Your timing for asking about chelation therapy is perfect. This month (March 2003) researchers at 100 research sites around the country are supposed to start recruiting participants in a $30 million, five-year trial to assess the safety and efficacy of EDTA chelation therapy in men and women with heart disease. The study, sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), both arms of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will involve more than 2,300 patients.
Chelation therapy involves use of EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid), a synthetic amino acid administered intravenously. EDTA grades (chelates) heavy metals and minerals such as lead, iron, copper and calcium in the blood, allowing them to be excreted in the urine. Chelation therapy is FDA approved for one purpose: treatment of lead poisoning and toxicity from other heavy metals.
However, some alternative medicine practitioners recommend chelation for treatment of heart disease. While it is unclear exactly how chelation works, one theory is that EDTA latches on to the calcium in artery-clogging plaque, destabilizes it and allows it to be eliminated from the body.
I've always been skeptical of the claim that chelation is an effective treatment for cardiovascular problems, but there is an enormous market for it: according to NCCAM more than 800,000 patient visits were made for chelation therapy in the United States in 1997. Clearly, if you wanted to try the treatment, you would be able to find a practitioner who offers it in New Jersey. The best way to find an experienced practitioner in your area is to contact the American Board of Chelation Therapy in Chicago. Chelation usually is not covered by insurance and can be very costly.
The NIH study, called TACT (Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy), compares chelation therapy to a placebo. Participants received 30 weekly infusions of EDTA followed by 10 bimonthly infusions and were randomized to receive high-dose vs. low-dose vitamin/mineral supplements.
The few earlier scientific studies on the use of chelation as a treatment for heart disease were much smaller and failed to demonstrate its effectiveness. I have heard many testimonials from people who say they were helped by chelation, but just as many from those who say it did them no good at all. The NIH study should give us definitive answers. But until proved otherwise, my feeling is that the treatment is safe but ineffective (and expensive).
Andrew Weil, M.D.