How Quebec beer and TV's Dr. House solved a medical mystery

TV show gives clue to 'cobalt intoxication'

February 07, 2014

A patient with a mysterious set of heart symptoms left doctors in Germany stumped until they noticed some striking similarities to a case on the TV medical drama House —  a mystery first solved by Canadian doctors nearly 50 years ago by looking at beer.

A 55-year-old man with severe heart failure was referred to a hospital in Marburg, Germany, to rule out coronary artery disease, a common cause of heart failure. He was almost deaf and almost blind, with fever of unknown cause, hypothyroidism, enlarged lymph nodes and several other symptoms. Both his hips had been replaced but otherwise his medical history was uneventful.


Hugh Laurie starred as Dr. House in a medical drama that gave doctors in Germany clues to a case of mysterious cobalt poisoning. (Adam Taylor/Fox/Associated Press)

"Searching for the cause combining these symptoms — and remembering an episode of the TV series House, which we used for teaching medical students  — we suspected cobalt intoxication as the most likely reason," wrote Dr. Juergen Schaefer of Marburg University Clinic Center for Undiagnosed Diseases and his co-authors in Thursday's online issue of the medical journal The Lancet.

Schaefer's team took X-rays of the hip and found high levels of two heavy metals, cobalt and chromium, in his urine. The diagnosis? Cobalt intoxication from metal hip replacements.

One of the first published reports on cobalt intoxication was in 1967. Called "Quebec beer drinkers' cardiomyopathy," doctors described 44 men in their 40s to 60s who were heavy drinkers who died unexpectedly.

"There was a suspense element to the story," recalled cardiologist Dr. Yves Morin of Quebec City. "It took a lot of time and effort to find a cause of the disease."

It turned out the men all drank beer made at the Dow brewery in Quebec City. The brewery had added cobalt to stabilize the beer's foam.

Morin said autopsies were carefully conducted but pathologists in Canada and the U.S. weren't familiar with the lesions. Investigations of similar outbreaks in other beer-brewing towns led to diagnoses of cobalt poisoning.

"At that point, the addition of cobalt was suspended throughout the world but you can't imagine the number of patients everywhere who died from that disease because it was 40 per cent mortality," Morin said.

Germany's Dr. House?

In the German case, after the man received a new left ceramic hip prosthesis, the cobalt and chromium concentrations in his blood decreased, he stabilized and recovered slightly. His cardiac function improved after a defibrillator was implanted but the vision and hearing recovered only slightly.

Schaefer, who is sometimes referred to as Germany's Dr. House, said he's grateful for the diagnostic skills of a fictional doctor, although he doesn't admire the character's appalling bedside manner.

"I guess he would have been fired a couple of times in our hospital," Schaefer said.

For David Shore, the creator and executive producer of House, it's thrilling to learn of the show's inadvertent benefit.

"I don't think Mad Men or Breaking Bad are saving any lives, but House saved lives," Shore said. "That's great."

The series ended in 2012 after an eight-year run.

With files from CBC's Pauline Dakin and Amina Zafar
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