Scientific experiments – when successful – are usually incremental steps leading to a Eureka moment somewhere down the line. But sometimes the answers that a researcher seeks yield results so life-changing – and surprising – that they are implemented right away. No waiting required.
That was the case with the landmark Dallas Bed Rest and Training study. Dr. Jere Mitchell, an internationally recognized expert in exercise medicine and professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern, said he and his colleagues in the late 1950s were simply conducting “basic research.” The investigators, who included Doctors Carleton Chapman, Bengt Saltin, Gunnar Blomquist and Kern Wildenthal, in addition to Dr. Mitchell, were looking for the facts on how bed rest and intense exercise affected function of the heart, blood vessels and lungs.
Their discovery, however – and its impact – would exceed their loftiest expectations.
Their finding – that prolonged bed rest dramatically reduced the ability of the heart to pump blood effectively – quickly changed the way in which doctors treated heart attack patients worldwide. At the time of the study, heart attack patients were put on three to five weeks of strict bed rest and then told to limit physical activity for many weeks thereafter – even to the point of retraining themselves for less strenuous jobs.
Largely as a result of the “basic research” in the Dallas Bed Rest and Training study, doctors everywhere stopped prescribing bed rest after a heart attack. Today, instead of going to bed to let hearts “heal,” patients are instructed to get active as soon as possible. The 48-year-old study is still cited often in scientific papers.
In another example of finding the unexpected, a study of fainting and dizziness in astronauts and some elite athletes led Dr. Ben Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine – a collaboration between Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas and UT Southwestern – and his team of researchers to ponder whether a prescription for exercise would help women suffering from an ailment called postural orthostatic tachycardia.
“What we did was put them on a rowing machine, because rowers have the biggest hearts of any athletes,” he said. “And we have been able to cure a substantial number of them.”
Former UT Southwestern president Dr. Wildenthal, as a young faculty member, also experienced this phenomenon of researching one thing and finding another. He studied the “diving reflex,” which slows the hearts of diving animals such as ducks – who can submerge their heads for up to 15 minutes to seek food – and whales – who can stay underwater for up to an hour. Dr. Wildenthal and his colleagues found that slowing of the heart occurs in humans when they held their breath and dunked their faces in ice water, even during heavy exercise when heart rates are normally rapid. They then discovered that many cardiac patients who suffer from abnormally rapid heartbeat associated with paroxysmal atrial tachycardia can be treated effectively by having them hold their breath and submerge their faces in cold water.
“It’s one small example of where basic science had a rapid payoff for clinical medicine,” said Dr. Wildenthal, who retired as president of UT Southwestern in 2008.
Dr. Peter Snell, now a UT Southwestern adjunct associate professor of internal medicine, has worked on a number of exercise intervention studies that have altered the paradigm of treatment. One study of Vietnam War amputees showed that exercising on a bicycle helped them walk better by increasing muscle development. Another showed that intense swimming could improve a swimmer’s cardiovascular system and fitness. A third showed survivors of childhood leukemia could lower their cardiovascular risk factors with exercise and a proper diet.
Dr. Snell said UT Southwestern researchers also have found that runners who allow themselves to become dehydrated while exercising were more likely to develop kidney stones if they also had certain substances in their urine. More fluids could lessen the problem, he determined.
Often the scientific answers that researchers seek confirm their hypotheses. Occasionally, however, what they learn is serendipitous and surprising and presents an opportunity to change the course of treatment for millions. For some – both scientists and patients – it can be the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.