DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Sepsis, or blood poisoning, is the nation's third-leading cause of death. Researchers now say they've developed a treatment that has been remarkably effective. Here's NPR's Richard Harris.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: One January day two years ago, Dr. Paul Marik was running the emergency room at a hospital in Norfolk, Va., when a desperately ill woman came in.
PAUL MARIK: We had this 48-year-old woman who previously had been reasonably healthy but came in with rapid, overwhelming sepsis.
HARRIS: Sepsis is a severe form of inflammation often triggered by an infection and frequently deadly.
MARIK: Her kidneys weren't working. Her lungs weren't working. And it was absolutely clear to me that she was going to die. In a situation like this, you start kind of thinking out of the box.
HARRIS: Marik had recently read a research report from scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University which found that intravenous vitamin C helped their patients with sepsis. He figured, what the heck? And he threw in some steroids and another vitamin for good measure.
MARIK: I was expecting that the next morning when I came to work, she would be dead. And really, when I walked in the next morning, I got the shock of my life.
HARRIS: The woman quickly recovered. Marik, at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, tried it in two more patients - same happy result. And 47 more - four of those patients died, he reports in the journal Chest. But they died from diseases that sent them to the hospital in the first place.
MARIK: The remarkable thing is not a single patient died from sepsis.
HARRIS: Especially remarkable considering that sepsis usually kills about a third of all patients who develop it. The study lacked the typical checks. There was no control group. Doctors and nurses knew who was getting the treatment. But the results were enough to change the way Marik treats sepsis.
MARIK: Now every single patient who is admitted, you know, without exception, gets it.
HARRIS: And by his informal tally, of 150 patients to date, only one has died from sepsis. I asked Dr. Craig Coopersmith at Emory University how big a deal this is.
CRAIG COOPERSMITH: If it turns out, on further studies, that this is true and we can validate it, then this will be an unbelievably huge deal. But right now, it should be viewed as a preliminary deal that needs to be validated.
HARRIS: There have been hundreds of studies of sepsis, many of them which seemed promising at first. But no drug has survived the more carefully controlled follow-up studies. Billions of dollars have been spent looking for a solution that might in fact end up being a mix of inexpensive ingredients.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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