Heart disease. Parkinson’s. Alzheimer’s. A retired Missoula doctor believes he has found a treatment for all of them.
It’s quite a claim, but Dr. Walt Peschel asserts that chronic diseases share a root process that causes inflammation, tissue damage and eventually leads to the symptoms and diagnosis of the progressive illness. Control that original process, Peschel says, and he believes those chronic diseases can be slowed, stopped or even regressed.
The doctor says illnesses start with what he terms “insults,” various internal and environmental factors such as trauma, viruses and infections that make a person sick and activate the body’s immune response. When that immune “switch” is turned on, Peschel says, the mechanism by which it heals the body also leaves some surrounding tissue damage and inflammation to the area where the insult was treated.
Normally, that damage can heal on its own over time. The problem, Peschel says, is that the number of potential insults has continued to rise, and many of them are more prevalent than ever. Pechel uses his fingers to count off internal factors such as diet and lifestyle, and external ones such as air pollution or pesticides. These insults can result in the immune system working too hard or almost constantly deciding to stay" switched on," continuing to build tissue damage.
When tissue damage in the organs goes on long enough, it leads to the symptoms of some of the most high-profile chronic illnesses such as heart disease, Parkinson's and diabetes, and eventually to organ failure.
When those chronic conditions arise, Peschel said, the current treatments attempt to cure a patient's symptoms but do little to improve the underlying cause of the disease, the tissue damage and the inflammation.
Peschel believes his solution, a cocktail of seven generic drugs used for an off-label purpose, reduces the immune system’s tendency to constantly attempt to respond to insults, leading to a reduction in inflammation and organ damage.
His drug research isn’t what most people likely know Peschel for. In 2007, he refused to leave the side of an armed, suicidal woman outside an apartment building he owned.
When Peschel eventually complied with instructions from law enforcement, police pushed or tackled him to the ground. He was later acquitted of obstructing an officer. In 2009, Peschel received a $365,000 settlement from the city of Missoula after he filed a lawsuit saying his rights were violated during the incident, including a claim that he was denied medical treatment at the jail.
But now the retired doctor, who paid his way through pre-med at the University of Montana working as a truck driver, is putting all his energy into what he believes could be one of the most important discoveries in modern medicine.
Peschel’s research started following a heart attack at the age of 50. He said a visiting cardiologist who looked at his charts said he had about two years to live. Peschel used standard treatments, but wasn’t seeing any improvement. He decided to start trying other drugs not designed to treat the problem directly, and immediately saw a decrease to his blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as other health indicators. Over the past decade, Peschel, now 75, has only had to visit the cardiac cath lab once.
Over time, he fine-tuned the drug cocktail and began to treat other patients with heart disease and diabetes. On top of benefits to their primary condition, Peschel said his patients also reported improvement to other parts of the body, including their kidneys and eyes.
“Eyesight loss goes up over time. With intensive treatment, it goes up less but it still goes up. I’m going to show you the slope going down,” he said, pulling out data from one of his test cases.
During the test, with three women who were diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, Peschel and a Missoula opthamologist saw vision improved from 20/70 to 20/40 in just the first month on his cocktail. For the two women who kept using the medication, their vision eventually went to 20/25, and held there for the rest of the year-long study.
Jessie McQuillan is another of Peschel's success cases. In 2009 McQuillan, the former executive director of the Montana Innocence Project, was diagnosed with uveitis, a form of eye inflammation that can lead to blindness.
By 2013, McQuillan’s vision became so reduced she said she could no longer read or work at a computer, and she had to leave her job. Furthermore, the steroids used to control flare ups caused her to develop glaucoma and cataracts, and she had four different surgeries to remove them. Doctors put her on a immunosuppressant usually used for chemotherapy, which came with its own selection of side effects that left her tired and nauseous. In the summer of 2014, a friend told her about Peschel’s work, and she decided to meet with him.
“Basically, at that point I had nothing to lose,” she said.
Peschel started her on his cocktail, which she took in addition to her other medications. By early 2015, McQuillan decided to taper off all her other drugs, wanting to know if Peschel’s cocktail was indeed working as it appeared to be.
“I have held wonderfully, I have had no flare-ups and the side effects are gone,” she said.
Some six months ago, McQuillan said she was able to start reading for fun again for the first time in years.
So far, Peschel said he hasn’t found a chronic disease that his medication doesn’t have at least an anecdotal effect on, from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to even blood pressure problems. During an animal study on gerbils he did in Bozeman with help from Montana State University researchers, Peschel found that the drug reduced the effects of a stroke.
He’s now in the middle of a new animal study with a professor at the University of Montana’s Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, assessing the drug cocktail’s effect on Parkinson’s, with the results expected back in the next few months.
Since he started working on the medication and the theory, Peschel said he’s put more than $325,000 into the project, the vast majority of which has been his own money. The Montana Eye Bank Foundation recently agreed to make a $25,000 donation to fund Peschel’s research, and if he sees results, has pledged to continue helping to support him.
Researchers across the country are starting to look closer at his idea of treating chronic disease causes rather than just symptoms. Now he needs more patients and more studies to create more data showing what the drug cocktail can do.
“I said this 25 years ago, that we have to treat the aging process and these things will improve themselves,” Peschel said. “People laughed at me. They still laugh a bit, but not nearly as much.”