Microbiologist Frank Plummer has been on the frontlines of the battle against of a number of the world’s most alarming epidemics, from HIV to Ebola – but his illustrious career masked a growing reliance on alcohol. Now, the researcher has become the guinea pig during a clinical test investigating whether brain implants can help treat alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol was always an enormous a part of Frank Plummer’s life.
At the start of his research career, within the early 1980s in Nairobi, he began to rest on scotch to relax, and to the handle stress, disappointment and grief associated with his work.
He and his colleagues were feeling the visceral urgency of their work as they watched the African HIV crisis unfold.”I felt a bit like a fireplace fighter or something but the hearth didn’t leave ,” Mr Plummer, 67, told the BBC.
“It just kept going and going and going. There was this sense that you simply needed to try to to something which the planet needed to try to to something. and that i was trying to draw attention thereto and obtain money to continue our work. So it had been a time of intense pressure.”
Mr Plummer’s research subjects were Kenyan women, sex workers, some who were found to possess a innate immunity to the virus.
It was pioneering research, and over the 17 years Mr Plummer spent in Kenya, he and his colleagues made groundbreaking discoveries made about how HIV spreads – breakthroughs that have helped inform how we reduce transmission risk which raised the likelihood a vaccine against the virus might be developed at some point .
In those stressful times, five or six glasses of scotch an evening were giving him room to exhale after hectic days and weeks.
When he returned to Canada, he took a leadership position at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory, one among a couple of laboratories within the world with the capacity to figure with highly pathogenic viruses like Ebola.
At the lab they addressed the outbreaks of Sars in 2003 and therefore the H1N1 influenza in 2009. it had been there Mr Plummer contributed to the event of Canada’s Ebola vaccine.
It was vital, exciting, and stressful work, with 12-hour days that began with coffee and would end with several glasses of scotch. His drinking escalated to about 20 ounces of the booze an evening .
It didn’t seem to affect his work – until 2012, when it trapped with him.”My liver packed it in,” he says. “Before that I knew I drank tons but I didn’t think I had a drag .”
The diagnosis of chronic liver failure was followed by a liver transplant. He had to observe his alcohol intake to preserve his new liver – but he found his alcohol had become a strong thirst.
Mr Plummer tried treatment – rehab programmes, support groups, counselling, medications – but any relief was temporary. He would inevitably slip back to drinking.
“It was pretty hopeless cycle and it had been very tough on my family and my wife, Jo, and on my children and my stepchildren,” he says. “I was within the hospital tons , I almost died several times.”
He went trying to find help – “a more robust clinical solution, perhaps one not yet discovered” – and was mentioned two neurosurgeons at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital.
They were recruiting patients for an procedure being conducted in North America for the primary time, using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to assist patients with treatment-resistant alcohol use disorder. The surgical trial is testing how safe and effective DBS is for alcoholism .
DBS has been used for over 25 years to assist treat movement disorders like paralysis agitans . Roughly 200,000 DBS surgeries are performed round the world, many for the systema nervosum disorder.
In recent years, it has been explored as a treatment for a variety of other diseases. At Sunnybrook, clinical trials are underway exploring DBS to be used in disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, major clinical depression , and alcohol use disorder.
What changes is that the a part of the brain being targeted, says Dr Nir Lipsman, the trial lead investigator and therefore the neurosurgeon who performed Mr Plummer’s surgery.
“[For] things like paralysis agitans we target motor circuits within the brain, in addiction, alcohol use disorder, we’re targeting reward, pleasure circuits of the brain,” he says.
DBS treatment involves implanting an device directly into a patient’s brain to stimulate circuits where there’s abnormal activity , or dysfunctional “wiring”, and help reset them. DBS is usually described as a kind of “pacemaker” for the brain.
Electrodes are inserted into a targeted region of the brain to recalibrate activity therein area using electrical impulses – controlled by a pacemaker-like device placed under the skin of the patient’s chest – and ease cravings.