unheard of in ALS. So what is it about these patients that made them get a little bit better? But most importantly, what can we learn from them?


GUPTA (voice-over): It was a craze that swept the globe. Fill a bucket with ice, dump it over your head and film it for all to see on social media. Some may be better than others.


GUPTA (voice-over): It was the ALS ice bucket challenge. The goal, to raise money for research on ALS, a devastating, debilitating disease with no cure.

April McDuff did the ice bucket challenge next to her husband, Mike.

APRIL MCDUFF: One, two, three.

GUPTA (voice-over): For them, it was personal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you move it towards you a little bit more?

GUPTA (voice-over): Mike was diagnosed with ALS back in October, 2012.

MIKE MCDUFF: By 2010, I started to get symptoms. What happened was, my arms started to get weak, and I was starting to lose muscle tone on my shoulders and my arms. And I went to my doctor, and that time, I had rheumatoid arthritis, so I was going into Boston for the rheumatoid arthritis.

And when I went in that day, I said, "You know doc," I said, "Something's not right." And he looked at me, he goes, "What is going on?"

GUPTA (voice-over): ALS is a neuro-degenerative disease that disrupts the connection between the brain and the muscles. It leaves a weakness in the arms and legs, and often the mouth, causing issues with speech and swallowing.

Dr. Richard Bedlack runs the ALS clinic at Duke University in Duran, North Carolina. He has devoted his life to this disease, one that has remained a mystery to doctors and scientists for decades.

DR. RICHARD BEDLACK, FOUNDER, DUKE ALS CLINIC: And it was actually during my neurology residency that I saw my first patient with person with ALS. And of all the things I had seen up until that point, I thought it was the most amazing and most terrible of all the diseases. It's literally like an explosion went off in the nervous system.

Plus, there was so little known about it back then in the late '90s. And most amazing of all, Duke really didn't have much to offer for it.

GUPTA (voice-over): Though more is known about ALS today than when Dr. Bedlack first started, the fact remains that no one has ever beaten the disease. But he thinks maybe there's a chance to at least get better.

BEDLACK: My life is a lot like the life of Fox Mulder was on the "X Files." You know, people are constantly sending me weird stuff, like, they hear about on the internet. Somebody in a chat room said his wife got exposed to something, and suddenly, she could walk again. And she hadn't walked for 10 years. Or somebody saw a news clip, in the case of Mike McDuff.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything's set.


GUPTA (voice-over): Mike McDuff, the guy in the ice bucket challenge video, saw his health declining. He could barely speak. He couldn't swallow. Eating through a feeding tube. He called his adult children back home to say good-bye. He and his wife even picked out a plot at the local cemetery.

And then one of his friends mentioned a nutritional supplement called Lunasin.

MCDUFF: And she told me about it. And I had nothing else to lose. You know, and she's been a good friend, you know? And so I just -- I'll try it. It took time. I was very patient, you know. But one thing I noticed, when my wife was giving me the shakes, I noticed in the first month -- I couldn't put my finger on it -- but I felt a little better. I felt a little more energy.

GUPTA (voice-over): Mike's case is exactly the kind of rare exception to the usual rules of ALS that Dr. Bedlack is looking for. He scours the internet and connects with doctors around the world. Once he finds a so-called ALS reversal, he verifies it by pulling medical records and speaking with the patient's doctors.

If he's convinced the person has ALS and not a disease with symptoms that mimic it, he gets to work, trying to crack the case.

BEDLACK: I'm up to a total of 24 confirmed ALS reversals now. People that I really have the records, I really believe they had ALS, and I really believe they're dramatically better.

GUPTA (voice-over): Those 24 cases vary in the treatments used. Mike McDuff is one of them. Dr. Bedlack started a pilot trial based on the exact regimen Mike followed, enrolling 50 patients.

BEDLACK: Can you lift a knee at all?

MATTHEW TESDALE: I have tried that.

GUPTA (voice-over): One of them is 58-year-old Matthew Tesdale. He's been on Lunasin for six months. Halfway through the trial. It's too early to know for sure the long-term impact here, but Matt has already seen improvements.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right. Let's see your calves jump up, Matt. Can you lift your knee? OK. Wow. How about the other one?

GUPTA (voice-over): In this video, you can see Matt moving his legs, a shocking development. BEDLACK: Yes. I mean, this is -- I think it's exciting. I think it's still too early to tell what it means yet, as we've talked about before. Sometimes, people with ALS do just spontaneously get a little better for a short period of time.


BEDLACK: But hopefully, this is a start of something much bigger.

GUPTA (voice-over): For patients like Matt Tesdale and Mike McDuff, it's all about quality of life. Mike knows it isn't a cure for ALS, that Lunasin won't work for everyone, but maybe there's something we can learn from his case that could help even one more person. He's experienced the worst of ALS, so no one knows better than him just how important that could be.

MCDUFF: I know there's a cure out there, but we have to be very patient. Like, I've been very patient. I was one of the fortunate ones that -- it really helped me. And I hope I can help the other people too.

GUPTA (voice-over): Disease reversals, while rare, can occur under the right circumstances. For one family in the U.K., that meant saving their father from diabetes and an amputation.




GUPTA (voice-over): 64-year-old Geoff Whittington and his two sons, Ian and Anthony, are close. Literally. Their homes are only a few miles apart. They have lunch together. They work together. They take bike rides together.

But it wasn't always this way. It took a journey to the brink and back to get here. Ian and Anthony almost their dad, and likely would have if they hadn't stepped in to do something about it.

GEOFF WHITTINGTON: Even when I was young, I was never really fit. I never called myself fit. I wasn't great at exercise, and I wasn't great at doing anything, really. And -- well, I wasn't this weight, I wasn't that weight. I was heavier at the time. I was never really fit. I enjoyed sport of any kind.

GUPTA (voice-over): Geoff sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, drinking, and hours spent in the overnight shift left his body exhausted and out of shape. All those factors contributed to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis in 2003.

GEOFF WHITTINGTON: It didn't really hit me as anything major. They were assuring me that time, yes, we'd go out, could change it somewhat. I think I was even told it's a lifelong (INAUDIBLE) and you got -- we could look after you. We can manage it. That's the big word, we can manage it. ANTHONY WHITTINGTON: And we didn't anything. That's (INAUDIBLE) interest in time, I think, is for 10 years. We didn't see any reason to do anything, and neither did he. It was just another pill he was taking from a few pills.


GUPTA (voice-over): After managing his diabetes with medication for 10 years, but not making any other lifestyle changes, Geoff's conditions began to decline. The most noticeable change was in his feet.

GEOFF WHITTINGTON: By that time, yes, I knew. This is one of those things that isn't going to get any better. That certainly wasn't going to get better.

GUPTA (voice-over): Ian and Anthony saw their father's health declining, felt him pulling away, his weight increasing. If his feet continue to decline, he was even facing a foot amputation. His sons decided to step in.

Being film makers, they thought making a film to document their journey would help hold everyone accountable.

ANTHONY WHITTINGTON: So it was November on 2013. I still remember Ian sent me a text, saying, "Look. We've been talking about it for some time," but he suddenly said to me, "Well, why don't we put a name to it?" And we've been talking about doing something. We could spend a bit of time going around with it, but why don't we call it "Fixing Dad?"

GUPTA (voice-over): In the U.K., there are roughly three and a half million people living with diabetes, and an estimated half million or more that are undiagnosed. Ninety percent of those cases, are type 2, like Geoff. Largely influenced by lifestyle factors like diet and lack of exercise.

And like diabetes trends worldwide, it is expected to increase in the U.K., adding another one million people by the year 2025. For their dad, Ian and Anthony set three goals in nutrition, fitness, and mindset. Geoff fought them along the way, but began to see results.

GEOFF WHITTINGTON: It wasn't very long before I enjoyed it. And I think even now, even for a quick run, I think I would still prefer cycling. It is fantastic, it is.

GUPTA (voice-over): The ultimate goal was riding a 100-mile bike race through London.

IAN WHITTINGTON: Without that cycling, he never would have made it, because it gave him something to almost replace those -- you know, the jump (INAUDIBLE) result and the -- you know, the (INAUDIBLE)

It was all -- it gave him the same rush, the same feeling of, you know, excitement. (INAUDIBLE) bike ride. GUPTA (voice-over): Still, the goal of 100-mile race through London seemed out of reach to Geoff. And it was almost derailed completely when they received devastating news during an MRI scan to check the progress of his health.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How is that? Are they in the right place?



ANTHONY WHITTINGTON: When your whole world hangs on "Fixing Dad", there's one word you can't afford to hear.

IAN WHITTINGTON: The results of the pancreas and the liver were brilliant, but we did find the kidney cancer. Very small tumor. The (INAUDIBLE) in the MRI scan, that we found that out.

Which was a bit of a shock at the time because, obviously, we put so much into this project, and we were already a long way along the road with it, and it was a very personal thing for all of us. And to actually be there when they found that was suddenly like -- you know, could this be the end of it?

GEOFF WHITTINGTON: And I was thinking, you know, that's it. That's -- all this has been for nothing. We've done (INAUDIBLE) for actually nothing. They did go (INAUDIBLE) obviously, and realized that I got it, and got it, and (INAUDIBLE) and that made me realize that they were so terrified of this disease, this cancer.

And it wasn't going to be the thing that kills me. The thing that was going to kill me was this thing I've been living with all my life for the last 15 years.

GUPTA (voice-over): Geoff underwent a successful operation to remove the tumor, refocused, and then got back on his bike. Soon, it was race time. Geoff crossed the finish line like a new man.


GUPTA (voice-over): Today, he's still cycling, keeping the weight off, and is more fit than he's ever been in his life. Most of all, his blood sugar levels are normal. Circulation returned to his diabetic foot. And the ulcers have healed. It appears he and his sons are reversing the course of his type 2 diabetes. Together.

ANTHONY WHITTINGTON: Our relationship's closer. We have terrible battles still, but now, he's working with us, and we've got this project going. So, you know, it's a bit close for comfort sometimes, but we all -- we have a deeper level of relationship, definitely.

So I think we spent a lot more time together and we understand each other before (INAUDIBLE) we really got a (INAUDIBLE)

IAN WHITTINGTON: Yes. We've been through a lot in the last, you know, few years. It has made us all so much closer. And that's all because of the project, really. Otherwise, you know, who knows what he might be now. And we'll probably be seeing and regretting it.

GEOFF WHITTINGTON: You (inaudible) fixed, and I'll do anything for them now. And I think I'll probably always would have done, but what they've done for me, I could never thank them enough for. It literally has saved my life.


GUPTA: Geoff, Anthony and Ian are now sharing their experiences with other families battling diabetes. They even have a trip planned to the United States in order to talk to the American Diabetes Association to mentor other families, and also share Geoff's love of cycling.

Look, whether it's a high-tech treatment or lifestyle changes, like diet and exercise combined the support from doctors and loved ones, it does seem that there is more hope than ever after a diagnoses. For "Vital Signs," I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.