Tooth Will Tell

The state wants to yank his license. But dentist Hal Huggins keeps mouthing off.

The quarter-million-dollar grant had to be funneled through a recognized research foundation. When Jeff asked Huggins for a recommendation, the dentist suggested the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he'd completed his master's degree and where he had a scientific contact: Dr. Douglas Swartzendruber.

The fifty-year-old Swartzendruber received his doctorate in experimental pathology from the University of Colorado Medical School in 1974. One of his advisors, Henry Claman, still a professor at the Health Sciences Center, recalls Swartzendruber as a bright and promising student. And Swartzendruber's resume speaks convincingly of academic success and professional respect. He has published dozens of papers in recognized journals, many on the subjects of flow cytometry and oncology. He has also participated in numerous conferences, seminars and professional presentations.

After working at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico and then at the M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston, Swartzendruber moved to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 1982. He's been there ever since, first as an assistant professor, then as full professor and department chair, and finally, beginning last summer, as interim dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

It was there that Swartzendruber met Hal Huggins just over a decade ago. "He showed up in one of my immunology classes," Swartzendruber says. "Before that, I had never even heard of the mercury-amalgam controversy. In fact, up until that point, I, like most Americans, had no idea mercury was in dental fillings. We got to talking, and he explained it to me." From 1985 to 1988, as Huggins pursued a master's degree in science, Swartzendruber served as his faculty advisor. Huggins's thesis was on mercury toxicity; Swartzendruber says he became intrigued that there was so little objective basic research on the dangers of mercury amalgam fillings and so began pursuing the subject himself.

In 1985 Swartzendruber offered a lecture on "Immunotoxicology Associated With Dental Materials" at the annual meeting of the Holistic Medicine Society and traveled with Huggins to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he gave a presentation on "Immunotoxicological Responses to Orthodontic Devices in Nickel-Sensitive Patients."

That July Swartzendruber also participated in a seminar called "Academic and Clinical Profiles in Dental Metal Toxicity" sponsored by the Toxic Element Research Foundation. According to state incorporation records, TERF's sole director is Hal Huggins. An April 1985 invitation to the seminar noted that proceeds from the $60 entrance fee would "sponsor research in heavy metal toxicity in the Immunotoxicology program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs."

The program fell under Swartzendruber's authority. But within several years, the professor also was helping out at Huggins's place.

In 1967 Congress passed the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act, which, among other things, requires all laboratories conducting interstate business to file a report with state health departments. In two separate reports filed by the Huggins Diagnostic Center Laboratory, one from November 1987 and the other covering the period from July 1989 to July 1990, Swartzendruber was listed as lab director.

From 1989 through 1990, Swartzendruber was also listed as lab director for a Colorado Springs company called Compat Laboratories, Inc. According to the attorney general's office, that company is owned by Hal Huggins's brother.

Swartzendruber downplays his time at Huggins's labs, explaining that he merely filled in as a temporary director "for five or six months" until Huggins could find a permanent director to run the lab. "I acted as a consultant to his lab as they were setting up," he adds.

But according to Assistant Attorney General Robert Spencer, who questioned Swartzendruber in front of Judge Connick, that wasn't the only time the professor was on the dentist's payroll: Spencer says Huggins paid Swartzendruber for "several seminars a year." Once, Huggins bought Swartzendruber a plane ticket to California so he could consult with the dentist on the purchase of a microscope.

Swartzendruber contends that his association with Huggins has not affected his commitment to objective scientific inquiry in the slightest. In at least one instance, however, it appears that it might have.

In 1993 Huggins updated his book, retitling it The Link Between Mercury Amalgams and Illness. In the revised work, he cited Swartzendruber's research as proof of his theories. The professor, he revealed, had written "about twenty reference articlesEthat show this relationship [between dental amalgam and multiple sclerosis] to be valid."

In fact, at the time, Swartzendruber had written just one such article: "Adverse Immunomodulatory Effects of Heavy Metals in Dental Materials," a 1990 study detailing how he'd tested three patients' immune systems in both the presence and the absence of mercury fillings. During the hearing in front of Judge Connick, Huggins again pointed to Swartzendruber's paper as evidence supporting his theories.

But after hearing testimony from various scientists, Connick dismissed Swartzendruber's research. The reason: most of the information on which the study was based came directly from Huggins.

"The reliability of Swartzendruber's work," the judge wrote, "is undercut by the fact that it is completely dependent upon [Huggins], who provided the blood samples tested and made representations about amalgam placement and removal" in the study's subjects.

Indeed, one of the three patients--the one who'd shown extraordinary improvement in her immune system after her mercury fillings had been removed--was Huggins's wife. What was worse, Connick said, was that despite the fact that Swartzendruber had written his paper in 1990, he seemed not to know when Mrs. Huggins's dramatic results, as reported by her husband, had been obtained.

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