Midweek Cuckoo: Olga Visser
Michelle Olga Visser has had an interesting journey into the fringes of medicine. She began her career as a perfusionist, the technician who controls the heart-lung machine during open heart surgery. She is not a medical doctor, or a medical researcher. So it was with some skepticism that crionics researchers treated the announcement that Olga, her husband Siegfried, and a handful of Pretoria academics had discovered a cryoprotectant substance that would allow organs to be thawed from liquid nitrogen without any damage. Indeed, she claimed that in tests, rat hearts had successfully begun beating after being thawed, and that there was reason to believe this would successfully be applied to humans. Were it true, it would mean great things for human cryonics, a big industry in the United States where many people are willing to pay a high price for a chance at cheating death.
Naturally eyebrows were raised, especially considering there had as yet been no papers published in any of the reputable scientific, medical or cryobiology journals. Olga defended her discovery, vigorously flaming posters on sci.cryonics who dared to question her evidence, claiming there was a conspiracy to suppress her work, and threatening to exclude the unbelievers from future lucrative licencing deals. Through all this, she insisted on keeping the cryopreservant formula a secret. When asked for more detail such as toxicity or side effects, Olga stated mysteriously that "Toxicity clinical trials with humans for use of the compound as a drug are almost completed here in SA, and results will be made available before the end of this year." Remember that... we'll come back to it later. For now, note that she was conducting human clinical trials using a substance for which she had not published a single journal article, and the composition of which she still would not even disclose.
Despite all this, Olga succeeding in attracting interest from The Cryonics Institute and Alcor Foundation, who offered to bring her over to the states to demonstrate her technique. She accepted the offer, and by all accounts the demonstration was a complete failure. This was of course after Alcor had already reportedly paid her $25,000 for the rights to the technology.
Finally, it seemed that the composition of Olga's cryoprotectant had slipped out. On Usenet, a message from three respected names in cryonics (Mike Darwin, Steve Harris and Brian Wowk) noted "Even the Visser agent (dimethyl formamide) and other peralkyl-amides, while more penetrating than glycerol, were found to be intensely hemolytic (membrane toxic) at vitrifiable concentrations. (Peralkylamides were also found to be poor cryoprotectants at lower concentrations, including 25%, in a variety of relevant systems.)"
Olga did not respond to this, which was unusual considering her vitriolic flaming of anyone who had previously sought to discredit her. It seemed that the agent had been discovered, and not only was it not remarkable or even novel, it has also been shown not to work. Many people thought this was the last they'd hear from Olga Visser.
Not so. Two weeks later, Olga was back on Usenet, this time announcing the discovery of a Miracle AIDS drug, code named Virodene. She had presented it directly to members of the South African cabinet, including Nelson Mandela and then-Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma (ex-wife of Jacob Zuma) and was looking for $800,000 from the government to continue research. Oddly enough, Olga would once again not disclose the formula, and had not published anything in any journals. Olga and her coworkers claimed: "Virodene kills the Human Immunodeficiency Virus in the body and allows people infected with HIV to live a long and normal life. One of the most dramatic trial results was that Virodene could apparently even pull full-blown Aids sufferers back from the brink of death, reverting their condition to that of HIV-positive, in terms of which they are no longer so susceptible to opportunist diseases."
Olga was apparently so convinced of the viability of this drug that she began tests on human patients before the SA Medicines Control Council (MCC) had given her the green light. That made her tests illegal in SA, but that certainly wasn't going to stop Olga.
When asked how she had stumbled across this incredible discovery, Olga claimed that she had discovered the anti-viral properties of Virodene while conducting cryopreservation experiments. Sound familiar? In fact, it wasn't long before the truth came out: Virodene was dimethyl formamide, the same supposed miracle cryopreservant, which is in fact an industrial solvent. Short term side effects included abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting, jaundice and rashes. Long term side effects included liver damage, cancer, and death. The MCC banned Virodene immediately. This was in 1997.
Fast forward to now: Virodene is still being advertised online, and Visser is claiming that not only is it non-toxic and efficacious, she is also claiming it has been cleared for use by the MCC. As I reported yesterday, they will be investigating. It seems that Visser is so determined to make money off a well-known toxic substance by passing it off as a miracle anything, she is willing to tell just about any lie.
I'll quote Dr. Steve Harris in closing:
"Do you suppose, then, that when Visser went to all those people with AIDS asking to use DMF on them (those that she did ask), she told them ALSO all about her interest in "Virodene P058" as a *cryoprotectant* for hearts -- one which she needed to be test in humans for reasons other than AIDS? Remember Helsinki and informed consent. Had these patients known of this other interest of Visser's, do you suppose some of them might have started to wonder if just perhaps they were being used as guinea pigs for some other purpose which had nothing to DO with AIDS? That perhaps they were in the grip of a madwoman?
What do YOU think?"
The MCC bans Virodene
Hearts, Brains and Minds, an article on Visser by cryologist Charles Platt
Mail & Guardian profile on Visser