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A miracle cure was about the last thing Dr. Robert Mayer expected to find when the U.S. Army stationed him on Ellis Island in 1942. Fresh from setting up a new medical practice in Miami Beach, the young pediatrician had volunteered to treat ill Coast Guardsmen. But one day Mayer struck up a conversation with a German prisoner of war. The patient, a chemist, told Mayer about the wondrous results of treating tuberculosis with ozone gas.
After the war, Mayer returned to Miami and began research into the subject, and he was stunned to find tomes of anecdotal research compiled by European doctors. By 1948 he had his own ozone generator and was using the virus-killing gas to treat everything from encephalitis to diarrhea. Mayer claims he's even rid a few patients of cancer by injecting them with controlled doses of ozone. To a growing network of believers, he is considered the nation's dean of ozone practitioners.
As ozone's underground popularity swells, however, medical opinion remains sharply divided over whether the bluish gas - a highly reactive binding of three oxygen molecules - offers more potential as a clinical treatment or a convenient placebo to dreamers and con men.
Discovered in 1840 by German chemist Christian Schonbein, ozone was being used in European water purification plants by the end of century because of its striking ability to kill bacteria. Europeans today regard the gas as a kind of high-tech folk remedy and, in Germany, more than 5000 doctors and homeopaths regularly use it.
But doubts run high within the American medical establishment, where the currency of hard science outweighs heartfelt testimonials. "There's no doubt that ozone has the ability to render disease cells inactive, so theoretically it could be effective," says Dr. Gordon Dickinson, an associate professor of infectious disease at the University of Miami. "But to extrapolate from that to it cures this or that inside the body is a real leap. The mechanics of how ozone works within the body have never been established, and that's probably because they can't be. Certainly these guys in Europe have had long enough. Where are the clinically proven cases?"
Recent academic research, most prominently a study published in the respected medical journal Blood, has stoked hopes that ozone can kill AIDS and other retroviruses in blood. But AIDS experts say this advance means little in the search for a cure to the pandemic. "The biochemistry of it is completely faulty," notes Dr. Margaret Fischl, head of UM's Comprehensive AIDS Program. "Ozone may kill the virus in blood, but the amount of virus in the blood is very small compared to organs and tissue. We've seen patients who have had ozone treatments and one who claimed to be cured. He wasn't. His immune system was severely repressed and he died."
Ozone's reputation has been further tarnished by a recent association with get-rich scammers who hail the gas as a panacea and administer treatment without due regard to its known toxicity. In high-enough concentrations, the volatile gas destroys lung cells and can even explode.
Dr. Michael Carpendale agrees that ozone should be researched more thoroughly, but he stresses that the U.S. government's reluctance to approve studies and its refusal to fund research makes that nearly impossible. Head of rehabilitative medicine at San Francisco's VA Medical Center, Carpendale says he spent three years securing clearance to conduct one study of five AIDS patients. He was able to eliminate diarrhea in four, suggesting, he says, that ozone hindered the virus. Carpendale nows believes influential pharmaceutical companies may be covertly blocking ozone research. "If you approached a company and told them, `This one drug is so good it can outperform the ten antibiotics you now have on the market,' what do you suppose their reaction would be?" he asks, echoing the more paranoid sentiments of holistic boosters.
Dickinson's take on the notion that the medical establishment is conspiring to suppress research on ozone? "Horseshit."
Food and Drug Administration officials, who have final say on ozone's commercial fate, consider the gas to be a drug, one that "has no known medical application." Until they are swayed by hard evidence, medical use of ozone outside sanctioned experiments remains illegal.
Undaunted, Miami pediatrician Mayer says he has struck a deal with local FDA officials, who have agreed to let him make ozone provided he limits its use to his office. That's news to the FDA's Ken Hester. "I know of no agreement that would allow anyone to use ozone to treat anything," says the Orlando-based compliance officer, adding that such approval would have to come from the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters. Mayer is currently working full-time, testing the efficacy of ozone on AIDS patients.
As for those cured cancer patients, Mayer says he plans to publish a study - once he's collected a few more cases.