Archive for October, 2011

CAM practitioners react to Andrew Weil’s proposal for a board certification for integrative medicine. It isn’t (all) pretty.

About a month ago, I discussed a rather disturbing development, namely the initiative by Dr. Andrew Weil to set up something he was going to call the American Board of Integrative Medicine, all for the purpose of creating a system of board certification for physicians practicing “integrative medicine” (IM), or, as I prefer to call them, physicians who like to integrate pseudoscience with their science, quackery with their medicine. Harsh? Yes. Accurate? Also yes. Unfortunately, many medical centers, both academic and community, are hopping on the IM bandwagon while more and more medical schools are “integrating” pseudoscience into their curricula. While one might expect Josephine Briggs of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to be cozy with IM, depressingly, even current director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, seems to have fallen into the trap.

As was admitted by Dr. Weil and his colleagues, this decision to create a board certification in IM was a huge about-face in that Weil had always argued that IM should be infused into all specialties of medicine. What happened, of course, is that once again marketing won out over idealism. Dr. Weil was concerned that there were lots of physicians and practitioners out there claiming to practice “integrative” medicine, many of whom had no qualifications in the field. At this point, the wag in me can’t resist pointing out that, given that IM “integrates” pseudoscience with science and that there really are no standards, scientific or otherwise, to guide IM practitioners (mainly because so much of IM is rank pseudoscience), why would this matter? The answer, again, comes down to branding and turf protection.

All of this is why seeing the reactions to Dr. Weil’s initiative from members of the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and IM community is very instructive. Fortunately, John Weeks of the Integrator Blog has come through again, quoting over twenty different people, including physicians, naturopaths, chiropractors, journalists, and other IM practitioners in an article entitled, appropriately enough, Integrator Forum: 20 Voices on Weil/U. Arizona and the American Board of Integrative Medicine. Yours truly is even mentioned (disparagingly, of course).

Uncharacteristically (for me), I’ll cut to the chase and tell you the results before I show you some of the quotes (with, of course, my own translation of what the IM-speak really means). Basically, physicians practicing IM tend to love what Dr. Weil is doing. All other practitioners (chiropractors, naturopaths, etc.) hate it. Of course, that’s not a big surprise given that Weil’s plan would in essence cut out all non-physician IM practitioners from being able to call themselves “integrative physicians” or, at the very least, to relegate them to a lower, non-board-certified rung in the practice hierarchy, which, I suspect, was the point all along. Andrew Weil wants IM to be “respectable,” and to him it will only become so if the riff-raff (i.e., non-physicians) are excluded.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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“And one more thing” about Steve Jobs’ battle with cancer

I’ve written quite a bit about Steve Jobs in the wake of his death nearly four weeks ago. The reason, of course, is that the course of his cancer was of intense interest after it became public knowledge that he had cancer. In particular, what I most considered to be worth discussing was whether the nine month delay between Jobs’ diagnosis and his undergoing surgery for his pancreatic insulinoma might have been what did him in. I’ve made my position very clear on the issue, namely that, although Jobs certainly did himself no favors in delaying his surgery, it’s impossible to know whether and by how much he might have decreased his chances of surviving his cancer through his flirtation with woo. However much his medical reality distortion field might have mirrored his tech reality distortion field, my best guess was that Jobs probably only modestly decreased his chances of survival, if that. I also pointed out that, if more information came in that necessitated it I’d certainly reconsider my conclusions.

The other issue that’s irritated me is that the quackery apologists and quacks have been coming out of the woodwork, each claiming that if only Steve Jobs had subjected himself to this woo or taken this supplement, he’d still be alive today. Nicholas Gonzalez was first out of the gate with that particularly nasty, unfalsifiable form of fake sadness, but he wasn’t the only one. Recently Bill Sardi claimed that there are all sorts of “natural therapies” that could have helped Jobs, while Dr. Robert Wascher, MD, a surgical oncologist from California (who really should know better but apparently does not) claims that tumeric spice could have prevented or cured Steve Jobs’ cancer, although in all fairness he also pointed out that radical surgery is currently the only cure. Unfortunately, he also used the failure of chemotherapy to cure this kind of cancer as an excuse to call for being more “open-minded” to alternative therapies. Even Andrew Weil, apparently stung by the speculation that Jobs’ delay in surgery to pursue quackery might have contributed to his death, to tout how great he thinks integrative cancer care is.

Last week, finally delivered my copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but, because of the intense interest in Jobs’ medical history, not to mention a desire on my part to see (1) if there were any new information there that would allow me to assess how accurate my previous commentary was and (2) information that would allow me to fill in the gaps in the story from the intense media coverage. So I couldn’t help myself. I skipped ahead to the chapters on his illness, of which there are three, entitled Round One, Round Two, and Round Three. Round One covers the initial diagnosis. Round Two deals with the recurrence of Jobs’ cancer and his liver transplant. Finally, Round Three deals with the final recurrence of Jobs’ cancer, his decline, and death.

Before I start, a warning: I’m going to discuss these issues in a fair amount of detail. If you want “medical spoilers,” don’t read any further. On the other hand, one spoiler I will mention is that there was surprisingly little here that wasn’t reported before; the only difference is that there is more detail. However, the details are informative.

Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Milk Thistle and Mushroom Poisoning

If you’ve been fortunate to live in the parts of the US that were soggier than usually as of late – or unfortunate enough to have had flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms – then you’ve be noticing a tremendous burst of mushrooms.

For mycologists – mushroom enthusiasts – there are two classic chestnuts: “There are old mushroom collectors and bold mushrooms collectors, but there are no old, bold mushroom collectors.”

Or, in a more concise Croatian proverb, “All mushrooms are edible, but some only once.”

As such, this is the time of year that emergency rooms and regional poison centers begin to see a burst in poisonings from mushroom ingestion, due primarily to amateur misidentification of the fruiting bodies.

Just this past week, Jason McClure at Medscape Oncology News (free reg req’d) wrote about the unusual bloom of mushrooms in the northeastern US and the concomitant bloom of mushroom poisonings this fall.

But “mushroom poisoning” is an imprecise diagnosis for the ER physician. The constellation of symptoms caused by toxic mushrooms is as diverse as the colors and shapes of these wonders of nature. From another Medscape article on emergency management of mushroom poisoning by Dr. Rania Habal from the Emergency Medicine department of NYU:

Mushrooms are best classified by the physiologic and clinical effects of their poisons. The traditional time-based classification of mushrooms into an early/low toxicity group and a delayed/high toxicity group may be inadequate. Additionally, many mushroom syndromes develop soon after ingestion. For example, most of the neurotoxic syndromes, the Coprinus syndrome (ie, concomitant ingestion of alcohol and coprine), the immunoallergic and immunohemolytic syndromes, and most of the GI intoxications occur within the first 6 hours after ingestion.

Ingestions most likely to require intensive medical care involve mushrooms that contain cytotoxic substances such as amatoxin, gyromitrin, and orellanine. Mushrooms that contain involutin may cause a life-threatening immune-mediated hemolysis with hemoglobinuria and renal failure. Inhalation of spores of Lycoperdon species may result in bronchoalveolitis and respiratory failure that requires mechanical ventilation.

Mushrooms that contain the GI irritants psilocybin, ibotenic acid, muscimol, and muscarine may cause critical illness in specific groups of people (eg, young persons, elderly persons). Hallucinogenic mushrooms may also result in major trauma and require care in an intensive care setting. Lastly, coprine-containing mushrooms cause severe illness only when combined with alcohol (ie, Coprinus syndrome).

Among the poisonous mushrooms, Amanita phalloides is perhaps the most deadly. If you’ve spent any time in a biochemical laboratory you will have learned of the primary toxin of the mushroom, α-amanitin. This potency of this toxin comes from its remarkably high affinity for RNA polymerase II, the primary RNA polymerase for making messages that are converted into proteins.


Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Public Health

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Please Don’t Define “Complementary and Alternative Health Practices”!

Since I have a master’s and doctoral degree in health education and since I’m a professor in a department of public health with an undergraduate curriculum that includes substantial attention to health education, I participate in the email discussion group of HEDIR, the Health Education Directory. On August 16th, I received a message to the discussion group from the American Association for Health Education inviting participants to complete an online survey from the Joint Committee on Health Education and Promotion Terminology with results to be analyzed at the Committee’s meeting in September 2011.

The survey items include various terms used by health educators, the currently approved terminology, and three choices followed by a type-in box:

  • This term should remain as defined
  • This term should remain in the report but modified in definition
  • This term is no longer commonly used in health education/health promotion literature

If modify, please provide the suggested wording and reference for that definition if you are citing it from a specific source.

For one of the terms, my preferred response would have be have been a fourth choice that was not offered: The term is commonly used in health education/health promotion and elsewhere, but it should not be used because its use only serves to distort our thought processes and promote quackery.

Here is the term along with the definition presented in the survey:

Complementary and Alternative Health Practices: These practices generally include natural substances, physical manipulations, and self-care modalities. These approaches often incorporate aspects of interventions derived from traditional practices. The approach in Western societies has been to select specific approaches from these systems and apply them to health maintenance, health enhancement, or disease management. Such approaches can be used to compliment[sic] conventional allopathic care (complementary therapy), or as an alternative to conventional approaches (alternative therapy). Many of these complementary and alternative approaches have not been validated through experiential research, but those that have, such as acupuncture for pain, are being integrated into conventional health practices (integrative medicine).

And here are my objections to the term and to the definition given:


Posted in: Medical Academia

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Constipation Myths and Facts

When it comes to health issues, bowels are big business. Bowel movements are part of everyday life, and we notice immediately when our routine changes. Constipation, from the Latin word constipare (“to crowd together”) is something almost everyone has some experience with. In most cases, it’s an occasional annoyance that resolves quickly. For others, particularly the elderly, constipation can be a chronic condition, significantly affecting quality of life.  Depending on the question and the sample surveyed, prevalence seems to vary widely.  It’s estimate that there are 2.5 million physician visits per year in the USA, and the costs of management are estimated at about $7.5 billion annually. It’s not a trivial issue.

One of the biggest challenges in interpreting both individual patient situations, as well as the literature overall, is understanding what’s defined as “constipation”. One person’s regular routine may be another person’s constipation. From my dialogue with patients, personal definitions seem to vary. Some panic after a single missed bowel movement, while others may be unconcerned with daily (or even less frequent) movements. What’s the optimal frequency? It depends. Infants may be 3x/day. Older children may be once daily. Adults may be daily or less frequently.  The literature generally, though not consistently, defines constipation as a delay or difficulty in bowel movements ( usually less than 3 per week) lasting two weeks. Symptoms can include infrequent, painful bowel movements, straining, and lumpy or hard stools.  When these problems last for more than three months, it’s termed chronic constipation. When constipation is accompanied by other symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, it may be termed  irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

There are multiple causes of constipation. It may be a consequence of other illnesses (e.g., high/low thyroid, diabetes, cancer, and neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis). Drugs, both prescription and over-they-counter, can also cause constipation.  Primary or idiopathic constipation is a diagnosis of exclusion, after other causes have been ruled out.  If there are no signs of a more serious underlying condition, treatments can be considered.

Many have firmly-held opinions about their colon and their bowel movements: what’s normal, and what’s not. And there are equally strong opinions about the causes of, and solutions to, constipation. But despite the ubiquity of constipation and the firmly-held opinions on treatments, there’s a sizable chasm between practice and evidence.  This is an area with crappy (sorry) data, and it’s hard to sort out what are true treatment effects. But an absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, so we’re challenged to make the best decisions possible, despite a disappointing evidence base. Here are some common statements I’ve encountered, and an evidence check on their veracity. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Alpha Brain – What’s Wrong with the Supplement Industry

There is an endless stream of supplement products on the market that are of questionable value. They tend to follow a similar pattern: put an essentially random assortment of vitamins, minerals, perhaps herbs and nutritional elements into a pill and then make whatever pseudo-health claims you want. Usually the claim is implied in the name of the product itself – sleepwell, or brainboost. The popular product Airborne fits this mold. It is essentially a multivitamin with the unfounded claim that it will prevent infection by boosting the immune system.

In the US, regulations (under DSHEA) specifically allow “structure/function” claims without any requirement for evidence to back up the claims. In other words, as long as you don’t mention a disease by name, you can make pretty much whatever claim you want. This was supposed to be good for the consumer, when in fact it is springtime for industry at the expense of the consumer. If your claims are outrageous enough the FTC can still go after you, but they are playing a game of whack-a-mole and losing.

Another pattern that is common is for a supplement product to contain specific components that are claimed to have specific benefits. Often these claims are based upon evidence – just the wrong kind of evidence. Basic science evidence is used inappropriately to support clinical claims. This strategy is more insidious, as it gives the public the sense that the product is science-based when it isn’t.


Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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KA at U Minnesota and Michigan State

I’ll be giving a talk, “Homeopathy and Skepticism,” to skeptical students this Thursday, Oct 27, at the University of Minnesota (7:00 PM at MCB 3-120) and this Friday, Oct. 28, at Michigan State University (7:00 PM at Holmes Hall 106). Here is the abstract:

Homeopathy is an extraordinary popular delusion that has persisted for more than 200 years. It is now a mainstay of “complementary and alternative medicine” in spite of longstanding, definitive scientific refutations. It is of particular interest to skeptics because its history evokes fundamental concepts such as sympathetic magic, Ockham’s razor, and Hume’s Maxim, and major historical figures such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and Hume himself.

Show up in Halloween costume if you like; I may do that myself.


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Steven Fowkes (Part 1 of 2): How to Cure Alzheimer’s and Herpes

A correspondent asked me to review a video presentation by Steven Fowkes, “Nutrients for Better Mental Performance,” one segment of a 9-part series on preventing and curing Alzheimer’s that was mentioned recently by an SBM commenter. Fowkes is an organic chemist without a PhD; he says this means:

I am not institutionalized [This begs for a joke, but I will refrain.] and see the world differently. Everything I know I learned outside the system.

He is associated with CERI, the Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute and has written extensively on nutrition and health. I’ll comment on his claims for Alzheimer’s and herpes first, and then return to the “Nutrients for Better Mental Performance” video next week.


He says he can prevent Alzheimer’s disease and cure it in the early stages, although later damage will not be reversible. And yet he doesn’t actually specify the details of how he accomplishes that miracle: apparently it’s complicated (I would imagine so) and varies with the individual. Science doesn’t know what causes Alzheimer’s, but Fowkes does. The current thinking of scientists is that it is due to genetic factors interacting with environmental factors, and it might be a natural consequence of the aging process that would eventually affect anyone who lives long enough. Fowkes says it involves a complicated domino cascade of effects, but the cause boils down to loss of glutathione cycling and failure of sulfhydryl enzymes, which  interferes with the detoxification of mercury in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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More Breast Cancer Awareness Month pseudoscience from (who else?) Joe Mercola

I have mixed emotions regarding Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On the one hand, I look forward to it because it provides us with a pretext to get out science-based messages about breast cancer and to highlight a lot of the cool science that we do at our cancer center. On the other hand, the quacks see an opportunity in Breast Cancer Awareness Month to spread their message too. That message, not surprisingly, generally involves attacking science-based modalities for the detection and treatment of breast cancer and promoting their “alternative” methods. For example, last year, Christiane Northrup promoted thermography as somehow being better than mammography for the early detection of breast cancer. It’s not. Yet there she is this year again, still promoting the same nonsense. In years past, I’ve seen people like Dennis Byrne promoting a link between abortion and breast cancer, a link that is not supported by science. I’ve seen the likes of Mike Adams claiming that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is nothing more than a conspiracy by the male-dominated “cancer industry” to keep women down and misinformation about “myths” of breast cancer while likening the “cancer industry” to Nazi extermination camp commanders and chemotherapy to Zyklon-B. I kid you not about that last part. Indeed, during October, I frequently get to look forward to images like this one (click for a larger image):

Or this one:

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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Steve Jobs’ medical reality distortion field

As I pointed out in my previous post about Steve Jobs, I’m a bit of an Apple fan boy. A housemate of mine got the very first Mac way back in 1984, and ever since I bought my first computer that was mine and mine alone back in 1991 (a Mac LC), I’ve used nothing but Macintosh computers, except when compelled to use Windows machines by work—and even then under protest. Indeed, as I searched for jobs at various times in my life, I asked myself whether I could accept a job at an institution that didn’t permit me to have a Mac in my office, such as the V.A. Fortunately, I never had to make that choice. All of this explains why I paid a lot of attention to Steve Jobs and also why his death saddened me and, relevant to this blog, the clinical history of the cancer that killed him fascinates me.

It’s often been said that there was a sort of “reality distortion field” around Steve Jobs. It was a part joking, part derogatory, part admiring term applied to Jobs’ talent for persuasion in which, through a combination of personal charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, and persistence, Jobs was able to persuade almost anyone, even developers and engineers, of almost anything. In particular, it referred to his ability to convince so many people that each new Apple product was the greatest thing ever, even when that product had obvious flaws. Unfortunately, as more news comes out about how Steve Jobs initially dealt with his diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (specifically, an insulinoma) back in 2003 and 2004, it’s become apparent that Jobs had his own medical reality distortion field, at least in the beginning right after his diagnosis of a rare form of pancreatic cancer, that allowed him to come to think that he might be able to reverse his cancer with diet plus various “alternative” modalities.

In the immediate aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death, I summarized the facts about Jobs’ case that were known at the time. In particular, I took issue with the claims of a skeptic that “alternative medicine killed Steve Jobs.” At the time, I pointed out that, although it was very clear that Steve Jobs did himself no favors by delaying his initial surgery for nine months after his initial diagnosis, we do not have sufficient information to know what his clinical situation was and therefore how much, if at all, he decreased his odds of survival by not undergoing surgery expeditiously. To recap: Did Steve Jobs harm himself by trying diet and alternative medicine first? Quite possibly. Did alternative medicine kill him? As I’ve argued before, that’s impossible to say, and any skeptic who dogmatically makes such an argument has taken what we known beyond what can be supported. Regular readers know that when I see a story that looks as though “alternative medicine” directly contributed to the death of someone, I usually pull no punches, but in this case I had a hard time being so definitive because the unknowns are too many, with all due respect to Ramzi Amri, a Research Associate at Harvard Medical School who in my opinion also went too far. I did, however, point out that I’m always open to changing my opinion if new evidence comes in. Jobs was always incredibly secretive about his medical condition, so much so that it didn’t even come out in the press until after it had happened that he had undergone a liver transplant in 2008 for metastatic insulinoma in his liver, just as his cancer diagnosis in 2003 remained secret for 9 months, not being revealed until he sent an e-mail to Apple employees announcing that he had undergone surgery.

It turns out that, with the imminent release of a major biography of Steve Jobs, more information is finally trickling out about his medical history. For instance, Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson is going to appear on 60 Minutes this Sunday, and apparently he is going to say this:

Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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