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Archive for March, 2011

How to Interrogate an Herbal Medicine: Thunder God Vine

ResearchBlogging.orgThunder god vine may not be a useful herbal medicine but the compounds isolated from it are fascinating – if not as medicines, then most certainly as laboratory tools. Nature Chemical Biology recently published an article where a research team from Johns Hopkins, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Drew University in New Jersey, has determined the molecular mechanism of action of triptolide, an unusual triepoxide compound from the plant.

Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F, or thunder god vine, is known as lei gong teng in Chinese traditional medicine and has a history of use as an anti-inflammatory herb. As with many traditional medicines, usage patterns do not necessarily indicate scientific validity. In fact, a Cochrane review published just last month on herbal therapies for rheumatoid arthritis indicated that the efficacy of thunder god vine was mixed. More concerning is that the herb had significant adverse effects in some trials, from hair loss to one case of aplastic anemia.

Nevertheless, the herb’s components have been studied since the 1970s for since they also appears to kill tumor cells in culture with nanomolar potency and have immunosuppresant activity in animal models. The group of the late natural products chemist at the University of Virginia, S. Morris Kupchan, first identified the unusual structures of triptolide and tripdiolide from Tripterygium wilfordii as described in this 1972 paper from the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Cytotoxic activity toward tumor cells in culture was used to guide the chemical fractionation of extracts. The unusual presence of three consecutive epoxides in the structures of both compounds led Kupchan to hypothesize later in Science that they target leukemia cells by covalent binding to cellular targets involved in cellular growth. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Dr. Oz and John Edward: Just when I thought Dr. Oz couldn’t go any lower, he proves me wrong

I’ve really come to detest Dr. Mehmet Oz.

You remember Dr. Mehmet Oz, don’t you? How can you escape him? He is, after all, Oprah Winfrey’s protege, and of late he’s really been living up (or down) to the example set by his television mentor, who of late apparently thinks nothing of promoting faith healing quack John of God on her show. Following in the footsteps of his much more famous and well-known mentor, this season on his television show, The Dr. Oz Show, Dr. Oz has in some ways imitated Oprah and in some ways gone her one better (one worse, really) in promoting the Oprah-fication of medicine. And this season has been a particularly bad one for science-based medicine on The Dr. Oz Show. Apparently Dr. Oz felt that he had to surpass what he did last season, which included inviting a man whom I consider to be one of the foremost sellers of quackery on the Internet, Dr. Joseph Mercola. Prior to that, Dr. Oz had done an episode touting the glories of that form of faith healing known as reiki. In between, he made appearances at various panels of woo-friendly physicians trying to coopt President Obama’s health insurance reform initiative to cover more “holistic” care (i.e., “integrative medicine”).

In the next season, in particular over the last couple of months, Dr. Oz showed me just how wrong I had been when I had previously been saying that Dr. Oz seemed to be mostly science-based but with a soft spot for certain kinds of pseudoscience. This season, Dr. Oz has thrown down the gauntlet to science-based medicine (SBM) and, as I like to put it, crossed the Woo-bicon. First, he not only invited Joe Mercola back on his show, but he did it defiantly, defending Mercola against what I consider to be much-deserved charges of being a seller of quackery and lauding him as a “pioneer of holistic treatments.” A couple of weeks later, Dr. Oz pulled the classic “bait and switch” of alternative medicine, featuring a yoga instructor on his show who also advocated all sorts of Ayruvedic quackery. Then, a mere few days later Dr. Oz, apparently not satisfied at his transformation from nominally science-based to being based solely on whatever would bring him higher ratings, completed his journey to the Dark Side of quackery by credulously featuring a faith healer on his show and hosting what has to be the lamest faith healing that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. After that, I didn’t think Dr. Oz could go much lower, although he tried, two examples of which were his anti-vaccine-sympathetic episode on autism in which he featured Dr. Robert Sears and his utterly reversing a previous scientifically correct stance of his and promoting a dubious and potentially dangerous diet.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Religion, Science and the Media

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Help – My Doctor is a Crank!

I often receive e-mail from SBM readers (or SGU listeners) who have had the experience of their doctor, nurse, dentist, physical therapist, or other health care provider recommending to them a treatment option that seems dubious, if not outright pseudoscientific. They want advice on what to do.  There are common themes to the e-mails – the writer often feels very uncomfortable in the situation. They do not feel comfortable confronting their provider directly, yet they do not want to acquiesce to the advice either. They are also often asking my opinion about the advice – is it really as wacky as it seems. This uncertainty saps them of their resolve, leaving them feeling a bit helpless.

Here is one such e-mail:

Ten days ago, my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world. She was born a couple weeks early, which left her mouth a bit too small and week to breastfeed effectively. To prevent her from losing too much weight, we were referred to a lactation consultant (who works out of the pediatrics department at the hospital where our daughter was born). This consultant (who is also an RN) suggested a regimen of supplementing nursing with pumped breast milk.

This was working great until my wife’s milk production dropped the day before our follow-up appointment. When we asked what to do about this, the nurse recommended that my wife take fenugreek, an herbal supplement. I was a bit skeptical of this advice, so I asked what it was about fenugreek that helped with milk production. The lactation nurse’s answer was vague — she said things like, Herbs can be helpful for lots of health issues, and, a lot of women I see seem to think it helps (oh, the logical fallacies). When we pushed her on this a little more, she handed us a flyer, printed by the hospital about fenugreek. The flyer seemed to support the use of the supplement, but mentioned that there was no scientific research demonstrating that fenugreek increases milk supply. When we asked why it hadn’t been researched, the nurse responded that there wasn’t a lot of money in lactation and that scientists generally aren’t interested in the kind of things she does (basically, that she was doing the good work that cold-hearted scientists refused to do).

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Spreading the Word

Lest some of our readers imagine that the authors of this blog are mere armchair opinion-spouters and keyboard-tappers for one little blog, I’d like to point out some of the other things we do to spread the word about science and reason. Steven Novella’s new course about medical myths for “The Great Courses” of The Teaching Company is a prime example: more about that later.

First, some examples of the kinds of things we have been doing: (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, General

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A University of Michigan Medical School alumnus confronts anthroposophic medicine at his alma mater

I graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in the late 1980s. If there’s one thing I remember about the four years I was there, it’s that U. of M. was really hardcore about science back then. In fact, one of the things I remember is that U. of M. was viewed as being rather old-fashioned. No new (at the time) organ system approach for us! Every four weeks, like clockwork, we’d have what was called a concurrent examination, which basically meant that we were tested (with multiple choice tests, of course) on every subject on the same morning. The medical curriculum for the first two years had been fairly constant for quite some time, with a heaping helpin’ of anatomy, histology, biochemistry, and physiology in the first year and the second year packed full of pharmacology, pathology, and neurosciences. Nowhere to be found was anything resembling “energy medicine” or anything that wasn’t science-based!

Of course, back in the 1980s, the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical schools and academic medical centers hadn’t really begun in earnest yet, although the rumblings of what is now called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and, more frequently these days, “integrative medicine” (IM) were starting to be heard in East Coast and West Coast schools. Even there, though, the incipient CAM movement was viewed as fringe, not worthy of the attention of serious academic physicians. Indeed, in the late 1980s, even at what are now havens of quackademic medicine if someone had suggested that diluting substances until there is nothing left, as in homeopathy, or waving your hands over a patient in order to channel the “universal source” of energy into a patient in order to heal a patient, as in reiki, had any place in scientific medicine, he’d have been laughed out of medical school–and rightly so.

Not so today, unfortunately. Although the problem of infiltration of quackademic medicine into academic medical centers goes way beyond this example, I can point out that faith healing based on Eastern mystical beliefs instead of Christianity is alive and well and ensconced in academic medical centers such as the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine, where reiki masters are roaming the halls of the University of Maryland R. Adam Cowley Shock Trauma Center and Bonnie Tarantino, a Melchizedek practitioner, holographic sound healer, and an Usui and Karuna Reiki Master holds sway. Meanwhile, all manner of woo, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, craniosacral therapy, reiki, and reflexology are offered. Truly, you know that when an academic medical center has gone so far as to offer homeopathy, reflexology, and reiki, it’s all over as far as academic credibility is concerned, and it has become a center of quackademic medicine. Sadly, even a hospital where I trained, MetroHealth Medical Center, has succumbed to the temptation to add the quackery that is reiki to its armamentarium. That aside, I had never expected that my old, hardcore University of Michigan would go woo in such a big way.

I was wrong.
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Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Religion

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Triskaidekaphobia times two.

There is germaphobia, the fear of germs. Or Germans.  One of the two. Oddly, I do not fear most germs, despite my daily reminders as to how destructive these wee beasties can be.   I recognize their limits and my immunologic strengths and know I have more to fear from cars or unsaturated fats than E. coli or influenza.

There is also a fear of vaccines, the too many too soon that is said to be at the heart, or maybe the left atrial appendage, of one of the imaginary problems with vaccines.  There are, by my counting, 5 live attenuated viruses and 21 different antigens in the vaccine schedule by age 6, for a total of 26 or twice thirteen.  Some fear those antigens and viruses, making it a  triskaidekaphobia times two (1).

From my perspective the paltry quantity of antigens children receive with the vaccine schedule are, when compared to the enormity of antigens in the environment, a rounding error.  We are awash in bacteria, fungi, viruses and an enormous number of environmental organisms.  I think of each of us like Pig-Pen, but instead of dirt, we are in a cloud of micro-organisms.

Our immune systems, contrary to the opinions of the unimaginative who direct scorn and derision at Dr. Offit, can cope.  As discussed, we have a ability to stave off the phenomenal number of organisms that would just as soon use us as the ultimate supersized meal.  Of course, it is not all the immune system that keeps the wee beasties away.  Being warmer than ambient temperature helps.  Understanding disease epidemiology, hygiene and the prn malum q 24 h also keeps the doctor away. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The Dark Side of Medical Globalization

“You are not going to change what we do, you’re not going to change our determination to make these patients better. I see these patients, I know these patients, I value these patients, I’ve looked after them for years. I’ve seen them after the procedure, the vast majority are improved.”

The above quote could be a reference to just about any fringe medical treatment. It is partly an expression of faith in anecdotal experience over scientific evidence. It is partly the fallacy of justifying a treatment because it is needed – whereas the real question is whether or not the treatment works. It is an attempt to justify specific claims with compassion, as if the person quoted cares more for the health of their patients than those who might be skeptical of their claims. And it is an expression of stubbornness – I know the truth, so don’t confuse me with evidence and logic.

Is this person talking about acupuncture? Perhaps they run a stem cell clinic in China, India or somewhere outside the reach of regulation. Or maybe they are defending hyperbaric oxygen therapy for unproven indications, like autism. It could be anything, because this sentiment is the standard mantra of the dubious practitioner, practicing outside the bounds of science-based medicine.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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Eating Placentas: Cannibalism, Recycling, or Health Food?

After giving birth, most mammals eat the afterbirth, the placenta. Most humans don’t. Several hypotheses have been suggested as to why placentophagy might have had evolutionary survival value, but are there any actual benefits for modern women? Placentophagy has been recommended for various reasons, from nutritional benefit to preventing postpartum depression to “honoring the placenta.” In other cultures, various rituals surround the placenta including burial and treating it as sacred or as another child with its own spirit. Eating the placenta is promoted by some modern New Age, holistic, and “natural-is-good” cultural beliefs.

Some women eat it raw, but many women have a yuck-factor objection to eating raw bloody tissue. It can be cooked: recipes are available for preparing it in various ways. For those who don’t like the idea of eating the tissue, placenta encapsulation services are available, putting placenta into a capsule that is more esthetically acceptable and that can even be frozen and saved for later use in menopause.

Does placentophagia benefit health? Does it constitute cannibalism? It it just a way to recycle nutrients? How can science inform our thinking about this practice? (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Ethics in human experimentation in science-based medicine

Science-based medicine depends upon human experimentation. Scientists can do the most fantastic translational research in the world, starting with elegant hypotheses, tested through in vitro and biochemical experiments, after which they are tested in animals. They can understand disease mechanisms to the individual amino acid level in a protein or nucleotide in a DNA molecule. However, without human testing, they will never know if the end results of all that elegant science will actually do what it is intended to do and to make real human patients better. They will never know if the fruits of all that labor will actually cure disease. However, it is in human experimentation where the ethics of science most tend to clash with the mechanisms of science. We refer to “science-based medicine” (SBM) as “based” in science, but not science, largely because medicine can never be pure science. Science has resulted in amazing medical advances over the last century, but if there is one thing that we have learned it’s that, because clinical trials involve living, breathing, fellow human beings, what is the most scientifically rigorous trial design might not be the most ethical.

About a week ago, the AP reported that experiments and clinical trials that resemble the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and the less well known, but recently revealed Guatemala syphilis experiment were far more common than we might like to admit. As I sat through talks about clinical trial results at the Society of Surgical Oncology meeting in San Antonio over the weekend, the revelations of the last week reminded me that the intersection between science and ethics in medicine can frequently be a very tough question indeed. In fact, in many of the discussions, questions of what could or could not be done based on ethics were frequently mentioned, such as whether it is ethically acceptable or possible to do certain followup trials to famous breast cancer clinical trials. Unfortunately, it was not so long ago that such questions were answered in ways that bring shame on the medical profession.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media

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