Archive for Basic Science

Fields, Alternative Medicine, and Physics

In 1996 the American Physical Society, responding to a request from the National Research Council, was asked to examine the potential health hazards of power lines. One of the concerns was that electromagnetic background fields of 2 milligauss might cause cancer (for comparison the earth’s magnetic field is 500 milligauss and fields generated by human physiological processes are hundreds of thousands of times less than 2 milligauss). Monitors of outdoor exposure for children to wear were marketed to parents. “Some city regulations sought to constrain B fields to less than 2 milligauss”. The report, which was a comprehensive study of the alleged dangers, included both molecular and epidemiologic studies and found that no adverse health effects could be attributed to these low fields.

One of the conclusions emphasized that physical calculations rule out carcinogenic effects because at physiological temperatures thermal noise fields in human cells are larger than the background fields from power lines.1, 2 Thus the political agenda, concerned with fear of carcinogenic mechanisms arising from low level magnetic fields, lost credibility. However, about 10 years later claims for health effects from mattress pads equipped with small magnets were marketed. A study of this was funded by National Institute of Health’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and claims for their benefits were published in alternative medicine journals.3

Some of the rationale for the claims were ludicrous. I attended one sales pitch which claimed their mattress magnets were better because they incorporated only North Poles. About  the same time, small 300 gauss magnets, began to appear on the shelves of drug stores. In 2007 a lawsuit brought by the National Council against Health Fraud against advertisers of these products was successfully settled. I was one of the persons who agreed to appear as an expert witness if needed. The Federal Trade Commission also threatened to prosecute purveyors who claimed healthful benefits for these products.

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NDE Update

Back in 2008 I wrote on Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). I have an interest in this topic as I have frequent exposure to near death; my wife has a predilection for watching Judge Judy. Since 2008 there have been a few studies on the topic of NDEs as researchers try and find evidence that consciousness transcends the brain, if that is what a NDE represents. I have also been ill for most of the last week and have not had the usual time to spend generating typos to drive some readers to distraction. Fortunately, I have a miracle cure that is 100% effective in resolving all my self-limited illnesses: time. It passed and with it the illness. As a result I am about 10 days behind in the commitments in my life, so this will be a shorter than usual post.


Posted in: Basic Science, Faith Healing & Spirituality

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The case of John Lykoudis and peptic ulcer disease revisited: Crank or visionary?

One of the themes of SBM has been, since the very beginning, how the paradigm of evidence-based medicine discounts plausibility (or, perhaps more appropriately, implausibility) when evaluating whether or not a given therapy works. One of our favorite examples is homeopathy, a therapy that is so implausible on a strictly scientific basis that, for it to work, huge swaths of well-established science supported by equally huge amounts of experimental and observational evidence would have to be found to be all in serious error. While such an occurrence is not per se impossible, it is incredibly unlikely. Moreover, for scientists actually to start to doubt our understanding of chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, and physics to the point of thinking that our understanding of them is in such serious error that homeopathy is a valid description of reality, it would take a lot more than a bunch of low-quality or equivocal studies that show no effect due to homeopathy detectably greater than placebo.

On Friday, Kim Atwood undertook an excellent discussion of this very issue. What really caught my attention, though, was how he educated me about a bit of medical history of which I had been completely unaware. Specifically, Kim discussed the strange case of John Lykoudis, a physician in Greece who may have discovered the etiology of peptic ulcer disease (PUD) due to H. pylori more than a quarter century before Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered the bacterial etiology of PUD in 1984. One reason that this story intrigued me is the same reason that it intrigued Kimball. Lykoudis’ story very much resembles that of many quacks, in particular Nicholas Gonzalez, in that he claimed results far better than what medicine could produce at the time, fought relentlessly to try to prove his ideas to the medical authorities in Greece at the time, and ultimately failed to do so. Despite his failure, however, he had a very large and loyal following of patients who fervently believed in his methods. The twist on a familiar story, however, is that Lykoudis may very well have been right and have discovered a real, effective treatment long before his time.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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H. Pylori, Plausibility, and Greek Tragedy: the Quirky Case of Dr. John Lykoudis

Mark Crislip is on vacation, but through an arduous series of shakings and succussions (beating his head against the wall?) we have channeled part of his essence: This post mostly concerns itself with infectious diseases, thanks to several recent posts on SBM that discussed the plausibility of health claims† and that touched on the recent discovery that most peptic ulcer disease (PUD) is caused by a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori. Several comments and statements quoted in those posts reveal recurrent questions regarding both plausibility itself and the history of the H. pylori hypothesis. In this post I’ll attempt to answer some of those questions, but I’ll also insert some new confusion.

Plausibility ≠ Knowing the Mechanism

Let’s first dispense with a simple misunderstanding: We, by which I mean We Supreme Arbiters of Plausibility (We SAPs) here at SBM, do not require knowing the mechanism of some putative effect in order to deem it plausible. This seems so obvious that it ought not be necessary to repeat it over and over again, and yet the topic can’t be broached without some nebbishy South Park do-gooder chanting a litany of “just because you don’t know how it works doesn’t mean it can’t work,” as if that were a compelling or even relevant rebuttal. Let’s get this straight once and for all: IT ISN’T.


Posted in: Basic Science, History, Science and Medicine

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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Retroviruses: Jumping the Gun

When I first heard that a retrovirus had been identified as a possible cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, I withheld judgment and awaited further developments. When I heard that two subsequent studies had failed to replicate the findings of the first, I assumed that the first had been a false alarm and would be disregarded. Not so.

 It’s a classic case of wishful thinking outweighing good judgment. One unconfirmed report of an association between the XMRV virus and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) resulted in a rush to test for the virus, speculation about possible implications, and even suggestions for treatment. And the subsequent negative studies did little or nothing to reverse the trend. 

XMRV is Xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus. In the past, there were reports that this retrovirus was associated with prostate cancer, but then other reports found no link. In 2009 a study was published in Science, “Detection of an Infectious Retrovirus, XMRV, in Blood Cells of Patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” by Lombardi et al., reporting an association with CFS:

we identified DNA from a human gammaretrovirus, xenotropic murine leukemia virus–related virus (XMRV), in 68 of 101 patients (67%) as compared to 8 of 218 (3.7%) healthy controls. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Science and Medicine

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The Microbial Metagenome

First some background.  I was first directed to the Marshall protocol by a reader who wondered about the information the found on the web.  So I went to the web and looked at the available information, much as any patient would, and discussed what I found there.

I have subsequently been lead to believe that none of the information on the website can be considered up to date or accurate.  As as result of,  I have told that my post is chockablock with errors, although, outside of writing doxycycline where I should have put minocycline, I am left in the dark as to exactly what my errors are.  I am told that it is my responsibility to locate the errors in the last post, yet I can find none when compared to the website.

However, to remedy the deficiency of having reviewed inaccurate and out of date material,  I have been sent 6 articles that I am informed represent the state of the art in understanding the science behind the Marshall protocol.  Ah, the peer reviewed medical literature.  An opportunity to carefully read and critique new  ideas.  It is one of the reasons people publish: to see if their ideas can withstand the scrutiny of others.

Several of these papers concern Vitamin D,  the Vitamin D receptor, and olmesartan which I will review, perhaps, another time.  I don’t find them a compelling read, but it not an area about which I have more than a standard medical knowledge. The other papers concern the role of infection in autoimmune diseases, which I will discuss here.  It is easier as an infectious disease doctor  to read this literature as I am, as least as far as the American Board on Internal Medicine is concerned, a specialist in the field.  Alternatively, I am a closed minded tool of the medical industrial complex who only seeks to push his own twisted, narrow agenda at the expense of suffering patients (1).  We can’t all be perfect.

Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Functional Medicine II

In searching for just what FM is, one has to in a way read between lines. Claiming to treat the “underlying cause” of a condition raises the usual straw man argument that modern medicine does not, which of course is untrue. It also implies that there are underlying causes known to them and not to straights. FM claims to treat chronic disease which FM claims is inadequately treated by medicine.  FM claims to be a more advanced approach both in conceptual thinking and in practical management. Such claims are on the face doubtful, but hard to disprove. The way to find out would be to analyze cases they manage and critique them.

I tried to see specific examples of treatments but the web page text book links were not working at the time. I understand others have seen the contents and perhaps can add some information.   I sense a difference between “CAM” and FM – at least among the MDs and DOs –  is that FMers tend to use methods and substances with some degree of scientific or biochemical rationale, even if not proved, moreso than many of the CAMers.  Many seem to practice both systems or do not distinguish between the two systems.  In order to get a sense of the degree to which FM is known, I requested from the web page the names of practitioners in a 50 mile radius of my home (near Palo Alto, Calif.). The names ranged from Santa Cruz (40 miles) to Berkeley (50) and San Francosco (40) and Marin County (Sausalito – 50 miles) The population of that area is about 5 million. They sent 46 names:   MD/DO  31 – (including a nephrologist formerly on the staff of my teaching hospital)   PhD 1   DC 8   Lac 3   ND 2   RN 1   Because I had become aware of FM only 1-2 years ago, I thought 46 was a relatively large number.  The Web page lists four text books published in the past few years. A manuscript of the first one is available on line for downloading (not functioning when I tried.) .  21st Century Medicine: A New Model for Medical Education and PracticeMonograph Set – Functional Medicine Clinical Monograph Set – CME Available Textbook of Functional Medicine Clinical Nutrition: A Functional ApproachAs mentioned, I could not activate the links to those books, and did not have time to get to them individually.  No authors were listed.


Posted in: Basic Science, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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The clinician-scientist: Wearing two hats

About a week ago, Tim Kreider wrote an excellent post about the differences between medical school training and scientific training. As the only other denizen of Science-Based Medicine who has experienced both worlds, that of a PhD and that of an MD, and as the one who two decades further along the path than Tim (give or take a couple of years), his musings reminded me of similar musings I’ve had over the years, as well as emphasizing yet again something I’ve said time and time again: Most physicians are not scientists. They are not trained like scientists; they are trained to apply scientific knowledge to the care of their patients. That’s what science-based medicine is, after all, applying science to the care of patients. Not dogma. Not tradition. Not knowledge of antiquity. Science.

Leave dogma, tradition, and “ancient knowledge” to practitioners of “alternative medicine.” That’s where they all belong. Whether you want to call it “alternative medicine,” “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or “integrative” medicine (IM), it rarely changes and almost never abandons therapies that science finds to be no better than placebo, whereas scientific medicine is, as it should be, ever changing, ever improving. I’ll grant you that the process is often messy. There are often false starts and blind alleys, and physicians are all too often reluctant to change their practices in response to the latest scientific findings. We sometimes even joke that for some practices, it takes the supplanting of one generation of physicians with a new generation to get rid of some practices. But change does come when the science and evidence are there. Indeed, for example, in response to evidence that a bacterium, H. pylori, causes duodenal ulcers, medical practice changed in a mere decade, which is about as fast as anyone could do the science and clinical trials to show the validity of the new concept. Although CAM practitioners like to hold up the example of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, the researchers who discovered that H. pylori causes most duodenal ulcers, as an example of how researchers with radical ideas are ostracized, but that story is largely a myth, as our very own Kim Atwood showed.

The application of science to medicine is a difficult thing. It takes basic scientists and clinicians, but the two of them exist in different worlds. Or so it often seems. That’s why some individuals seek to straddle both worlds. Tim is one such person. So am I. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand what we do very well. We wear two hats. In my case, I’m a surgeon, and I’m a scientist. In Tim’s case, he’s a scientist and a physician, but he doesn’t yet know what kind of physician he will end up being. At the risk of sounding somewhat arrogant, I believe that we, and others like us, represent an important element in bridging the gap between basic science and clinical science, in, essentially, building a more science-based medicine.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia

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Functional Medicine (FM) What Is It?

Functional Medicine – What is it?

After extensive searching and examination, my answer is still – only the originators of “FM” know. Or, at least one must assume they know, because so far as I can see, I certainly see nothing that distinguishes “FM” from other descriptions of sectarian and “Complementary/Alternative Medicine” practices. A difference may lie in the advocates’ assumptions to have found some “imbalance” of body chemistry or physiology before applying one or more unproved methods or substances. From what I could determine, the “imbalance” or dysfunction is usually either imaginary or at least presumptive. And the general principles are so poorly defined as to allow practioners vast leeway to apply a host of unproven methods.

I figured there would be several ways to find out. One would be to read FM’s material – mainly what “they” placed on the Internet. Another would be to enter the system and find out as a patient or as a prospective practitioner what it is that “FM” claims to be. The third would be to listen to a practitioner or advocate on tape, disk, radio, etc.

Posted in: Basic Science, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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Does popularity lead to unreliability in scientific research?

One of the major themes here on the Science-Based Medicine (SBM) blog has been about one major shortcoming of the more commonly used evidence-based medicine paradigm (EBM) that has been in ascendance as the preferred method of evaluating clinical evidence. Specifically, as Kim Atwood (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) has pointed out before, EBM values clinical studies above all else and devalues plausibility based on well-established basic science as one of the “lower” forms of evidence. While this sounds quite reasonable on the surface (after all, what we as physicians really want to know is whether a treatment works better than a placebo or not), it ignores one very important problem with clinical trials, namely that prior scientific probability matters. Indeed, four years ago, John Ioannidis made a bit of a splash with a paper published in JAMA entitled Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research and, more provocatively in PLoS Medicine, Why Most Published Research Findings Are Wrong. In his study, he examined a panel of highly cited clinical trials and determined that the results of many of them were not replicated and validated in subsequent studies. His conclusion was that a significant proportion, perhaps most, of the results of clinical trials turn out not to be true after further replication and that the likelihood of such incorrect results increases with increasing improbability of the hypothesis being tested.

Not surprisingly, CAM advocates piled onto these studies as “evidence” that clinical research is hopelessly flawed and biased, but that is not the correct interpretation. Basically, as Steve Novella and, especially, Alex Tabarrok pointed out, prior probability is critical. What Ioannidis’ research shows is that clinical trials examining highly improbable hypotheses are far more likely to produce false positive results than clinical trials examining hypotheses with a stronger basis in science. Of course, estimating prior probability can be tricky based on science. After all, if we could tell beforehand which modalities would work and which didn’t we wouldn’t need to do clinical trials, but there are modalities for which we can estimate the prior probability as being very close to zero. Not surprisingly (at least to readers of this blog), these modalities tend to be “alternative medicine” modalities. Indeed, the purest test of this phenomenon is homeopathy, which is nothing more than pure placebo, mainly because it is water. Of course, another principle that applies to clinical trials is that smaller, more preliminary studies often yield seemingly positive results that fail to hold up with repetition in larger, more rigorously designed randomized, double-blind clinical trials.

Last week, a paper was published in PLoS ONE Thomas by Thomas Pfeiffer at Harvard University and Robert Hoffmann at MIT that brings up another factor that may affect the reliability of research. Oddly enough, it is somewhat counterintuitive. Specifically, Pfeiffer and Hoffmann’s study was entitled Large-Scale Assessment of the Effect of Popularity on the Reliability of Research. In other words, the hypothesis being tested is whether the reliability of findings published in the scientific literature decreases with the popularity of a research field. Although this phenomenon is hypothesized based on theoretical reasoning, Pfeiffer and Hoffmann claim to present the first empirical evidence to support this hypothesis.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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