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Autism prevalence: Now estimated to be one in 68, and the antivaccine movement goes wild

There used to be a time when I dreaded Autism Awareness Month, which begins tomorrow. The reason was simple. Several years ago to perhaps as recently as three years ago, I could always count on a flurry of stories about autism towards the end of March and the beginning of April about autism. That in and of itself isn’t bad. Sometimes the stories were actually informative and useful. However, in variably there would be a flurry of truly aggravating stories in which the reporter, either through laziness, lack of ideas, or the desire to add some spice and controversy to his story, would cover the “vaccine angle.” Invariably, the reporter would either fall for the “false balance” fallacy, in which advocates of antivaccine pseudoscience like Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, Dr. Jay Gordon, and others would be interviewed in the same story as though they expressed a viewpoint that was equally valid as that of real scientists like Paul Offit, representatives of the CDC, and the like. Even if the view that there is no good evidence that vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism were forcefully expressed, the impression left behind would be that there was actually a scientific debate when there is not. Sometimes, antivaccine-sympathetic reporters would simply write antivaccine stories.

I could also count on the antivaccine movement to go out of its way to try to implicate vaccines as a cause of the “autism” epidemic, taking advantage of the increased media interest that exists every year around this time. Examples abound, such as five years ago when Generation Rescue issued its misinformation-laden “Fourteen Studies” website, to be followed by a propaganda tour by Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey visiting various media outlets to promote the antivaccine message.
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Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Epidemiology, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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A little more weekend shameless self-promotion to spread an important message about Stanislaw Burzynski

Weekends seem to be the time for shameless self-promotion. At least, some weekends are. So, in that tradition, I can’t help blowing my own horn a bit and urging SBM readers to head on over to listen to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Episode #455, March 29, 2014. There, Bob Blaskiewicz and I are interviewed about Stanislaw Burzynski and what you, as supporters of science-based medicine, can do to counter the efforts of his supporters to pressure the FDA to let children with cancer receive antineoplastons, efforts that are yielding fruit.

Bob Blaskiewicz has set up a Change.org petition “Protect Desperate Patients from the Houston Cancer Quack“. Bob and I urge you to check it out and sign it.

In the meantime, for those of you in Rep. Darrell Issa’s district, note that I will be in San Diego from April 5th to 9th attending the American Association for Cancer Research Meeting. If there are any skeptics in the San Diego area who would like advice on getting this message to Rep. Issa and/or having a meetup, drop me a line at my e-mail address on our contact page.

Posted in: Announcements, Cancer

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Stanislaw Burzynski’s propaganda victory on antineoplastons: The FDA caves

Mark Crislip, founder of the Society for Science-Based Medicine, whose board of directors I’m proud to be serving on, an organization that you should join if you haven’t already, sometimes jokes that our logo should be an image of Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra whom Zeus punished by compelling him to roll an immense boulder up a hill. However, the boulder was enchanted and, as soon as Sisyphus reached the top, it would roll back down the hill. Sisyphus was thus forced to repeat this action throughout all eternity. The metaphor is obvious. Those of us who try to combat quackery and the infiltration of pseudoscience in medicine often feel a lot like Sisyphus. I always used to argue that, as amusing as it might be to have such a logo as an “in” joke, it’s far too much of a downer to inspire what SSBM wants to inspire: Action in the form of volunteers taking on projects, such as converting Quackwatch into a wiki and then continuously updating and adding to that wiki indefinitely. We have to believe that there is hope of someday succeeding. “Let’s push that boulder up a hill one more time!” does not exactly constitute an inspiring rally cry, although I can definitely understand the feeling at times the older I get and the longer I’ve been doing this. We can all appreciate gallows humor at times, and, besides, I’m not that pessimistic. I can’t afford to be.

Even so, I can understand the Sisyphus analogy right now with respect to an unfortunately frequent subject of this blog, the doctor in Houston who proclaims himself a cancer doctor, even though he has no formal training in medical oncology, isn’t even board-certified in internal medicine, the prerequisite for undertaking advanced training in medical oncology, and has no discernable training in clinical trials management. I’m referring, of course, to Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, the Polish doctor who since 1977 has been treating patients with substances that he has dubbed “antineoplastons” (ANPs). What are ANPs? Burzynski claimed to have discovered ANPs during his time at Baylor and described them as endogenous cancer-fighting chemicals in human blood and urine. Unfortunately, he soon became convinced that only he could develop them into an effective chemotherapy drug and left Baylor to administer ANPs to his own cancer patients. Patients flocked to him because he claimed to be able to cure cancers that conventional medicine can’t cure.

This led to a series of battles between Burzynski and various authorities, including the Texas Medical Board, the FDA, and various attorneys general, because of his use of ANPs, which are not and never have been FDA approved, as well as for various—shall we say?—issues with insurance companies. Ultimately, in the 1990s Burzynski beat the rap and effectively neutered the FDA’s case against him by submitting dozens of clinical trials to the FDA for approval, which, given how much pressure the FDA was under from Burzynski’s friends in high places (like Texas Representative Joe Barton), the FDA ended up approving. However, as Burzynski’s lawyer himself bragged, these clinical trials were shams designed to allow Burzynski to keep treating cancer patients, not clinical trials designed to produce any real evidence of efficacy. Not surprisingly, although Burzynski has published the odd case report or tiny case series, he has not yet published the full results of even a single one of his many phase II trials. There is, quite simply, no convincing evidence that ANPs have significant antitumor activity in vivo in humans, even after 37 years. Meanwhile, the FDA has found numerous examples of Burzynski’s abuse of clinical trials, failure to keep necessary data, and failure to protect human subjects, while exposés by BBC Panorama and Liz Szabo at USA TODAY have been most unflattering, revealing at least one dead child as a result of the toxicity of Burzynski’s drug and a pattern of minimizing and hiding reports of adverse reactions.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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A bit of shameless self-promotion: Dr. Gorski interviewed by Point of Inquiry about Stanislaw Burzynski

Every so often, I or one of my fellow SBM bloggers, is interviewed somewhere. This time, it’s my turn, and this time I was interviewed by Lindsay Beyerstein over at Point of Inquiry. In these days when credulous reporters still, in essence, do Burzynski’s bidding with respect to the message he wants to get out, while Burzynski takes advantage of the desperation of patients with incurable cancers, every little bit helps to counter that message.

Hopefully that’s what I’ve done. Please check out the interview.

Posted in: Cancer

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A tale of quackademic medicine at the University of Arizona Cancer Center

Quackademic medicine.

I love that term, because it succinctly describes the infiltration of pseudoscientific medicine into medical academia. As I’ve said many times, I wish I had been the one to coin the phrase, but I wasn’t. To the best of my ability to determine, I first picked it up from Dr. R. W. Donnell back in 2008 and haven’t been able to find an earlier use of the term. As much as I try to give credit where credit is due, I have, however, appropriated the term “quackademic medicine” (not to mention its variants, like “quackademia”), used it, and tried my best to popularize it among supporters of science-based medicine. Indeed, one of my earliest posts on this blog was about how quackery has infiltrated the hallowed halls of medical academia, complete with links to medical schools that have “integrative medicine” programs and even medical schools that promoted the purely magic-based medical modalities known as reiki and homeopathy. It’s been a recurrent topic on this blog ever since, leading to a number posts on the unethical clinical trials of treatments with zero or minimal pre-trial plausibility, the degradation of the scientific basis of medicine, and the acceptance of magical thinking as a means of treating patients in all too many medical centers.

One strong candidate for quackademic ground zero, if there can be such a thing for the phenomenon like quackademic medicine, which is creeping up like so much kudzu in the cracks of the edifice of science-based medicine (SBM), is the University of Arizona. U. of A. is, of course, the home of one of the originators of the concept of quackademic medicine and one of its most famous and tireless promoters, Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil, as you might recall, has even been the driving force for creating a highly dubious “board certification” in integrative medicine. Sadly, apparently this new board certification has been so popular among physicians wanting to “integrate” a little quackery into their practices, that its first examination has been delayed from May to November 2014, so that the American Board of Physician Specialties can figure out how to accommodate the unexpectedly large number of applicants.

So what happens when a patient arrives at U. of A. for treatment? I found out last week when I received an e-mail, which led to a fairly long e-mail exchange, with a man whose son was diagnosed with leukemia and is being treated at the University of Arizona Cancer Center (UACC). Although this man gave me permission to use his name, I am going to decline to do so because there is a child involved, although anyone involved in his case at U. of A. will likely quickly be able to identify who the man is. It turns out that he is a professor at U. of A. in a humanities department (which is why I’ll refer to him henceforth as the Professor), and, even though he is not a scientist, he clearly knows how to think (which would not be surprising if you knew what department he was in). In his e-mail, he told me how appalled he was at the sorts of treatments being offered to his son:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia, Religion

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Has science-based medicine already lost to pseudoscience?

After writing Saturday’s 5,000-word magnum opus about misguided “right to try” bills that are proliferating in state legislatures like so much kudzu, I thought I’d try something a bit different—and more concise. Fear not. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to become Harriet Hall as a writer, because no one does concise and insightful as well as she does, but I do on occasion want to try my hand being less logorrheic. I’ll probably fail, but at least I can pat myself on the back for trying. If I succeed, though, it’ll only make me better. I hope. I also realize that I just made it harder by blathering on for a whole paragraph before getting to the point, a habit of mine that infuriates some readers and amuses others who find my way of winding towards the point at least somewhat entertaining.

Thus endeth the nauseatingly—but briefer than usual!—self-deprecating navel gazing and beginneth the post.

The opportunity appeared to me in the form of an article that popped up in my feed on Medscape entitled, Do Clinicians Base CAM Recommendations to Patients on Evidence of Efficacy? Since “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) is, by and large, mostly made up of a collection of modalities either based on prescientific thinking and possessing little, if any, plausibility on a scientific basis, my first reaction was to note that health care practitioners do recommend CAM to some patients, meaning that the answer must be, “No,” and then to move on. However, I wanted to see what Dr. Désirée A. Lie, the author, said and to see what the reasons are for whatever answer she came up with. So I read on.

The article starts with a case study:
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Posted in: Science and the Media

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“Right to try” laws and Dallas Buyers’ Club: Great movie, terrible for patients and terrible policy

One of my favorite shows right now is True Detective, an HBO show in which two cops pursue a serial killer over the course of over 17 years. Starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, it’s an amazingly creepy show, and McConaughey is amazing at playing his character, Rustin Cohle. I’m sad that the show will be ending tomorrow, but I really do want to see how it ends.

Unfortunately, as much as I like Matthew McConaughey as an actor, he is in part responsible for re-inspiring a movement that has the potential to do profound harm to patients and cancer research. That’s because his other big role over the last year has been in an Oscar-nominated movie, Dallas Buyers Club, where he plays Ron Woodroof, an early AIDS patient who in the 1980s smuggled unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas when he thought he found them effective at alleviating his symptoms, distributing them to fellow sufferers by establishing the “Dallas Buyers Club” while battling the FDA. I haven’t seen the movie, and I really don’t want to, given that, from everything I’ve heard about it, it’s basically the story of a “brave maverick” who bucks the FDA, complete with all the tropes about indifferent bureaucrats who don’t care if these brave patients die. That might not be so bad if it weren’t also riddled with inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Worse, the real Woodruff rejected the one truly promising drug at the time, AZT, as hopelessly toxic and instead smuggled drugs like Peptide T, which never panned out. Basically, what Woodruff appears to have smuggled as part of his activities for the “Dallas Buyers Club” was a mixture of useless supplements, experimental drugs that were never approved, and a handful of experimental drugs that showed promise. Meanwhile, the movie portrays the FDA as the implacable enemy of these sorts of activities, jackbooted thugs not unlike the stereotype promoted by “health freedom” quacks who don’t like the FDA preventing them from selling their quackery. As far as I can tell without actually seeing the movie, the overall message is a typical uplifting story of an underdog who fights the power and in doing so finds redemption. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Antivaccine happenings ten years time ago

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This is about antivaccine happenings ten years’ time ago. Unfortunately, it’s also about antivaccine happenings now. The reason, and what links the two, is that antivaccine happenings, particularly myths, never seem to die. They just keep coming back over and over again. One myth that’s been recycled since at least 2005 is the one that claims that there’s been a study that has vindicated Andrew Wakefield. Stories pop up every so often that look for all the world as though they’re new claiming that the results of Andrew Wakefield’s original Lancet case series has been replicated. Sadly for Wakefield (and happily for the rest of the world), it’s just not true. I have a Google Alert for vaccines set up, so I see these stories when they pop up periodically. Sometimes they even make an appearance on Facebook and/or Twitter as antivaccine memes.

This time around, what’s happening is not exactly the same thing. The “Wakefield was right” news stories appear to arise organically every so often. I have no idea why. This particular story is one that’s being desperately pushed by antivaccine mavens—again. It’s one that has been desperately promoted dating back to a decade ago, as you will see. Unfortunately, like Jason or Michael Myers in a classic slasher flick, just when you think it’s dead is the time to be vigilant because it’s not. I’m referring to a myth that I’ve been covering on and off for nearly a decade that the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC) has been “hiding evidence” that mercury in vaccines is a major cause of the “autism epidemic.” It’s not true, of course. Indeed, my very first post for this blog lo these six years ago referred to the hypothesis that mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be used in childhood vaccines as a failed hypothesis. And so it is—and remains.
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Posted in: Vaccines

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Eric Merola and Ralph Moss try to exhume the rotting corpse of Laetrile in a new movie

Note: Some of you have probably seen a different version of this post fairly recently. I have a grant deadline this week and just didn’t have time to come up with fresh material up to the standards of SBM. This left me with two choices: Post a “rerun” of an old post, or recycle something. I decided to recycle something for reasons explained in the first paragraph of this post.

As I was deciding what to write about this week, I realized that, surprisingly, there is precious little on Science-Based Medicine about the granddaddy of modern cancer quackery, Laetrile. Given that the final nails were placed in the coffin of the quackery that was Laetrile more than 30 years ago in the form of a clinical trial that didn’t show a hint of a whiff of benefit in cancer patients, many of our younger readers might not even know what Laetrile is. But, as I explained when I wrote about Stanislaw Burzynski’s early years in the 1970s, which happened to be they heyday of Laetrile, in cancer quackery everything old is eventually new again, and Laetrile is apparently soon to be new again. True, it’s never really disappeared completely, because, again, no matter how discredited a cancer quackery is, someone somewhere will keep selling it and some poor cancer patient somewhere will be taken in. In any case, it occurred to me that we at SBM have discussed the politics of Laetrile. Indeed, Kimball Atwood once referred to it as the “the most lucrative health fraud ever perpetrated in the United States.” Moreover, Kimball makes a convincing case that the Laetrile controversy was an important precursor that laid the groundwork for advocates of “alternative medicine”—or, as it later became known, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine—to successfully lobby for the founding at the National Institutes of Health of what later was named the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). However, there didn’t appear to be a post dedicated to discussing Laetrile itself, and something happened last week that allows me to rectify that situation.

So how is Laetrile about to become new again? Remember our old buddy Eric Merola? He’s the guy who made two—count ‘em—two conspiracy-laden, misinformation-ridden, astonishingly bad bits of “great man” propaganda disguised as documentaries about a Houston cancer doctor peddling unproven cancer treatments and charging his patients tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being under his care while receiving this magic elixir, known as antineoplastons. Over the last several months, ever since he unleashed Burzynski: The Sequel on an unprepared and uninterested world, Merola has been hinting about his next project. Given Merola’s involvement in Zeitgeist: The Movie and his primary role in throwing together two hack propaganda pieces that were so blatantly worshipful of Burzynski that Leni Riefenstahl, were she still alive and able to see them, would have told Merola to cool it with the overheated hero worship and portrayal of his movie’s subject as a god-man a bit, I knew his next movie would be more of the same. I also knew it would not be about Burzynski.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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The Canadian National Breast Screening Study ignites a new round in the mammography wars

The last couple of weeks, I’ve made allusions to the “Bat Signal” (or, as I called it, the “Cancer Signal,” although that’s a horrible name and I need to think of a better one). Basically, when the Bat Cancer Signal goes up (hey, I like that one better, but do bats get cancer?), it means that a study or story has hit the press that demands my attention. It happened again just last week, when stories started hitting the press hot and heavy about a new study of mammography, stories with titles like Vast Study Casts Doubts on Value of Mammograms and Do Mammograms Save Lives? ‘Hardly,’ a New Study Finds, but I had a dilemma. The reason is that the stories about this new study hit the press largely last Tuesday and Wednesday, the study having apparently been released “in the wild” Monday night. People were e-mailing me and Tweeting at me the study and asking if I was going to blog it. Even Harriet Hall wanted to know if I was going to cover it. (And you know we all have a damned hard time denying such a request when Harriet makes it.) Even worse, the PR person at my cancer center was sending out frantic e-mails to breast cancer clinicians because the press had been calling her and wanted expert comment. Yikes!

What to do? What to do? My turn to blog here wasn’t for five more days, and, although I have in the past occasionally jumped my turn and posted on a day not my own, I hate to draw attention from one of our other fine bloggers unless it’s something really critical. Yet, in the blogosphere, stories like this have a short half-life. I could have written something up and posted it on my not-so-secret other blog (NSSOB, for you newbies), but I like to save studies like this to appear either first here or, at worst, concurrently with a crosspost at my NSSOB. (Guess what’s happening today?) So that’s what I ended up doing, and in a way I’m glad I did. The reason is that it gave me time to cogitate and wait for reactions. True, it’s at the risk of the study fading from the public consciousness, as it had already begun to do by Friday, but such is life.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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