He Should Have Won the Nobel Prize!

In 1913, a Russ­ian pathol­o­gist named Niko­lai Anitschkow fig­ured out the cause of ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis, which is the under­ly­ing cause of near­ly all heart attacks and most strokes. He even pub­lished his find­ings in the major inter­na­tion­al med­ical jour­nals of his day. He should have won the Nobel Prize. If peo­ple had rec­og­nized the impor­tance of his work, mil­lions of pre­ma­ture deaths could have been avoid­ed.

By the late 19th cen­tu­ry, pathol­o­gists knew that peo­ple who had died of heart attacks and strokes tend­ed to have a lot of softy, fat­ty mate­r­i­al stuck to the inner walls of their arter­ies. This mate­r­i­al even­tu­al­ly hard­ens with the buildup of scar tis­sue and cal­ci­um deposits. The pres­ence of this mate­r­i­al is called ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis, which means hard­en­ing of the arter­ies. The mate­r­i­al itself is called plaque.

In its ear­ly stages, ath­er­o­scle­rot­ic plaque looks and feels like cheese­cake. In 1910, a Ger­man chemist named Adolf Win­daus showed that like real cheese­cake, ath­er­o­scle­rot­ic plaque is rich in cho­les­terol. Because of his work on the chem­istry of sterols, Win­daus won the Nobel Prize in chem­istry in 1928.

As soon as Win­daus pub­lished his find­ings about the cho­les­terol in plaque, Niko­lai Anitschkow start­ed an impor­tant series of exper­i­ments at the Mil­i­tary Med­ical Acad­e­my in St. Peters­burg. Anitschkow dis­solved some puri­fied cho­les­terol in sun­flower oil and fed it to some rab­bits. Con­trol rab­bits got some sun­flower oil with­out added cho­les­terol. The rab­bits that got cho­les­terol in their sun­flower oil got ath­er­o­scle­rot­ic plaque, but the con­trol rab­bits did not. To the naked eye and under a micro­scope, the plaque from rab­bit arter­ies looked a lot like the plaque from human arter­ies.

Anitschkow and his cowork­ers dis­cov­ered a lot of impor­tant things about ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis in those ear­ly exper­i­ments. As cho­les­terol researcher Jon Gof­man argued,

If the full sig­nif­i­cance of his find­ings had been appre­ci­at­ed at the time, we might have saved more than 30 years in the long strug­gle to set­tle the ‘cho­les­terol con­tro­ver­sy’ and Anitschkow might have won a Nobel Prize. Instead, his find­ings were large­ly reject­ed or at least not fol­lowed up. Seri­ous research on the role of cho­les­terol in human ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis did not real­ly get under­way until the 1940s.

Why were Anitschkow’s find­ings ignored? Because they couldn’t be repeat­ed in dogs. As a result, many sci­en­tists assumed that the find­ings wouldn’t apply to human beings, either. That’s an idi­ot­ic assump­tion, because ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis is rare in dogs, which are nat­ur­al car­ni­vores. Anitschkow guessed cor­rect­ly that dogs and oth­er car­ni­vores are good at excret­ing excess cho­les­terol. Human beings and rab­bits are not. Trag­i­cal­ly, no one lis­tened, prob­a­bly because they’d rather eat meat than rab­bit food.

Where Do Gorillas Get Their Vitamin B12?

Termites: The Other, Other White Meat

Vit­a­min B12 is one of the two nutri­ents that are essen­tial for human beings but aren’t avail­able from a pure­ly plant-based diet. The oth­er is vit­a­min D, which isn’t tru­ly a vit­a­min but is a hor­mone that your body can make for itself if you get some bright sun­shine on your skin. Goril­las live in Africa, where there’s no short­age of sun­shine. The inter­est­ing ques­tion is where do they get their vit­a­min B12? Evi­dent­ly, they get it from the insects and oth­er creepy crawlies that they eat. Their favorites are termites—the oth­er, oth­er white meat.

As you can see, the goril­las just dis­man­tle the tree where the ter­mites are. That’s prob­a­bly why they don’t both­er using tools to fish for ter­mites, as chim­panzees do:

Except for vit­a­min D and vit­a­min B12, plants pro­vide all the essen­tial nutri­ents that peo­ple need. Plants con­tain min­er­als, such as cal­ci­um and iron, which they have absorbed from the soil. Plants con­tain all of the oth­er vit­a­mins and essen­tial amino acids, which they have made for their own pur­pos­es. Plants are also the orig­i­nal source of the essen­tial fat­ty acids. How­ev­er, plants don’t make vit­a­min B12, and nei­ther do ani­mals. All of the vit­a­min B12 in nature comes from bac­te­ria.

Some plant-eaters get their sup­ply of vit­a­min B12 from the bac­te­ria in their own diges­tive sys­tem, as long as they are eat­ing some­thing that con­tains the ele­ment cobalt. (Vit­a­min B12 con­tains cobalt). Cat­tle and sheep are par­tic­u­lar­ly good at get­ting vit­a­min B12 from their own gut bac­te­ria. They have a lot of bac­te­r­i­al fer­men­ta­tion going on in their stom­achs, so the vit­a­min B12 is made before the food pass­es through the part of the intes­tine where the vit­a­min B12 gets absorbed. Such ani­mals are called “foregut fer­menters.”

Oth­er species, includ­ing rab­bits and goril­las and human beings, are “hindgut fer­menters.” Their gut bac­te­ria make vit­a­min B12, but only after the food has passed through the part of the intes­tine where the vit­a­min B12 can get absorbed. Rab­bits solve this prob­lem by eat­ing some of their own drop­pings. Wild moun­tain goril­las some­times do the same thing, usu­al­ly dur­ing peri­ods of bad weath­er. Cap­tive goril­las do it a lot more often, pos­si­bly because they are bored.

On the oth­er hand, goril­las and human beings can eat foods that already con­tain ready-made vit­a­min B12. For goril­las, that means tasty, tasty ter­mites, which get vit­a­min B12 from their own gut bac­te­ria. Mod­ern human beings who don’t want to eat ter­mites, or any oth­er ani­mal prod­ucts, can get their vit­a­min B12 from a nice, clean, and very cheap sup­ple­ment. As long as their gas­troin­testi­nal sys­tem is healthy, peo­ple can even take their vit­a­min B12 by mouth. Vit­a­min B12 shots are use­ful for peo­ple who have trou­ble absorb­ing vit­a­min B12 from their food, because of gas­troin­testi­nal dis­ease.