Live Cell Analysis: High-Tech Hokum (1986)

James A. Lowell, Ph.D.

Live cell analysis is the latest in a seemingly endless succession of questionable tests used as the basis for prescribing food supplements. This procedure is carried out by placing a drop of blood from the patient’s fingertip on a microscope slide under a glass coverslip to keep it from drying out. The slide is then viewed with a dark-field microscope to which a television monitor has been attached. Both practitioner and patient can then see the blood cells, which appear as dark bodies outlined in white. The practitioner may also take polaroid photographs of the television picture for himself and the patient. According to a flyer from a Los Angeles chiropractor:

NutriScreen Live Blood Analysis is a simple procedure for obtaining a quick and accurate assessment of your blood. With only a sample, taken virtually without pain from your finger, NutriScreen is able to provide a composite of over 25 aspects from your live blood. Darkfield microscropy now allows us to observe multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies, toxicity, tendencies toward allergic reaction, excess fat circulation, liver weakness and arteriosclerosis. Through new, improved technology in video, patients are able to view their own drop of blood on television while they simultaneously receive their analysis.

Dark-field microscopy is a valid scientific tool in which special lighting is used to examine specimens of cells and tissues. The objects being viewed stand out against a dark background—the opposite of what occurs during regular microscopy. This allows the observer to see things which might not be visible with standard lighting. Connecting a television monitor to a microscope for diagnostic purposes is also a legitimate practice. Called telepathology, the technique was little used until recently because it was assumed that the quality of video transmission could not provide adequate detail for accurate pathologic diagnoses. Improved technology has resulted in the development of practical applications, but live cell analysis of the type described in this article is not one of them.

Three companies are selling equipment and protocols for live cell analysis: Livcell Analysis, Inc., of Laguna Hills, California; NutriScreen Live Blood Analysis, of Covina, California; and Physicians Cyto Laboratories, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. These companies claim that live cell analysis can be used to identify a wide variety of health problems by examining characteristics of blood cells and other matter visible on the screen.

This chart lists some of the "blood indicators" that live cell proponents claim are useful in diagnosing health problems. It was prepared with the help of Ronald Spark, M.D., a pathologist at Tucson Medical Center who uses dark-field microscopy on a regular basis for legitimate medical purposes:

"Blood Indicator" and Proponents Interpretation

Scientific Facts

Separation of red blood cells: "Too little separation means oxygen delivery and carbon dioxide removal are reduced, typically caused by too much dietary fat."

Oxygen and carbon dioxide have nothing to do with the amount of separation. It is actually determined by the method of preparing the slide. Although extremely high blood levels of fat can cause red cell aggregation, dietary fat does not produce this condition in normal individuals.

Shape of red blood cells: "Non-round red cells, caused by toxins entering the body, do not perform or survive well."

Unusual shapes can occur with long-term alcohol abuse and a few relatively uncommon hereditary diseases such as sickle cell anemia. Live-cell analysts don't specify what "toxins" they are talking about.

Size of red blood cells: "They may be too small due to iron deficiency anemia or too big due to B-12 deficiency or rarer conditions."

Although this interpretation is correct, most people performing live cell analysis have insufficient training to actually identify or treat any conditions they discover.

Rouleaux (red cells that appear stacked like coins): "Caused by "acute phase protein" in the blood. If the condition doesn't respond to nutritional therapy in seven days, additional testing should be performed to rule out arthritis, diabetes. gallbladder disease, rheumatic heart, hepatitis and many other serious conditions."
Red cell clumping:
"Indicates about the same problems as rouleaux, but may be more serious."

Rouleaux (shown here) and clumping occur when blood is placed under a microscope without first being suspended in proper solutions to control acidity and agglutination. Rouleaux occurring in other tests can be related to the diseases mentioned, but their occurrence during live cell analysis is not.

White blood cell count: "If too high or low, it tells about bacteria, viruses and use of medication."

The white cell count can be affected by infections and a few medications, but live cell analysis is unlikely to produce accurate counts. Automated equipment used in standard laboratory practice is far more accurate than manual counting methods.

Hypersegmentation of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell whose nucleus has several lobes): "Extra lobes mean that the person is deficient in iron. folic acid, or vitamin B-12."

Iron deficiency does not affect the appearance of neutrophils. B-12 status can be related to the number of lobes in their nuclei, but only highly skilled technicians using special stains and techniques (not dark-field microscopy) can determine the average number of lobes accurately.

Vitality of white blood cells: "Lack of movement or round shape of neutrophils indicates decreased immunity."

Neutrophils don't propel themselves but simply float in the fluid in which they are suspended. So the amount of "movement" depends upon the viscosity of the blood on the slide. The shape of neutrophils has no relationship to immunity.

Allergy cell count: "High eosinophil count indicates possible allergy, food sensitivity or presence of parasites."

So many different conditions can increase the number of eosinophils that it is not valuable as a primary diagnostic tool. Even if it were, the live cell procedure is not suitable for counting eosinophils accurately.

Waste (non-blood material) in the blood stream: "Immune system or organs of elimination are ineffective."

Although the levels of waste products in the blood can be related to the functioning of various organs (such as the kidneys), these chemicals cannot be seen but require chemical tests to measure them.

Spicules (small, slender sharp-pointed pieces): "May signify liver or bowel toxicity."

Spicules are artifacts, the most common causes of which are contamination and drying of the blood sample.

Fat (chylous material) in blood: "Results from a diet high in fats or simple sugars."

The amount of chylous material (fat coated with protein to make it soluble enough to travel in the blood) in the blood increases after eating. But it is not readily visible under dark-field illumination unless special techniques are used.

Platelet clumping: "Can lead to cardiovascular consequences but can be corrected by dietary adjustments, nutritional supplements and smoking cessation. May also indicate marijuana or cocaine use."

Platelets are difficult to judge under dark-field procedures. even for experts.

Parasitized red blood cell: "Bacteria and viruses are present because the body's immunity is low."

The organisms live cell promoters claim to be able to find are extremely rare.

Protoplasts: "Large germs whose presence may indicate weakness of the body's immune system."

Bacterial protoplasts have poorly developed cell walls and are not visible under dark-field illumination.

The Livcell system, which costs practitioners $10,300, includes a dark-field microscope, television camera and monitor, patient education packets and brochures, wall charts, a “technical manual,” a “nutrition manual,” and a four-day training seminar. The equipment can also be leased for $5,000 a year. Those who pass a test are “certified” by the company. Once a year, meetings are held to keep owners apprised of new developments. Prospective customers for the system are given a sales packet which includes a description of the equipment, testimonial letters and a profitability projection.

Most of the testimonials in the promotion packet are from chiropractors, but one is from Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., who speaks frequently at health food industry meetings about how to promote supplements [1]. Bland’s letter, dated February 7, 1986, states:

It is clear that the dark-field microscope examination of whole blood is a useful tool in visualizing aspects of the end products of metabolism . . . It appears as if this tool could be extremely useful in promoting better acceptance and personal commitment to nutrition and lifestyle modification.

Livcell’s profitability projection is based on using the test to modify the behavior of one new patient per day, five days per week, 50 weeks per year. Committed patients would pay $50 for their initial test and $30 each for two retests. Each initial test, the projection states, will generate sales of about $60 worth of food supplements on which the practitioner makes 50% profit. With all tests, retests, and supplement sales, a practitioner who owns the equipment would net $61,000 per year. NutriScreen also includes a profitability projection in its packet for prospective customers. With five new patients a day (22 days a month) paying $30 for the test and $50 for supplements, practitioners would gross over $100,000 per year just on initial visits.

Livcell’s Technical Manual describes the appearance of normal blood and 24 “blood indicators” which supposedly signify specific diseases or deficiencies. The book is referenced, although few of the references have anything to do with observation or analysis of blood under a dark-field microscope. Once identified, the indicators can be looked up in the Nutrition Manual which recommends supplements and additional tests.

A practitioner using these manuals might, for example, determine that a patient has an excess of eosinophils, a type of white cell which normally makes up 1-3% of the white blood cells. According to the Technical Manual, counts over 4% may be related to about 50 diseases, including Addison’s disease, scarlet fever, cancers of the lung, ovary and stomach, allergic rhinitis, impetigo, Hodgkin’s disease and scabies. The Nutrition Manual says that too many eosinophils are a reason to take supplements of pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, adrenal tissue concentrate, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), vitamin B2, and “mycellized” vitamin A. The manual also recommends a special diet, hair analysis to check selenium and zinc levels, and another live cell test in 30 days.

Physicians Cyto Laboratories is a clinic specializing in allergy and immunology testing. Founded in 1978, it began marketing its "Darkfield Video Analysis” in 1985. Marketing director Stephen Thompson says that the test is used “as a general health screening tool on all of our patients” and that “the blood is a window to an individual’s health and can reflect various problems.” According to Thompson, the screening reveals nutritional, allergy, or other problems in about 90% of its patients, most of whom sign up for additional testing and “recovery” programs. (Conventional allergists believe that less than 15% of the general population suffers from food allergies.)

I first saw live cell analysis performed at a health food convention in Phoenix in the Fall of 1984. A few months later, to sample the test’s efficacy, I attended a convention in California accompanied by a 27-year-old woman who was recovering from a serious motorcycle accident. Following the accident, she had been in a coma and required close monitoring of her nutrition status during a hospital stay in which she received artificial feedings. She still had slurred speech, a tremor of her hands and head, and a limp that necessitated use of a cane. While I watched, she underwent NutriScreen Live Blood Analysis for the special convention price of only $15.

The woman performing the test billed herself as a nutrition counselor and “metabolic technician” certified by the International Health Institute (IHI) in Dallas, Texas. (IHI was founded by William Donald Kelly, a dentist who claims to be able to cure a wide variety of ills, including cancer, by adjusting nutrient intake according to a person’s supposed metabolic type.) The “technician” paid no attention to our patient’s medical history or obvious physical problems but merely asked whether she had eaten or ingested alcohol within the past 24 hours. Then she obtained a blood sample by having the patient press a lever attached to a mouse-trap-like device into which she placed her finger. (I assume this device was used because the practitioner, being unlicensed, could not legally draw blood.)

Using the test, the counselor determined that our patient had “+2 protein linkage,” spicules, red cell and platelet aggregation, "pulsating white cells,” and other abnormal cells, which live cell analysts claim indicate iron deficiency, B-vitamin deficiency and other problems. None of these cited factors actually indicate the conditions she diagnosed. If our patient really had been deficient in iron or folic acid (a B-vitamin), many small or large red cells would have been visible on the video screen. But the practitioner failed to report any.

To correct the problems she claimed to find, she recommended iron chelated with vitamin C, B-complex vitamins, folic acid, hydrochloric acid, lecithin, fish oils, vitamin E, selenium and other antioxidants. Furthermore, she said, our patient needed to have her immune system stimulated and her liver detoxified. (The latter is usually accomplished by a combination of fasting and coffee enemas.)

Since we were from Arizona and the nutritional counselor would not be able to treat our patient herself, she told us to contact the Nutritional Counseling Service in Dallas, Texas, to locate a certified metabolic technician from the Tucson area. When we did, we received literature describing a “metabolic therapy” program that would include hundreds of supplements a day and cost as much as $1,000 a month for the first year until the patient achieved good health. Since the program was individualized, however, they advised that we attend their 2-day "Resort to Health Workshop” in Dallas at a special cost of only $350 plus room and board.

This literature was soon followed by a letter from a Phoenix chiropractor who signed himself as a “Metabolic Doctor” and identified himself as a representative of the Alumni Association of the International Health Institute. He promised that by examining a computer printout which he would prepare, our patient would see “for the first time, an estimate of what’s happening in your body, and it is such a relief to be given exact instructions on how to help the imbalances that keep you from experiencing the good health that you seek and so rightfully deserve."

Even if live cell analysis were a valid test, I suspect that most practitioners are performing it improperly. The three I have observed so far didn’t always clean their microscope slides carefully between patients. (Dirt and dust that show up under the microscope can then be misinterpreted as components of the blood.) No agents were used to prevent dehydration or clotting or to control salinity, pH or temperature. Factors like these can account for variations in rouleau patterns, red-cell clumping and the formation of “spicules.” Some of the patterns one practitioner saw resulted from his microscope being out of focus and disappeared when I adjusted it properly.

Bill Shaddle, general manager of Livcell Analysis, Inc., says that 400 to 500 dark-field units are being used in the United States for nutritional assessment, including about 350 from his company. He told me that his company promotes live cell analysis as a device for patient education. However, its brochure states that the test indicates “the need for specific nutrients to support, strengthen, and rebuild weakened organs and systems.” Shaddle also told me that the basic techniques were developed about six years ago by James Privitera, M.D., a California physician, who founded Livcell Analysis but later left to launch NutriScreen.

Privitera has been involved in questionable practices in the past. In 1975, he was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail for conspiring to prescribe and distribute laetrile as a cancer remedy. In 1980, after the appeals process ended, he served 55 days in jail but was pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown following a letter-writing campaign generated by the National Health Federation (NHF), a group that promotes questionable health methods. Privitera was a member of NHF’s board of governors when the letter-writing campaign took place [2].

Shaddle and two others who helped Privitera promote Livcell Analysis are former employees of Nutri-Dyn, an Illinois-based company which sells supplements of ground-up animal organs called “glandulars” which supposedly strengthen corresponding human organs when consumed. Seminars on live cell analysis have been promoted to chiropractors by the company’s main distributor. In 1982, an undercover investigator from WBBM-TV, Chicago, recorded Shaddle telling Nutri-Dyn sales trainees that although there was no proof that company products could cure diseases, they should claim they do anyway. “You’ve got to be able to do it to survive,” he said, “so everybody does it."

Clearly, there are serious questions about both the value of live cell analysis and the credibility of those promoting it. As is the case with many questionable procedures, live cell analysts combine a curious mixture of science and pseudoscience. The test itself is useless in diagnosing most of the conditions which the live cell analysts claim to detect.

Reference

  1. Fanning O. "Training" For health food retailers: A seminar by Jeffrey Bland. Nutrition Forum 3:33-38, 1986.
  2. Barrett S. Be wary of the National Health Federation. Quackwatch, July 18, 2003.

This article is slightly modified from the November 1986 issue of Nutrition Forum newsletter. At that time, Dr. Lowell was a professor of life sciences at Pima Community College and president of the Arizona Council Against Health Fraud.

This article was posted on February 21, 2005.

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