Men of Science


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Once in a while I have an idea for a story that entails my doing a set of short profiles of individuals sharing some common characteristic.  In the case of this story, I profiled four senior men of science, all medical professionals and researchers of one kind or another in Omaha, Neb. I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture the essence of these men and their work in relatively few words.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons, and I suspect you will be as impressed as I was by some of their groundbreaking and lifesaving activities and findings.

Men of Science

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The Man Who Would Slow Aging
Denham Harman, professor emeritus and world-renowned researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, humbly chalks up his work uncovering the mysteries of aging to a series of chance occurrences. Born in San Francisco and raised in Berkeley, Calif., he displayed an inquisitive mind early on, developing a passion for building model airplanes and setting his sights on studying aeronautical engineering. But then one day in the 1930s his father bumped into an oil executive at a Bay area tennis club where Harman’s brothers played and landed Denham a job as a lab assistant with Shell Development Co. “This was in the midst of the Depression — there were no jobs,” Harman said from the cubbyhole office he still works in every day at age 86. This chance encounter affording an opportunity he dare not refuse set him on a new course — “I got shifted, so to speak, and I was very lucky” — that within two decades found him posing a radical theory of aging now accepted by the scientific community.

While working for Shell he earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, which, just happened to be one of the top chemistry schools in the nation. After working on lubricating oils he was transferred to the reaction kinetics department where, he said, “just by chance our primary concern was free radical reactions, which in those days was a very unusual focus. There was not that much known.” His research helped Shell gain 35 patents, including one for the Shell No-Pest strip. Then, in 1945, his wife Helen unwittingly planted the seed for Harman’s breakthrough postulation when she showed him a magazine article —Tomorrow You May Be Younger — about aging research in Russia. It got him so hooked on the idea of aging as a biochemical process he made the rash decision, at 33, to halt his career as an industrial chemist to enter medical school. When Cal-Berkeley flatly turned him down, telling him, ironically, “You’re too old,” he went to Stanford. Why change careers in mid-stream? “I just thought here’s a field that’s real interesting and which I know nothing about,” he said. Besides, the question of aging still dogged him enough he sought a broader knowledge base with which to tackle the enigma.

During a 1950s stint at Donner Laboratory in Berkeley where, he said, “I didn’t have anything to do but think, I figured it was a great time to look at this problem. So, I asked myself the question man has asked for a long, long time and still asks: What causes aging? What causes that transition? Everyone goes through it. We’re all familiar with it. We more or less accept it. There’s a lot of theories that try to account for that but no one theory is accepted. I looked at the problem from the premise there’s a single basic cause. Mother Nature uses the same things over and over again and this is what you would expect. Also, it was obvious genetics and environment were involved. So, what could cause this to take place? I thought of everything I could think of, but it just didn’t jive. I began to think maybe I had wasted my time getting on about aging — that maybe I didn’t know enough.”

Then, in one of those moments when a burst of inspiration arrives only after much deliberation, it came to him. He recalls, “I was sitting at my desk reading at the Donner Lab when all of a sudden it flashed in my mind — free radicals. I don’t know where it came from, but there it was. I looked at that problem and everything fitted — the chemistry-biology fitted.” The trouble is, initially almost no one else agreed with what he dubbed “the free-radical theory of aging.” He was all alone, out on a limb and his many detractors “were trying to chop it off,” he said. By the time he joined the UNMC staff in 1958, he was engaged in animal tests to support his theory. What kept him at it in the face of doubtful colleagues was, he said, his view the aging process is “a very important problem — it’s the thing that kills us” — and his belief that the theory is correct. That’s the reason I’m still at this problem. It works. Otherwise, as a chemist, I wouldn’t waste my time if it didn’t.”

So, what are free radicals and how do they impact aging? Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron. These lone wolf electrons create havoc in cells, setting off damaging chain reactions that account, he said, for the effects we experience as aging. Free radical production is stimulated by oxygen, which provides the energy we need to survive, and by environmental sources, but over time free radical reactions increase to a threshold the body cannot tolerate and we die. Harman contends an increase in antioxidant — vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene — consumption decreases free radical reactions, thereby slowing the aging process. “You’re putting in a preservative, in effect, that counteracts the deleterious effects.” The benefits of antioxidants — from increased life expectancy and reduced incidence of disease — have been shown in studies of rodents and birds. His efforts to promote antioxidant use — he’s long followed a daily regimen himself — has succeeded. “Americans spend around $4 or $5 billion a year on supplements, most of which are antioxidants, and even though I can’t prove it,” he said, “I’m sure a lot of those people will live longer then they would otherwise.”

Harman, whose research was long supported by a patroness, the late Mrs. Leon Millard, has in recent years seen funding dry up, a frustrating turn of events he ascribes to changing research priorities. Of more concern, he said, is the scant work being done on life prolongation and disease prevention using his theory’s tenets. “A great deal can be done, but we’re not doing it, and that’s disturbing.” As for himself, he continues writing articles, making presentations and giving interviews that lay out his ideas. Retirement doesn’t enter his mind. “I think you’re much better doing something,” he said. While he suspects his own life span may have been shortened due to recent health problems, he said time remains his main asset. “It’s what I have most of, but these are things you can’t predict.”

An Uncommon Man’s Search for Cancer’s Hereditary Links
As just one example of the uncommon life he’s led, Henry Lynch grew up a school drop-out and street fighter in a rough section of 1930s New York but persevered to become a medical doctor and noted cancer researcher. “I didn’t pick fights but, boy, the neighborhood I lived in it was a very common occurrence to meet bullies, and you had to defend yourself,” said Lynch, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and president of the Hereditary Cancer Institute at Creighton University. Even though he never attended high school — a result of his wartime service and working to support his family — he cultivated his naturally brilliant mind by reading “voraciously,” saying, “I did it on my own. I spent every free moment I had looking up things in the library. I had no doubt in my intellectual abilities.” Or in his physical prowess, which he put to use as a stevedore, farm hand and prizefighter.

Henry Lynch

Still a hulk of a man at 75, Lynch enlisted in the Navy as an under-age, but over-sized 16 year-old seaman in 1944. Serving as a gunner on freighters and transports, his tour of duty took him from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. He boxed during his two-year hitch and once back stateside he resumed fighting as an amateur before turning pro. “I loved to fight,” he said, adding he boxed under assumed names in a 20-bout pro heavyweight career in order to retain amateur status in a hoped-for bid to play college football.

At first, it was as much his desire to play football at the University of Oklahoma under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson as it was his need to feed his hungry mind that led this then street-wise New York tough to enroll in college there in the late 1940s. By the time his failed tryout with the powerhouse Sooners ended his gridiron dreams, he was “consumed with studying.” He continued his studies at the University of Colorado and at Denver University and the University of Texas in Galveston. Trained in genetics, Lynch was serving an internal medicine residency at UNMC in 1961 when the course of his professional career changed. “I was called to see a family with multiple cases of colon cancer, but with no polyps. That was something I thought was quite unique. I studied that family. I went into great detail…not just studying the immediate relatives but extending it as far as I could to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins,” he said. “And I collected pathology extensively and wrote up all the clinical histories so I could put together and really understand how this could be a syndrome, and ultimately it emerged as one.” For his pioneering work, the syndrome was named after him. That first case history led him to track more families with colorectal and other cancers and it “influenced my whole decision to become a medical oncologist,” he said. It was also the start of a massive hereditary cancer data base he manages at Creighton, whose staff he joined in 1967.

Like any new idea, Lynch’s assertion some cancers have a hereditary basis was dismissed those early years. “People thought I was crazy. They kind of laughed or said I must be dealing with a chance situation or with an environmental factor,” he recalls, adding he often paid for fact-gathering trips out of his own pocket in lieu of grant support. His faith in his findings did not waver, he said, because “with a background in genetics I saw what we call a segregated model in the way cancers were moving through families and I knew it had to be hereditary. Finally, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that people began taking me seriously.” Today, Lynch is an acknowledged leader in his field, the author of 12 books and hundreds medical journal articles and a keynote speaker at medical conferences around the world. Despite his lofty status, he still goes out in the field recording case histories. He said getting good data “is not just a matter of the history, it’s winning confidence from the family members and gaining rapport. You’ve got to really care and they can tell right away whether you care or not. And I care. I really do. I care about them not just as research subjects but as human beings and they appreciate that.”

He and his colleagues not only track but identify pathological genes that cause disease and they apply preventive methodologies, including prophylactic surgeries, that remove or reduce the risk of cancer in patients. Genetic engineering, he said, will one day allow physicians to manipulate mutant genes. “If we can figure out the chemistry we might be able to design drugs that are the antithesis to what that gene is making, so we can block it and we can cure cancer and other diseases. That’s on the horizon. No question about it.” Where does Lynch draw the line in genetic intervention? “I don’t think we can foresee specific boundaries to this at this moment,” he said. “But if used prudently with the cardinal feature being the interest of our patients and following the orthodoxy of do-no-harm, then I think it’s fair to progress and to use all the tools God gave us to help humanity.”

Still actively engaged in work at an age when most of his peers are retired, Lynch can’t imagine quitting his passion. “Well, I will never retire. I just love my work. Besides, I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t know what I would do. My whole life is in this direction and I see a whole lot of problems there and some of them we can  solve,” said Lynch, who has a wife, Jane, and three grown children. “It’s a joy knowing maybe I can help people.”

The King of Calcium
When Creighton University endocrinology expert Robert Heaney discusses the benefits of good nutrition in fighting the onset or progression of disease, he has a knack for making what could be a dry recitation of facts into an engaging discussion. For example, listen to his explanation of why our calorie-rich modern diets are actually nutritionally poor in comparison with our forbearers: Hunter-gatherers, he said, enjoyed an amazingly varied diet by foraging off the land and its bounty of nutritionally-rich nuts, roots, leaves and berries, whereas since the agricultural revolution our diets have been dominated by cultivated seed plant-derived foods — cereals, breads, legumes, wheat, rice, corn, millet — that provide high energy but low nutrition. “One of the issues modern nutrition is confronting,” he said, “is the role it may play in the chronic diseases that affect human kind today — cancer, degenerative cardiovascular disease and dementia. Does nutrition play a role there? Nobody knows. But there’s some evidence it does.”

Muddying the works, said Heaney, an Omaha native and Creighton grad who, with wife Barbara, has seven grown children, is the often spurious nutrition claims promoted by quacks and charlatans. “A lot of this stuff is just made up by people who don’t know anything about what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here like a crank and say, It’s all nutrition — if you just ate right you wouldn’t have any problems. That’s not true. But I am convinced there is a role nutrition does play. The field I’ve worked in, osteoporosis, is an example.”  He said the high incidence of osteoporosis today is likely due to diets low in calcium and vitamin D, two essentials for keeping bones healthy and strong into old age. “If your calcium intake is low,” said Heaney, the author of the book Calcium and Common Sense, “you are constantly withdrawing calcium from your bone bank in order to meet the needs your body has today. The problem is that as that goes on day-after-day, year-after-year, 24-7, that revs up bone remodeling and leads to structural weaknesses. So…much of the damage associated with osteoporosis is due to this high level of remodeling, which makes the bone more fragile.” While some progress is being made in assessing who is at risk for osteoporosis, he said identification is complicated by the fact “we’re immersed in a society in which everybody has low calcium intake but not everybody gets osteoporosis because some are more sensitive to low calcium and others are more resistant.” He said factors that impact the equation are starting to be “worked out. For example, African-Americans have a bony apparatus that tends to protect them against low calcium intake whereas whites will tear down their skeleton much more readily.”

Robert Heaney

Research by Heaney and others clearly makes the case for calcium and vitamin D in reducing bone fracture rates in older patients. He said where he used to be asked by science writers if calcium is vital or not, “I don’t get those questions anymore. There’s a high awareness of the importance of calcium and I suspect that’s due to the media. What the general public doesn’t know is how much calcium they need and what amounts are contained in the foods they eat.”

According to Heaney, calcium is also a marker for a nutrition-poor diet. “We did a study at Creighton of 300 or 400 volunteers that found those who had low calcium intakes — meaning less than 70 percent of the recommended daily intake — tended to get less than 70 percent of the recommended intake of four other key nutrients. So, a low calcium intake tends to translate to having a poor overall diet low in lots of other nutrients.” He said the preferred way to get patients to increase calcium is through diet. “The best way to get the nutrients we need is from eating other organisms. We don’t know enough to put it all into pills. So, we stress food. If I can get you to eat calcium-rich foods then I know I’ll have a much better chance of your getting all the nutrients you need because dairy foods are such good sources of so many of these nutrients. We recommend fortified foods as a second or third line of defense and only recommend supplements as a last resort.” He is quick to note calcium is not the only nutrient crucial in osteoporosis and nutrition is not the only factor impacting the disease.

Even at 75 Heaney is still at the top of his game, evidence of which came with his being honored as the 2003 recipient of the E.V. McCollum Award from the American Society for Clinical Nutrition for his creative work as a clinical investigator in generating and testing new concepts in nutrition. For him, research is a never-ending exploration, journey and challenge. “It’s all those things. It’s always a question of why and how. Those are the interesting questions,” he said, adding he’s had a curiosity for how things work since he was a kid taking clocks apart. He said he “doesn’t waste a lot of time pondering” retirement, adding he’s too busy anyway between his research, writing and speaking commitments. Besides, the grant funds he secures for CU’s osteoporosis research center are what keep it open. “The day I stop, the work stops. That’s why I’m happy to keep doing it.”

High Flying, Straight Shooting Doc
University of Nebraska Medical Center otolaryngology physician-professor and  retired Air Force veteran Anthony Yonkers has applied his healing arts in a wide variety of settings. He’s served as flight surgeon aboard jets, provided medical advice to Stratcom leaders running nuclear scenarios in its underground command post, taught medical students and resident physicians in training, conducted research into new head-neck procedures and performed countless operations that improved patients’ lives. The Muskegon, Mich. native and University of Michigan grad came to Omaha in 1968 as an active duty Air Force major assigned to Erhling Bergquist Hospital at Offutt Air Force Base. As an ex-serviceman, Yonkers is widely respected in his role as an attending clinician at Omaha’s V.A. Medical Center.

While never an Air Force pilot, he learned to fly in the Offutt AeroClub and even got to take the stick of T-38 trainers on flights he accompanied. These days, he pilots his own single-engine Mooney to medical conferences, family get-togethers and relief efforts undertaken by the Order of St. Lazarus, a humanitarian organization he is active in that provides medical care to leper colonies around the world. He and his wife Mary have four grown children.

When Yonkers neared the end of his Air Force active duty in the late ‘60s, he was set to go back to Michigan when a position opened in the new Department of Otolaryngology at UNMC, where he’d volunteered. “I was only going to stay a year or two to see how this brand new department worked out…and lo and behold I’m still here 35 years later,” said Yonkers, who continued as a reservist, rising to the rank of brigadier general, until 1998. “It’s been kind of exciting to see the department develop as we’ve added more staff and areas of concentration,” including a center treating patients with head and neck cancers, a prosthetic division building radiation shielding devices to help save tissue and molding false ears and noses and a sleep institute addressing patients’ chronic sleep disorders.

Yonkers and his UNMC colleagues participate in studies looking at everything from sinus infections to breathing disturbances to cleft lip and palette repairs to the treatment of papillomas of the voice box. He said new insights into treating medical conditions often arise from clinical experiences that prompt questions that in turn spur quests for answers through “studies of what best proven methods or accepted techniques work best in a given set of circumstances.”

For Yonkers, one of the most pleasing aspects of his work comes in his role as a teacher. “It’s fun in that you’re seeing young people develop. You’re taking a medical student with maybe one year of general surgery training and in four years you’re turning him or her into a specialist that can go anywhere in the country and hold their own. That makes you feel good.” He said practicing medicine gives him great satisfaction. “It’s a fascinating area. It’s an opportunity to work with people and to do something to alleviate their discomfort and to make their lives better. It’s very satisfying.” At 65, his passion for his work remains undiminished. “That’s the reason I’m still here and not retired,” he said. While he knows there may come a time when it’s prudent to lay down his scalpel, he believes older docs like himself offer what cannot be taught or replaced. “Through the years you build a feel or sixth sense for things and it takes awhile to accumulate those assets and nuances. That kind of knowledge is hard to measure and is lost in a forced retirement.”

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