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The compassion gambit

I’ve spent the last three weeks writing about a “brave maverick doctor” by the name of Stanislaw Burzynski who claims that he can cure cancers that regular oncologists cannot. He uses a combination of what he calls “antineoplastons” (which, it turns out, are more or less than the active metabolites of an orphan drug known as sodium phenylbutyrate) plus a very expensive cocktail of chemotherapy and targeted agents chosen in a haphazard fashion and thrown together with little rhyme or reason. This week, I had planned to move on. However, I felt that I had to mention the Burzynski saga because it provides me with the most appropriate segue to a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, possibly since this blog began. In fact, it’s about as perfect a framework as I can think of upon which to drape the points I want to make in this post.

What I will discuss is perhaps the most effective, devastating attack that proponents of quackery, woo, and nonsense aim at supporters of science-based medicine (SBM). As far as that is the case, it is not effective because it’s fact-based, evidence-based, or science-based. Far from it. Rather, it’s effective because it appeals to the emotions and very effectively demonizes SBM proponents to the point where they often have a hard time standing their ground when it is used. Sometimes, it preemptively prevents them from even speaking up in the first place. It’s a little tactic that I like to call the “compassion gambit,” which means trying to discredit critics of “alternative” medicine by painting them as cold, unfeeling, uncaring, arrogant monsters who want to hurt or kill children (and probably get a big smile on their faces when they torture puppies, to boot).
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, antineoplastons, and the selling of an orphan drug as a cancer cure

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time (and, characteristically, verbiage) analyzing the phenomenon known as Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his “cancer cure” known as antineoplastons. In part I of this series, Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R., I used the legal threats against bloggers criticizing the credulous promotion by the British press of fundraising campaigns to send children with terminal cancer to the Burzynski Clinic and the promotion of the medical propaganda movie Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business to review the movie’s claims and look into Burzynski’s claims for antineoplastons. Not surprisingly, I found the evidence for extravagant claims for their anticancer effects unconvincing. In part II, Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?, I looked into Dr. Burzynski’s recent efforts to “diversify his portfolio, in which he has apparently decided to ride the new wave of genomic medicine to claim he can do “personalized, gene-targeted cancer therapy.” I concluded that he does appear to do that, only very badly, in essence “making it up as he goes along.”

In this third and final part, I want to come back to antineoplastons, because it has been pointed out to me that there is an aspect of this story that has received little attention. One reader in particular has helped enormously in my education about this aspect of the Burzynski saga. I wish I could credit this person by name, but, for reasons I fully understand, I can’t. However, this person’s input was essential, and I’ve even appropriated (with permission, of course) a little bit of text here and there from our e-mail exchanges to “integrate” into this post. Putting this together with information in my previous posts, I think we can come to some conclusions about what it is that Dr. Burzynski is really doing.

Burzynski and an orphan drug

In the first part of this series, I pointed out that back in the 1970s Dr. Burzynski claimed to have discovered cancer-fighting substances in human urine, which he dubbed “antineoplastons,” claiming that patients with cancer had lower levels of these substances in their blood and urine. However, I was pretty vague about just what these substances were, other than to point out that they were modified amino acids and that since 1980 Dr. Burzynski has been synthesizing them in a chemistry lab rather than isolating them from urine as he had done up until then. This vagueness came simply from my interest in moving straight to looking at Burzynski’s claims rather than what these substances were. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake. The reason is that understanding what two of Burzynski’s antineoplastons are is critical to understanding what he is doing with them and why he might occasionally appear to be observing an antitumor response.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Legal, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?

Last week, I wrote a magnum opus of a movie review of a movie about a physician and “researcher” named Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, founder of the Burzynski Clinic and Burzynski Research Institute in Houston. I refer you to my original post for details, but in brief Dr. Burzynski claimed in the 1970s to have made a major breakthrough in cancer therapy through his discovery of anticancer substances in the urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons,” which turned out to be mainly modified amino acids and peptides. Since the late 1970s, when he founded his clinic, Dr. Burzynski has been using antineoplastons to treat cancer. Over the last 25 years or so, he has opened a large number of phase I and phase II clinical trials with little or nothing to show for it in terms of convincing evidence of efficacy. Worse, as has been noted in a number of places, high doses of antineoplastons as sodium salts are required, doses so high that severe hypernatremia is a concern.

Although antineoplastons are the dubious cancer therapy upon which Dr. Burzynski built his fame, they aren’t the only thing he does. Despite the promotion of the Burzynski Clinic as using “nontoxic” therapies that “aren’t chemotherapy” by “natural medicine” cranks such as Joe Mercola and Mike Adams, Dr. Burzynski’s dirty little secrets, at least as far as the “alternative medicine” crowd goes, are that (1) despite all of the attempts of Dr. Burzynski and supporters to portray them otherwise antineoplastons are chemotherapy and (2) Dr. Burzynski uses a lot of conventional chemotherapy. In fact, from my perspective, it appears to me as though over the last few years Dr. Burzynski has pivoted. No longer are antineoplastons the center of attention at his clinic. Rather, these days, he appears to be selling something that he calls “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy.” In fact, it’s right there in the first bullet point on his clinic’s webpage, underlined, even! Antineoplastons aren’t even listed until the third bullet point.

But what is “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” according to Dr. Burzynski? Here is how it is described:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R.

And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

Cleric from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I’ve always wondered about the power of the number three. When it comes to quackery propaganda movies, certainly three seems to be the magic number. For example, The Greater Good, an anti-vaccine propaganda film, features three anecdotes, three children allegedly suffering from vaccine injury, and it interspersed its interviews with experts, both real (such as Dr. Paul Offit) and phony (such as Barbara Loe Fisher) with vignettes from these children’s stories interspersed between them in a highly biased manner. I have to wonder whether these cliches are taught in film school, given that they seem to be so common. Such were the thoughts running through my brain as I watched the latest medical propaganda film by writer/producer Eric Merola that’s floating around the blogosphere and the film circuit, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business. In this movie, there are three testimonials, and, if anything, they are far more manipulative than even the testimonials featured in The Greater Good, because each of them are of the type that portrays doctors as sending a patient home to die; that is, until a “brave maverick doctor,” one Stanislaw R. Burzynski, MD, PhD, comes to the rescue with his unconventional and unproven therapy. The only difference is that this film counts testimonials up to the number three in the beginning as “proof” that Burzynski can cure cancer before lobbing the Holy Hand Grenade of Burzynski towards its foes in the hopes that, being naughty in the filmmaker’s sight, the FDA and Texas Medical Board will snuff it. Or, as a caption says right at very the beginning of the movie:

This is the story of a medical doctor and PhD biochemist who has discovered the genetic mechanism that can cure most human cancers. The opening 30 minutes of this film is designed to thoroughly establish this fact — so the viewer can fully appreciate the events that follow it.

It turns out that the grenade is a dud.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Woo-omics

Every so often, I come across studies that leave me scratching my head. Sometimes, these studies are legitimate scientific studies that have huge flaws or come from an assumption that is very off-base. Other times, they involve what Harriet Hall has termed “tooth fairy science,” wherein the tools of science are used to study a phenomenon that is fantastical, whose very existence hasn’t been demonstrated. Many such studies, not surprisingly, are studies of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM). Modalities like reiki (which is faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Christian beliefs) and homeopathy (which is, when you boil it down to its essence, sympathetic magic) fall into the category of therapeutic modalities that are based on fantasy but are studied as with the latest tools of science, producing no end to confusing noise. This “tooth fairy science” has, over the last few years, reached its epitome in the application of the latest genomics technology to, in essence, magic, and I’ve recently come across an incredible example of just such a thing. But, first, let’s take a step back to what is going on in medical science now before I introduce a concept that I’ve dubbed “woo-omics.”

A prelude to woo-omics: Genomics, proteomics, everywhere an “omics”

One of the most difficult problems in science-based medicine is how to do a better job identifying which patients will respond to which treatments. Clinical trials, by their very design, have to look at average responses in populations. In essence, a treatment is compared to either placebo or standard-of-care, a choice mainly driven by ethics and whether effective treatments exist for the condition being studied. It is then determined using statistics whether a significant difference exists between the two groups. The difficulty, as any clinician knows, is applying the results of clinical trials to individual patients. In any population, there is, after all, a range of responses to any drug or treatment, and it would be desirable to be able to predict which patients will fall at the end of the bell-shaped curve where the treatment is most effective and which will fall at the end of the curve where the treatment works poorly or not at all.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Reporting back on my Grand Rounds experience at FSU

Last Thursday, I had the distinct privilege and honor to be invited to speak at Grand Rounds at the Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee. Ray Bellamy, who is on the faculty there and is also the husband of our very own Jann Bellamy (who is herself is the founder of the Campaign for Science-based Health Care), invited me down to give a talk on “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM). Although I’ve spoken to skeptics’ groups, such as local groups or even to workshops at The Amazing Meeting, and to medical students’ groups, this represented the first time I had been invited to speak in front of a large group of medical professionals, not all of whom necessarily agreed with our viewpoint here at SBM. So it was with some trepidation that last Wednesday I braved the trip to Tallahassee, with the unfortunately requisite connection in Atlanta that necessitated my practically running from one end of that massive airport to the other in order to make my connection to the little puddle jumper of a jet that took me to Tallahassee. Whether or not my talk was a success or not, readers can judge for themselves, as it’s been posted online on the FSU Grand Rounds page. (Just scroll down to November 10 and then hit the link. Unfortunately, it appears that you’ll need Microsoft Silverlight to get the video to work.) I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but I encourage you to do so and tell me how good (or bad) I was and why. I want to get better, and I won’t rest until I’m as good at communicating medicine as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Wiseman, for instance, is at communicating science.
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Posted in: Medical Academia

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Defining what a “physician” is

The very concepts of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM), the former of which “complements” science-based medicine with quackery and the latter of which “integrates” pseudoscience-based with science-based medicine are all about slapping a veneer of scientific legitimacy onto something that has failed to achieve such legitimacy through actual basic, translational, and clinical science. The reason I start out by saying this is to emphasize that CAM/IM is all about using language to persuade that pseudoscience is actually science-based. It’s far more about marketing than accurately communicating concepts. In CAM, everything is “holistic,” and doctors “care for the whole patient,” while “Western medicine” is “reductionistic” and “allopathic.” At the very heart of this language is a false dichotomy: That you must either embrace pseudoscience or that you somehow can’t provide care as compassionate and caring as what the quacks supposedly provide, nor are you able to provide for the emotional needs of your patients. There are two false dichotomies, actually, in that there is also the not-so-subtle implication in CAM that you can’t be truly “holistic” without—you guessed it—embracing the pseudoscience that is at the heart of many CAM/IM modalities.

This use and abuse of language for propagandistic purposes in CAM/IM is not limited to just these examples. In fact, the misuse of language infuses the whole enterprise of CAM/IM to the point that its adherents, not content with being mere “practitioners,” are trying to claim the very title of “physician” for themselves. I learned this from John Weeks, the main force behind the Integrator Blog, a blog dedicated to issues of CAM and IM. He’s the one who first let me know about Andrew Weil’s attempt to put together a board certification in IM. In particular, his reporting on the reaction of CAM/IM practitioners, both physicians and non-physicians, to this initiative by Andrew Weil was most illuminating to me. What was most telling was how further propagandistic use of the language focused on “dominance” by MDs, which in this case struck me as actually being closer to the truth than the usual CAM-speak is. In any case, Dr. Weil’s initiative does indeed appear to be more about taking control of CAM for physicians, his high-minded language about “establishing standards” notwithstanding.

This time around, Weeks has provided me with an education about how alternative/CAM/integrative practitioners now covet the title of “physician”. In the process, he also uses and abuses language in the same way that Andrew Weil and CAM/IM advocates do. This time around, it’s all about co-opting the title of “physician” for non-physician CAM practitioners. It’s bad enough to me when actual physicians are seduced by the pseudoscience of CAM, but this effort appears to be an intentional strategy designed to confuse the public by proclaiming as physicians practitioners who lack the essential skills to be a physician, such as acupuncturists, chiropractors, homeopaths, and naturopaths.
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Posted in: Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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The Greater Good: Pure, unadulterated anti-vaccine propaganda masquerading as a “balanced” documentary

I’ve heard it said (actually, I’ve said it myself) that if you don’t have the science and evidence to back up your point of view, in order to persuade someone, make a movie. At least, this seems to be the philosophy of a number of cranks who have produced movies promoting pseudoscience over the last five years or so. The first one of these movies that really caught my attention was an anti-evolution, pro-”intelligent design” creationism documentary narrated by Ben Stein and released in 2008, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie was pure creationist propaganda, complete with Ben Stein visiting Auschwitz and Dachau, the better to try to link “Darwinism” to the Holocaust.

Movies promoting religious pseudoscience such as intelligent design creationism are not the only kinds of pseudoscience propaganda films. Indeed, medicine is rife with them, and Wally Sampson has referred to this particularly pernicious genre of documentary as “medical propaganda films.” During the existence of this blog, we’ve reviewed a few such films (or at least written about what we could find out about them without paying for the DVD). For example, I’ve written about The Beautiful Truth, a paean to the Gerson protocol for cancer, complete with coffee enemas, and reviewed Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days, a film dedicated to the claim that you can cure almost everything (including not just type II but type I diabetes) with a raw vegan diet. Harriet reviewed The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing, a movie promoting “energy medicine” quackery. There’s even a film out now praising Stanley Burzynski and his highly dubious “antineoplaston” therapy that I’ve been meaning to review. I finally found a free copy of it to watch, and perhaps I’ll get to it before the end of the month. In the meantime, there’s a documentary people have been begging me to check out called The Greater Good that has been making the rounds of various film festivals and will be debuting at the IFC Center in New York on November 18. The very fact that Joe Mercola has hosted the movie streaming on his website in celebration of what he and Barbara Loe Fisher have dubbed “Vaccine Awareness Week” should tell you all you need to know about the movie.

I’m going to tell you more, though, because I’ve actually managed to sit through the whole thing. The things I do for my readers! To give you an idea of what you’re in for (in case the video is no longer available by the time that you read this), here’s the trailer:

The first thing I noticed about The Greater Good is that it’s slick and very well produced—considerably better produced, I think, than Expelled! The only aspect of it that I found annoying (besides the sheer quantity of anti-vaccine misinformation, pseudoscience, talking points, and distortions, all of which were plenty annoying) was the little animated segments. (Well, the little animated segments and any segment featuring Dr. Bob Sears.) However, given the sheer mass of anti-vaccine propaganda contained within this documentary, quibbling about a stylistic element like that is rather like quibbling about the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The documentary is structured, as many documentaries are, around three families, the better to provide the human interest “hook” for the rest of the story. Interspersed with segments about each family are interviews with various experts. Perhaps I should say two experts arrayed against a whole lot of “experts,” because defending vaccines we have real experts like Dr. Paul Offit; Dr. Melinda Wharton of the CDC; Dr. Norman Baylor, who is Director of the Office of Vaccines Research and Review in the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research; and Dr. Mark B. Feinberg, Vice President for Medical Affairs and Policy for Merck Vaccines and Infectious Diseases at Merck & Co., Inc. Arrayed against them we have a whole lot of anti-vaccine pseudoexperts, such as Barbara Loe Fisher, grande dame of the anti-vaccine movement and founder of the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC); Dr. Bob Sears, a pediatrician known for his non-science-based “alternative” vaccination schedule, who of late appears to have ceased mere flirting with the anti-vaccine movement and thrown his lot in with it; Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a “wholistic” pediatrician; Dr. John Green III, who is described as a “specialist in clinical ecology and nutritional medicine“; and several trial lawyers known for representing parents suing for “vaccine injury,” lawyers such as Clifford Shoemaker, Kevin Conway, and Renee Gentry.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Pox parties taken to the next (illegal) level

Normally, we don’t post on weekends on this particular blog, mainly because most of our readership visits during the week and we don’t have enough bloggers to cover the weekend reliably anyway. However, occasionally something happens that’s so bizarre, so worrisom that we can’t wait until Monday. I don’t even care if I’m late to the party after Tara, Mike the Mad Biologist, The Biology Files, Todd, and probably several others whom I’ve missed.

Regular readers of this blog and anyone who’s ever followed the anti-vaccine movement more than superficially have probably heard of pox parties. These are, yes, parties where parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children against chickenpox, hoping for “natural immunity,” expose their children who have never had chickenpox to children with active chickenpox in order to intentionally infect them with the disease. (Thanks, Mom and Dad, for a couple of weeks worth of misery and intense itching and a small chance of serious complications!) Although there might have been a weak rationale for such activities back before there was a vaccine for chickenpox, today pox parties are about as dumb a concept as I can think of and only make sense in the context of equally idiotic anti-vaccine pseudoscience, and apparently, as is the case with many idiotic things, has co-opted Facebook and other discussion forums as a means of getting like minded (if you can call what is behind this a “mind”) together for purposes of inflicting misery on their children. One such page even has a Quack Miranda-style warning:
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Posted in: Vaccines

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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.
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