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An update on the case of Sarah Hershberger: Parental rights trump the right of a child with cancer to live

Five weeks ago, when last I touched on the case of Sarah Hershberger, the now 11-year-old Amish girl from Medina County, Ohio near Akron with lymphoblastic lymphoma whose parents had taken her off of chemotherapy after only two rounds, reports had been coming out of the cancer quackery underground that Sarah’s parents, Andy and Anna Hershberger, had fled to avoid a court order that appointed a medical guardian for her to make sure that she received appropriate science-based therapy. At the time I was unable to confirm these stories in the mainstream press. However, over the last month there have been significant developments in this case and even over the last week; so I thought that now would be a good time to update SBM readers on developments in the case.

The Thanksgiving confirmation

One thing that I didn’t mention a month ago is that David Michael and others have been actively raising money to support the Hershbergers’ legal battles. Then, over the long Thanksgiving Day weekend news reports began to trickle out confirming what the “alternative” health sites had been reporting, namely that the Hershbergers had fled. These reports started with story from a local Medina newspaper, then spread to a northeast Ohio television stations, and then to national news sources (like Good Morning America and CNN) and international news outlets. The Medina Gazette first reported:
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Posted in: Cancer, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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The Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients need your help

We at SBM don’t normally ask our readers for much, if anything, other than to read and for the subset of you who like to be active in the comments to have at it. However, given the story of Stanislaw Burzysnki, which I’ve been covering with frequent blog posts for over two years now, how could I not listen to the appeal of my friend and co-conspirator (note to Burzysnki fans: that “co-conspirator” bit was sarcasm) to take action in the wake of the USA TODAY story that ran two and a half weeks ago. Despite the disingenuousness of Burzynski’s response, unfortunately he’s still managing to find his way into legitimate scientific meetings.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Vaccines work. Period.

Over my blogging “career,” which now stretches back nearly nine years, and my hobby before that of engaging in online “debates” on Usenet newsgroups back before 2004, I developed an interest in the antivaccine movement. Antivaccinationism, “antivax,” or whatever you want to call it, represents a particularly insidious and dangerous form of quackery because it doesn’t just endanger the children whose parents don’t vaccinate them. It also endangers children who are vaccinated, because vaccines are not 100% effective. The best vaccines have effectiveness rates in the 90%-plus range, but that still leaves somewhere up to 10% of children unprotected. Worse, because herd immunity requires in general approximately 90% of the population and above to be vaccinated against a vaccine-preventable disease to put the damper on outbreaks, it doesn’t take much of a degradation of vaccination rates to put a population in danger of outbreaks. That’s why, even though overall vaccine uptake is high in the US, we still see outbreaks, because there are areas with pockets of nonvaccinators and antivaccinationists who drive vaccine uptake down to dangerous levels. We’ve seen this in California and elsewhere. Other countries have observed even more dramatic examples, the most well-known being the way that fear of the MMR vaccine stoked by Andrew Wakefield’s bad science and the fear mongering of the British press led MMR uptake to plummet. The result? Measles came roaring back in the UK and Europe, from having been considered under control in the 1990s to being endemic again by 2008.

As much as I get chastised by concern trolls for saying this, to antivaccinationists it really is all about the vaccines. Always. They blame autism, other neurodevelopmental conditions, and a wide variety of chronic diseases on vaccines, without evidence that there is even a correlation. They even falsely blame sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) on vaccines, even though there is no evidence of an association and, indeed, existing evidence suggests that vaccines likely have a protective effect against SIDS more than anything else. No matter what happens, no matter what the evidence says, antivaccinationists will always find a way to blame bad things on vaccines, even going so far as to claim at times that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury.

One thing, however, that is often forgotten, is that they also do their utmost to downplay the beneficial effects of vaccines. One such tactic is for antivaccinationists to claim that the pertussis vaccine doesn’t work because we are seeing resurgences of pertussis even in the face of high vaccine uptake. For example, another common trope is what I like to refer to as the “vaccines didn’t save us” or the “vaccines don’t work” gambit, in which it is pointed out that the introduction of vaccines doesn’t correlate tightly with drops in mortality from various diseases. Julian Whitaker even used this gambit when he debated Steve Novella. The fundamental flaw in this trope neglects the contribution of better medical care to the survival of more victims of disease, which decreased mortality. If you look at graphs of disease incidence you will see a profound and powerful effect of the introduction of vaccines on specific vaccine-preventable diseases. In other words, vaccines work. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health, Vaccines

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“Low T”: The triumph of marketing over science

A man on TV is selling me a miracle cure that will keep me young forever. It’s called Androgel…for treating something called Low T, a pharmaceutical company–recognized condition affecting millions of men with low testosterone, previously known as getting older.

The Colbert Report, December 2012

 

And now for something completely different…sort of.

After writing so much about the latest developments in the ongoing saga of the cancer doctor who is not an oncologist and not a legitimate cancer researcher, plus a rumination on what’s up with President Obama’s nominee for Surgeon General and our favorite form of unscientific medicine, so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), also known as “integrative medicine,” I thought it was time for a change of pace. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about as Sunday rolled around, but fortunately, as sometimes happens, the New York Times dropped a topic right in my lap, so to speak, both figuratively and literally. It comes in the form of a long article on something that directly concerns men of a certain age, which unfortunately happens to mean men of my age and older. I’m referring to what pharmaceutical company advertising campaigns have dubbed “low T,” short for low testosterone. It’s not clear how the term “low T” originated but Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, founder of Men’s Health Boston, claims to have coined the term when his patients were embarrassed by their difficulty pronouncing the word “testosterone.” Other sources report that it was Solvay Pharmaceuticals that coined the phrase. It doesn’t really matter where the term “low T” came from. The term has stuck, even though the more “correct” medical term would be hypogonadism, as in a man’s testes not working.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media

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The new Surgeon General nominee and CAM: Is there a problem here?

Our fearless leader, Steve Novella, has informed me that he is traveling today. Unfortunately, I am preparing a talk for later today, and no one else seemed able to come up with a post; so I decided to adapt a recent post from my not-so-super-secret other blog and see what a different readership thought of it. I realize that I’m risking subjecting you all to Gorski overload, but, hey, if the world needs more Mark Crislip, why wouldn’t the world need more David Gorski too? Steve will return next Wednesday, as usual.

I don’t normally give a lot of thought to the Surgeon General because, quite frankly, in recent years it hasn’t been a position of much authority or influence. That’s why I didn’t noticed late last week that President Obama had nominated a new Surgeon General. Normally, my failure to notice isn’t such a big deal, because there really hasn’t been a Surgeon General who has really been particularly well-known or had much of an impact since Dr. C. Everett Koop, although back when President Obama first took office Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s name was floated as a possibility for the position. Obviously, he didn’t get it. (I’m guessing that being a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent probably pays much better than being Surgeon General.) To be honest, I didn’t even know that the prior Surgeon General had stepped down, but apparently she did in July, leaving the position filled by an interim Surgeon General until a new one could be nominated.

The other day, I learned whom President Obama nominated to be her successor, Dr. Vivek Murthy, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School:

President Obama will nominate Dr. Vivek Murthy of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital as surgeon general of the United States, the White House announced Thursday night.

Murthy is a hospitalist at the Brigham and is co-founder and president of Doctors for America, a Washington, D.C.-based group of 16,000 physicians and medical students that advocates for access to affordable, high quality health care and has been a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

If he’s confirmed by the Senate, Murthy would replace acting surgeon general Boris Lushniak. The surgeon general serves a four-year term and the post is essentially a bully pulpit to speak out on public health issues.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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The Burzynski Empire strikes back

You might have noticed that I was very pleased last Friday, very pleased indeed. Given the normal subject matter of this blog, in which we face a seemingly-unrelenting infiltration of pseudoscience and quackery into even the most hallowed halls of academic medicine, against which we seem to be fighting a mostly losing battle, having an opportunity to see such an excellent deconstruction of bad science and bad medicine in a large mainstream news outlet like USA TODAY is rare and gratifying. As you might recall, USA TODAY reporter Liz Szabo capped off a months-long investigation of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his Burzynski Clinic with an excellent (and surprisingly long and detailed) report, complete with sidebars explaining why cancer experts don’t think that Burzysnki’s anecdotes are compelling evidence that his treatment, antineoplastons, has significant anticancer activity and a human interest story about patients whom Burzynski took to the cleaners. Most of this, of course, is no news to SBM readers, as I’ve been writing about Dr. Burzynski on a fairly regular basis for over two years now. It’s just amazing to see it all boiled down into three articles and ten short videos in the way that Szabo and USA TODAY did, to be read by millions, instead of the thousands who read this blog. Szabo also found out who the child was who died of hypernatremia due to antineoplastons in June 2012, a death that precipitated the partial clinical hold on Burzynski’s bogus clinical trials, about which both Liz Szabo and I have quoted Burzynski’s own lawyer, Richard Jaffe, from his memoir, first about Burzynski’s “wastebasket” trial, CAN-1:

As far as clinical trials go, it was a joke…it was all an artifice, a vehicle we and the FDA created to legally give the patients Burzynski’s treatment. The FDA wanted all of Burzynski’s patients to be on an IND, so that’s what we did.

And Jaffe’s characterization of the six dozen phase II clinical trials that Burzynski submitted in the late 1990s was this:

A cancer clinic cannot survive on existing patients. It needs a constant flow of new patients. So in addition to getting the CAN-1 trial approved, we had to make sure Burzynski could treat new patients. Mindful that he would likely only get one chance to get them approved, Burzynski personally put together seventy-two protocols to treat every type of cancer the clinic had treated and everything Burzynski wanted to treat in the future…Miracle of miracles, all of Burzynski’s patients were now on FDA-approved clinical trials, and he would be able to treat almost any patient he would want to treat!

I’m just repeating those quotes again, because they can’t be emphasized enough. Quite frankly, if I were Burzynski, I’d fire Jaffe for having published such statements in his book. But that’s just me. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the counterattack and why Burzynski’s excuses regarding the deficiencies found in the FDA reports do not ring true.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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USA Today versus Stanislaw Burzynski

This is an SBM public service announcement—with blogging! Think of it as a bonus post, and don’t forget to read Mark Crislip’s regular biweekly offering, as it’s about an article in Skeptical Inquirer that particularly irritated him—and me, as well. Because, as we all know, the world needs more Mark Crislip.

I’ve made no secret of how much I despise Stanislaw Burzynski, the self-proclaimed cancer doctor and medical researcher who has been treating patients with an unproven, unapproved chemotherapeutic agent since 1977, seemingly slithering around, under, over, and past all attempts to investigate him and shut him down. Indeed, just type his name in the search box of this blog, and you will see copious evidence of my disdain for the man. Over 37 years, Burzynski has become a hero to the cancer quackery industry, touted as the man who can cure incurable cancers that science-based medicine can’t, even though his treatment, antineoplastons, allegedly peptides isolated from blood and urine that normally keep cancer in check in healthy people, are by any reasonable definition chemotherapy. Indeed, they are toxic, with a number of side effects reported, the most common and dangerous of which being life-threatening hypernatremia (elevated sodium levels in the blood). All you have to do is to type Burzynski’s name into the search box of this blog, and you’ll find copious documentation of the abuses of patients, science, and clinical trials perpetrated by Stanislaw Burzynski and the cult of personality that has evolved around him. He’s even acquired his very own film propagandist, a credulous fellow named Eric Merola, who has made two astoundingly bad documentaries that are nothing more than unabashed hagiographies of the brave maverick doctor curing cancer where no one else can. They’re chock full of misinformation, pseudoscience, spin, and obvious emotional manipulation, and the first one at least, was very popular.

For the longest time, I’ve been hoping that major mainstream news organizations would take this story on. It’s happened from time to time, but until 2013 it hadn’t happened in a long time. Earlier this year, the BBC featured Burzynski in an episode of its long-running series Panorama. It was a mixed bag that took the fairly easy path of making it all about the patients and never really delved into what I believe to be the central mystery of the four-decade-long Stanislaw Burzynski story, and that’s how he’s managed to keep his medical license and register clinical trials right up until 2012. That was a disappointment, although much of the rest of the Panorama episode was very good. He still has his medical license, but as I’ve pointed out several times, the FDA placed a partial clinical hold on Burzynski’s antineoplaston phase II clinical trials back in the summer of 2012. A partial clinical hold means that no new patients could be enrolled, but patients already on them could continue to receive treatment. In 2012, apparently a child died on antineoplastons, and so a partial clinical hold was placed on the trials involving children. That clinical hold was extended to adults in January 2012, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Burzynski apologists, as the FDA investigated between January and March. We now know the results of that investigation, but we never knew much about how that partial clinical hold came about.

Now, thanks to Liz Szabo at USA Toda, we know from her article “Doctor accused of selling false hope to families“:
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Revealed by the FDA: The results of the most recent inspection of the Burzynski Clinic

After posting the talks that Bob Blaskiewicz and I gave at TAM this year, I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve written about the topic of those talks, namely Stanislaw Burzynski, the Houston cancer doctor who inexplicably has been permitted to continue to administer an unproven cancer treatment to children with deadly brain cancers for nearly 37 years now. Beginning in 1977, when he left Baylor College of Medicine and opened up the Burzynski Clinic, Burzynski has administered a cancer therapy that he calls antineoplastons to patients. After nearly four decades and several dozen phase II clinical trials started, he has never published a completed phase II trial. The only evidence he’s published consists mainly of cell culture studies, case reports, and couple of preliminary reports of his phase II clinical trials. Of course, Burzynski’s lawyer, Richard Jaffe, even dismissively admitted that these clinical trials are designed solely to allow Burzynski to keep giving antineoplastons.

So Burzynski operated from the late 1990s until summer 2012, charging exorbitant “case management” fees to enroll patients in his clinical trials, working with a credulous filmmaker who wanted to make a movie about him—twice—and flouting regulations designed to protect human subjects involved in clinical trials. Meanwhile, he branched out to “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” which he promoted through Suzanne Somers; to AminoCare, which is basically antineoplastons sold as an antiaging nostrum (or, as Burzynski puts it, a “genetic solution to aging“); and to selling an orphan drug as a “prodrug” for antineoplastons.

So what happened in the summer of 2012? Apparently, there was a treatment-related death of a child, which led the FDA to issue a partial clinical hold on the Burzynski Clinic that prevented him from enrolling any new children on his clinical trials, although he could keep treating existing patients and enroll new adult patients. That partial clinical hold was extended to adults in January 2013, at which time the FDA arrived at the Burzynski Clinic to investigate. It was an event that was included at the tail end of Eric Merola’s second propaganda film about Stanislaw Burzynski and represented as, in essence, jackbooted fascists trying to keep the cure for cancer from The People. None of this stops credulous reporters from writing misleading articles with titles like Young mother with brain cancer given just a year to live BEATS the disease and gets married after having controversial treatment in the US, which is a story about Laura Hymas, a woman whose good fortune is most likely not due to Burzynski. Not long before that, there was another credulous article featuring another Burzynski patient, Hannah Bradley, as one of four patients treated for cancer with alternative therapies who are allegedly doing well. Again, Hannah Bradley’s good fortune is highly unlikely to be due to Burzynski’s nostrums.

All of this is why those of us who follow Burzynski have been waiting with the proverbial bated breath to find out what the FDA concluded. Just before the government shutdown the first shoe dropped, when the FDA released a warning letter to the Burzynski Research Institute (BRI). Then last week, the second shoe dropped, when the FDA released the original forms describing its findings regarding the inspection. The findings are, to put it mildly, damning in the extreme. In fact, now, more than ever, I wonder how on earth Burzynski has been allowed to continue to run clinical trials—or even practice—for so long. The findings include massive deficiencies in the Burzynski institutional review board (IRB), the committee responsible for making sure that regulations designed to protect human subjects in research are adhered to.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Medical cranks: Why we fight

Never let it be said that I can’t match Mark Crislip in shameless self-promotion. The world might indeed need more Mark Crislip™, but I like to think that it needs a bit more David Gorski, too. So, in that spirit, here are the videos, recently released by the James Randi Educational Foundation, of Bob Blaskiewicz, myself, and some key SBM players that you’ve come to know and love. The first video is my talk at The Amazing Meeting in July about Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. It’s entitled Why We Fight (Part I): Stanislaw Burzynski Versus Science-Based Medicine. The second video is Bob Blaskiewicz, of Skeptical Humanities and The Other Burzynski Patient Group, It’s entitled, appropriately enough, Why We Fight (Part II): It’s All About the Patients. The third video is of the panel that followed to discuss Medical Cranks and Quacks. Enjoy!

Oh, and consider it a bit of a taste of what’s to come tomorrow…and don’t forget to pay attention to Bob Blaskiewicz’s plea at the end of his talk to contact him if you’re interested in becoming active. At TAM, he had a sign-up sheet that he discussed at around 21:06 in the video. Online, just mosey on over to The Other Burzynski Patient Group and contact Bob Blaskiewicz. We will very likely be asking you to help very soon.

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The sad saga of an Amish girl with a curable cancer whose parents are refusing chemotherapy in favor of “natural healing”

Over at my not-so-super secret other blog, one common type of story that I’ve blogged about has been that of the “chemotherapy refusenik.” It’s a topic I write about here not infrequently as well. People like Suzanne Somers and Chris Wark come to mind, mostly people who had effective surgical therapy for their cancers and then decided to forego adjuvant chemotherapy in favor of quackery. Not surprisingly, they attribute their having beaten cancer not to the surgery that saved them but to the woo du jour that they chose instead of chemotherapy, not understanding that such chemotherapy is not the cure; it only reduces the risk of recurrence after surgical extirpation of the tumor. What I haven’t discussed as much here as I have over there are cases of children with cancer whose parents refuse effective chemotherapy to treat their malignancy (other than Daniel Hauser). Because most childhood cancers are not treated with surgery, chemotherapy ± radiation therapy really is the primary therapeutic modality for most of them; so refusing it has a very high probability of resulting in the unnecessary death of a child. Generally pediatric cancers have an 80-90% five year survival, and recurrences after five years are rare, which, as I described recently, is an enormous improvement over 40 years ago.

Sadly, there have been many such cases, such as the aforementioned Daniel Hauser, Abraham Cherrix, Kate Wernecke, and Jacob Stieler. All of these are stories of children who were diagnosed with highly curable cancers who refused either chemotherapy or radiation therapy and were supported in that decision by their parents. Indeed, of these, Cherrix, Hauser, and Wernecke ran away with their parents to avoid chemotherapy. They all came back, but with different results. Hauser came back, started chemotherapy again, and is doing well. Cherrix ultimately came back, but the court made a deal with his parents that let him be treated by an “integrative medicine” doctors who treated him with low dose radiation and a bogus “immunotherapy.” As a result, several years later his tumor recurred, and he was last seen earlier this year asking for money for treatment. His battle in the courts in Virginia also inspired the passage of a supremely bad law that basically allows open season on teens for quackery. Wernecke disappeared when her parents refused radiation therapy after having undergone chemotherapy and took her for intravenous high dose vitamin C. In 2007, her cancer recurred, but the recurrence appeared to have been treated successfully. It’s not clear how much conventional therapy she had received, at least as of 2010, which was the last time I could find anything about her online.

The latest of these cases that has come to my attention is the case of a 10-year-old Amish girl from Medina County in Ohio named Sarah Hershberger, who developed T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive form of lymphoma, underwent chemotherapy for a few weeks, and then decided she didn’t want it anymore. Her parents, convinced that the chemotherapy was killing her, instead of insisting that she undergo potentially curative therapy, which her doctors estimated to have an 85% chance of eliminating her cancer, refused to let undergo any further therapy. This led to a court case in which Akron Children’s Hospital (ACH) sued to obtain medical guardianship of the girl in order to make sure that she would undergo curative chemotherapy. The first ruling in the case in a Medina County court was for the parents. Then on appeal the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals ordered Medina County Judge John Lohn to take another look at the case, ruling that he had failed to weigh adequately which course would best serve her interests — the decision of her parents to withhold treatment (at her request) or to appoint a limited guardian to make medical decisions, as proposed by Akron Children’s Hospital. Amazingly, Judge Lohn reiterated his previous ruling, finding that appointment of a guardian would interfere “with Sarah’s need and desire to be cared for by her loving parents” and stating that “the guardianship will not promote Sarah’s interests.” One month ago, Judge Lohn’s decision was reversed on appeal to the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals, which caused everyone’s favorite quackery supporter to lose his mind in rage.

Since then the case has only gotten stranger, as hard as it is to believe. Indeed, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on, although discussing the case allows me to discuss a both the science and ethics of treating children with cancer using science-based modalities.
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Posted in: Cancer, Medical Ethics, Religion

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