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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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The return of the revenge of high dose vitamin C for cancer

Somehow, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore—except that we are, as you will soon see.

Because I’m the resident cancer specialist on this blog, it usually falls on me to discuss the various bits of science, pseudoscience, and quackery that come up around the vast collection of diseases known collectively as “cancer.” I don’t mind, any more than my esteemed colleague Dr. Crislip minds discussing infectious diseases and, of course, vaccines, the most effective tool there is to prevent said infectious diseases. In any case, there are certain things that can happen during a week leading up to my Monday posting slot on SBM that are the equivalent of the Bat Signal. Call them the Cancer Signal, if you will. One of these happened last week, thus displacing that post I’ve been meaning to write on a particular topic once again. At this rate, I might just have to find a way to write an extra bonus post. But not this week.

In any case, this week’s Cancer Signal consisted of a series of articles and news reports with titles like:

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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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Animal rights activism: Petitions aren’t science

I had originally planned on writing about a different topic today, but, as is so often the case in blogging, something came up that caught my attention, much as the errant thought of a squirrel distracts Dug the Dog. It’s no big deal. My original topic is not time-sensitive, and I’ll get to it next week (that is, unless something like this happens again). In any case, my tendency towards blogging ADHD notwithstanding, the “inspiration” for this post began on Friday morning, making it timely. Let me tell you what happened, and then I’ll delve into the topic.

We all have our daily rituals, and I’m no different. When I wake up in the morning, I usually check my iPhone to see how many e-mails I’ve gotten overnight. If there’s time before I have to leave for work, I’ll frequently go through them all right then, answering ones I can answer quickly and filing for later responses those that I can’t. If I don’t have time (as in I overslept), I’ll check them whenever I get an opportunity. Last Friday, I was rather surprised to see that the little badge on the Mail app showed well over three times the usual number of messages I get overnight, even accounting for e-mail notifications of comments on the blogs and the usual smattering of mailing list messages and the odd junk spam that got through the filters. So having that many messages in my unread mail queue caught my attention. Even when a new troll shows up in the comments of one of the blogs, I usually don’t get that many notifications. I figured I’d better go and check to see what was going on right then, rather than waiting until later. What I found was something that I never would have guessed.

As odd as it seems to me now, I had apparently been targeted by a Change.org petition Animal Experimenters – JUSTIFY YOUR SCIENCE CLAIMS. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Evolution

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pH Miracle Living “Dr.” Robert O. Young is finally arrested, but will it stop him?

pH Miracle Living “Dr.” Robert O. Young is finally arrested, but will it stop him?

Being a cancer surgeon and researcher, naturally I tend to write about cancer a lot more than other areas of medicine and science. It’s what I know best. Also, cancer is a very common area for unscientific practices to insinuate themselves, something that’s been true for a very long time. The ideas don’t change very rapidly, either. Drop a cancer quack from 2014 into 1979, and he would probably be right at home. Of course, part of the reason is because the “elder statesmen” of cancer quackery today were getting their starts in 1979. Still, the same ideas keep recurring even as far back as a century ago and even older, and if you broaden your criteria, these ideas exist on a continuum, either having descended directly from various ancient ideas such as vitalism, miasmas, or humoral theory or branched off somewhere along the way. Others branch off from the progress of science, taking a germ of a seemingly reasonable idea and turning it into quackery. It is the latter with which I plan on concerning myself today, the reason being that over the weekend I heard some truly awesome news. One of the most egregiously practicing non-physicians who claim to be able to cure cancer that I’ve ever encountered was arrested—yes, arrested!—and arraigned on criminal charges. I’m referring to “Dr. Alkaline” himself, he of the pH Miracle Living program and his Articles of Health blog, “Dr.” Robert O. Young. Behold:
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Posted in: Cancer, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Stanislaw Burzynski: Using 1990s techniques to battle the FDA today

It figures that I couldn’t go three weeks into 2014 without the topic of Stanislaw Burzynski rearing its ugly head. I had hoped to make it to February or even beyond before feeling the gravitational tug of the wretched hive of ignominious and unethical behavior, but here we are, only 20 days into the new year. So be it.

2013 finished with serious setbacks for Stanislaw Burzynski and his unproven cancer treatment that he dubbed “antineoplastons” (ANPs) way back in the early 1970s. As you might recall, in November, two things happened. First, the FDA released its initial reports on its inspection of the Burzynski Clinic and Burzynski Research Institute (BRI) carried out from January to March 2013. They were damning in the extreme, pointing out the shoddy operating methods of the institutional review board (IRB) used by the BRI to approve and oversee Burzynski’s “clinical trials” (and I use the term loosely) of ANPs. Violations included using expedited approvals to review single patient protocols, something so far outside the purview of what the expedited approval process was intended for, namely approving minor tweaks to human subjects research protocols without requiring a full meeting of the IRB, that the FDA called Burzynski out for it. Other violations included failure to report serious adverse events (SAEs) and adverse events (AEs) to the FDA and/or the IRB, failure to follow proper informed consent procedures, failure to determine that risks to subjects were minimized and that risks to subjects were reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits, if any, and a lot of other violations, which are listed in my previous post on the subject. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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