Before explaining about homocysteine, I want to tell you an interesting & fascinating history of its research. In mid 1960’s, a promising pathologist and researcher who graduated from Harvard Medical School, Dr. Kilmer McCully involved in studies involving the connection of biochemistry with disease. As he was reputed, he got a prestigious position as associate pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and as an assistant professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School. There he got particular interested in the particular disease called homocystinuria. This presented itself in children who had genetic defect that kept them from breaking down an essential amino acid called Methionine. These children showed a tremendous buildup of a byproduct called homocysteine. He reviewed two separate cases involving young boys with this defect who died of heart attacks. He was amazed as both the boys were not even eight year old. When he examined their pathology slides, he discovered that the damaged arteries are similar to an elderly person who had severe hardening of arteries. Thus, he started wondering whether mild to moderate elevations of homocysteine that were present over a life time could be a cause of heart attacks and strokes in an average person. He reported his theory in several medical journals in late 60’s & early 70’s and was initially supported by Dr. Castle who was chief of his department. Then this theory lost its momentum as Dr. Castle retired, the new chief asked Dr. McCully to seek his own research funds and ultimately money ran out, in 1979, the new chief terminated his services from Harvard and since, both his jobs went hand in hand, he lost both the jobs. Soon, the director of public affairs at MGH asked him not to associate his theory with either Harvard or Massachusetts and he was shut down for good. But why such hostility towards a man who was simply trying to find the underlying cause of the number one killer? The reason was heavily funded research on cholesterol. At that time the cholesterol heart attack theory was going tremendous momentum and his theory clearly challenged its future. In 1979 & 1980, Dr. Tomas Janes, cardiologist, president of the University of Texas Medical Branch and the president of the American Heart Association stated, “you couldn’t get ideas funded that went in other directions than cholesterol. You were intentionally discoursed from pursuing alternative questions. I have never dealt with a subject in my life that elicited such an immediate hostile response.” and with all opposing theories silenced, the cholesterol theory went great guns. Drug companies began making billions and everyone was convinced that heart attacks and strokes were simply the result of too much cholesterol in blood. Would you not say that they did an excellent job in selling this to the medical community and to the general public?
Now back to what is homocysteine? Homocysteine is an intermediate byproduct that we produce when our body metabolizes or breakdown an essential amino acid called methionine. Methionine is found in large quantities in meats, eggs, milk, cheese, white flour, canned foods and highly processed foods. Our bodies need methionine to survive; however, if you see the list of foods that contain large amount of nutrients, we have plenty of it in our diets. Our bodies normally convert homocysteine into either cysteine or back to methionine again. Cysteine and methionine are benign products and are not harmful in anyway. But here is a catch, the enzymes needed to breakdown homocysteine into cysteine or back to methionine need folic acid, Vitamin B-12 & B-6 to do their job and if we are deficient in these nutrients, the levels of homocysteine in the blood begins to rise.