Alcohol use disorder contributes to the death of lead epidemic researcher

Mar 21, 2020 | General

I’ve been thinking of Dr Frank Plummer who I posted about on 21 January 2020 as I remembered he was recognized for leadership roles in the Sars, H1N1 flu and Ebola epidemics.  I was hoping that his brain surgery for alcohol addiction had worked and that he was back at work – offering his service and genius toward a new vaccination for the Covid-19 virus currently playing havoc across the globe.  I am sad to report that Dr Plummer, one of Canada’s top scientists and researchers died, reportedly of a heart attack.

Just over a year ago, Dr Plummer had chosen to participate in a surgical trial for experimental brain surgery to treat his alcoholism and had spoken about the positive results.  The procedure, called deep brain stimulation (DBS), was being conducted in North America for the first time for otherwise untreatable alcohol addiction at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital.

He was the guinea pig in a clinical trial investigating whether brain implants can help treat alcohol use disorder.

Although he loved his work he found it stressful, with 12-hour days that began with coffee and would end with several glasses of scotch, which escalated to about 20 ounces a night.  It didn’t seem to affect his work – until 2012, when his “liver packed it in”.  The diagnosis of chronic liver failure was followed by a liver transplant, but he found his alcohol had become a powerful thirst – he tried treatment – rehab programmes, support groups, counselling, medications – but he would inevitably slip back into drinking.

“It was pretty hopeless cycle…,I was in the hospital a lot, I almost died several times.”

He went looking for “a more robust clinical solution, perhaps one not yet discovered” – and was referred for an experimental procedure using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to help patients with treatment-resistant alcohol use disorder. DBS is frequently described as a type of “pacemaker” for the brain.

Patients are awake for the surgery.

Dr Plummer says the worst part of the procedure were the noise and vibrations when surgeons drilled into his skull in order to implant the electrodes.  “It was a large drill that drills about a 25 cent piece out of your skull on both sides

Dr Plummer was the trial’s first patient and underwent the experimental surgery just over a year ago.  The surgeon says Dr Plummer has seen an improvement in both his cravings and his mood.

Dr Plummer said the surgery had given him a new lease on life after a series of health problems had forced him to confront his battle with alcohol addiction.  He had returned to HIV research with the hopes of developing a vaccine for the disease and had begun writing a book about his experience in Kenya working on the frontlines of the Aids crisis.

He received numerous accolades for his work, including receiving the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours, and the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, which recognises scientists whose work has had a significant impact on health outcomes in the developing world.  He will be sorely missed.