Epigenetics. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I realize I overuse that little joke, but I can’t help but think that virtually every time I see advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as it’s known more commonly now, “integrative medicine” discussing epigenetics. All you have to do to view mass quantities of misinterpretation of the science of epigenetics is to type the word into the “search” box of a website like Mercola.com or NaturalNews.com, and you’ll be treated to large numbers of articles touting the latest discoveries in epigenetics and using them as “evidence” of “mind over matter” and that you can “reprogram your genes.” It all sounds very “science-y” and impressive, but is it true?
Would that it were that easy!
You might recall that last year I discussed a particularly silly article by Joe Mercola entitled How your thoughts can cause or cure cancer, in which Mercola proclaims that “your mind can create or cure disease.” If you’ve been following the hot fashions and trends in quackery, you’ll know that quacks are very good at leaping on the latest bandwagons of science and twisting them to their own ends. The worst part of this whole process is that sometimes there’s a grain of truth at the heart of what they say, but it’s so completely dressed up in exaggerations and pseudoscience that it’s really, really hard for anyone without a solid grounding in the relevant science to recognize it. Such is the case with how purveyors of “alternative health” like Joe Mercola and Mike Adams have latched on to the concept of epigenetics.
today is the last day of 2012. As I contemplated what I’d write for my last post of 2012, I wondered what to do. Should I do a “year in review” sort of post? Naahh. Too trite and too much work. Should I just do what I normally do? There are, after all, many topics that are out there, some of them still holdovers from before the holiday season. I can’t get to them all, even between this blog and my not-so-super-secret other blog. I thought about it a minute, but then rejected that possibility. So I decided just to cover one of them. After all, when years begin and end are human constructs, and there’s nothing special about today other than that society has decided that it is the last day of the year, and tradition mandates that a significant proportion of the population will gather before midnight to get drunk and stupid. I’m boring that way, rarely doing anything on New Years Eve other than sitting in front of the TV with my wife and watching the ball drop in Times Square. Then I thought: Oh, what the heck? Why not take on something a bit…different for a change? Maybe even get a bit silly? At least I can finish off the year with a bit of fun. Who knows? I might even be able to be far more concise than usual? (Actually, that might be asking too much.) Besides, the topics I tend to take on here are almost always serious; so a little amusement would be good before diving into the science and pseudoscience that will certainly pop up in 2013.
If there’s one thing about “alternative” medicine, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or “integrative medicine” that’s always puzzled me, it’s just how gullible some practitioners must think their clients are. In some cases, they might know their customers every bit as well as a car salesman knows his clients or an author knows his readers, but in actuality most people who fall for alt-med are no more gullible than average. However, some words seem to impress more than ever, as promoters of alt-med scramble to appropriate impressive-sounding science terms into their woo. I’ve seen a lot of them. So has Mark Crislip.
Among the favorite real science term that quacks love to appropriate is “quantum.” I blame Deepak Chopra. Although I highly doubt he was the first promoter of alternative medicine and various New Age thought to use and abuse the term “quantum” as a seemingly scientific justification of what in reality is nothing more than ancient mystical thinking gussied up with a quantum overcoat to hide its lack of science, Chopra has arguably done the most to popularize the term among the science-challenged set. In Chopra’s world, the word “quantum” functions like a magical talisman that explains ™everything because in the quantum world anything can happen. Actually, I should clarify. While it’s true that many bizarre and wondrous things can be explained through quantum theory (such as quantum entanglement), it is not, as Chopra and his many imitators would have you believe, a “get out of jail free” card for any magical thinking you can imagine, and quantum effects do not work the way people like Chopra (say, Lionel Milgrom, who seems to think that homeopathy works through quantum entanglement between practitioner, remedy, and patient) would like you to think.
You can tell what a doctor does for a living by the ICD-9 codes they have memorized. There is an ICD-9 code for nearly every medical condition. Weightlessness is 994.9. Must be there for NASA, I have yet to see a weightless patient. Decapitation by guillotine is E978. There, I suppose, in case Marat returns from the dead. There is an ICD-9 code for the initial visit after being sucked into jet engine (V9733XA) and one for subsequent visits (V9733XD). Why do I suspect V9733XD has yet to be used?
780.6 is my personal favorite. Fever. All my patients have fever and 780.6 was certainly the first ICD-9 code I committed to memory. I have an endless interest in fever and after last Fridays post I thought I would toss in my two cents worth. I will remind my readers that I am an adult ID doctor (who I treat, not necessarily how I behave) and unless specifically mentioned, all that follows applies to those who can legally drink, vote and serve in the military.
98.6 F. It is not normal body temperature. Well it is. But it is not. 98.6 F as average body temperature is an enduring medical myth. (more…)
I realize that I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating. Homeopathy is the perfect quackery. The reason that homeopathy is so perfect as a form of quackery is because it is quite literally nothing. On second thought, I suppose that it’s not exactly nothing. It is, after all, water or whatever other diluent that homeopaths use (usually ethanol). However, thanks to some basic laws of physics and chemistry and a little thing known as Avogadro’s number, any homeopathic dilution greater than 12C (twelve serial 100-fold dilutions) is incredibly unlikely to contain even a single molecule of starting compound. That unlikeliness reaches truly astonishing levels as we reach the common homeopathic dilution of 30C, which is the equivalent of a 1060-fold dilution. Given that that little thing known as Avogadro’s number, which describes how many molecules of a compound are in a mole, is only approximately 6 x 1023, a 30C dilution is on the order of 1036- to 1037-fold higher than Avogadro’s number. Even assuming that a homeopath started with a mole of remedy before diluting (unlikely, given the high molecular weight of most of the organic compounds that can serve as homeopathic remedies), the odds that a single molecule could remain behind after the serial dilution and succussion process is infinitesimal. Appropriately enough, the “law” in homeopathy that states that diluting a remedy will make it stronger is the law of infinitesimals.
It is also the reason that homeopathy is nothing.
Homeopaths have known these facts for many decades. Anyone who is any sort of a scientist or has an understanding of science, when confronted with these simple, well-established physical laws, might—just might—start to rethink his belief in something that is so utterly implausible from a scientific standpoint. Indeed, homeopathy is about as close to impossible as anything I can imagine, because for it to “work” multiple well-established laws of physics and chemistry would have to be not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Yet, as Richard Dawkins famously put it, undeterred, homeopaths bravely paddle up the river of pseudoscience and invent explanations to “explain” how homeopathy could work, the most famous of which is the so-called “memory of water,” in which the water in the homeopathic remedy remembers all the good bits meant to heal but, as Tim Minchin so famously put it, somehow forgets all the poo that’s been in it. Homeopathy is truly magical thinking, which is why I love to use it as an illustrative example of quackery. Not only is it magical thinking, but because it is nothing but water, it’s a very useful educational example for placebo effects and the general types of fallacious arguments quacks and pseudoscientists make. Apparently it’s time for another one.
When we refer to “science-based medicine” (SBM), it is a very conscious choice to emphasize that good medicine should be based on a solid foundation of science. The name was coined to contrast the difference between the current evidence-based medicine (EBM) paradigm, which fetishizes randomized clinical trial evidence above all else and frequently ignores prior plausibility based on well-established basic science, and the SBM paradigm, which takes prior plausibility into account. The purpose of this post will not be to resurrect old discussions on these differences, but before I attend to the study at hand I bring this up to emphasize that progress in science-based medicine requires progress in science. That means all levels of biological (and even non-biological) basic science, which forms the foundation upon which translational science and clinical trials can be built. Without a robust pipeline of basic science progress upon which to base translational research and clinical trials, progress in SBM will slow and even grind to a halt.
That’s why, in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is so critical. The NIH funds large amounts of biomedical research each year, which means that what the NIH will and will not fund can’t help but have a profound effect shaping the pipeline of the basic and preclinical research that ultimately leads to new treatments and cures. Moreover, NIH funding has a profound effect on the careers of biomedical researchers and clinician-scientists, as having the “gold standard” NIH grant known as the R01 is viewed as a prerequisite for tenure and promotion in many universities and academic medical centers. Certainly this is the case for basic scientists; for clinician-scientists, having an R01 is certainly highly prestigious, but less of a career-killer if an investigator is unable to secure one. That’s why NIH funding levels and how hard (or easy) it is to secure an NIH grant, particularly an R01, are perennial obsessions among those of us in the biomedical research field. It can’t be otherwise, given the centrality of the NIH to research in the U.S.
As hard as it is to believe, the Science-Based Medicine blog that you’re so eagerly reading is fast approaching its fifth anniversary of existence. The very first post here was a statement of purpose by Steve Novella on January 1, 2008, and my very first post was a somewhat rambling introduction that in retrospect is mildly embarrassing to me. It is what it is, however. The reason I mention this is because I want to take a trip down memory lane in order to follow up on one of my earliest posts for SBM, which was entitled The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): Your tax dollars hard at work. Specifically, I want to follow up on one specific study I mentioned that was funded by NCCAM.
Even though I not-so-humbly think that, even nearly five years later, my original post is worth reading in its entirety (weighing in at only 3,394 words, it’s even rather short—for me, at least), I’ll spare you that and cut straight to the chase, the better to discuss the study. It is a study of homeopathy. Yes, in contrast to the protestations of Dr. Josephine Briggs, the current director of NCCAM, that NCCAM doesn’t fund studies of such pure pseudoscience as homeopathy anymore (although she does apparently meet with homeopaths for “balance”), prior to Dr. Briggs’ tenure NCCAM actually did fund studies of the magic water with mystical memory known as homeopathy. Two grants in particular I singled out for scorn. The principal investigator for both grants was Iris Bell, who is faculty at Andrew Weil’s center of woo at the University of Arizona. The first was an R21 grant for a project entitled Polysomnography in homeopathic remedy effects (NIH grant 1 R21 AT000388).
I intended to read Sam Kean’s new book The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by our Genetic Code just for fun. I was expecting a miscellany of trivia loosely gathered around the theme of DNA. But I found something much more worthwhile that I thought merited a book review to bring it to the attention of our readers. Kean interweaves entertaining stories into a somewhat disjointed but nonetheless valuable history and primer of genetics. The title refers to Paganini, whose DNA created the unusual joint flexibility that facilitated his unprecedented feats of virtuosity on the violin.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about “personalized medicine, mainly in the context of how the breakthroughs in genomic medicine and data pouring in from the Cancer Genome Atlas is providing the raw information necessary for developing truly personalized cancer therapy. The problem, of course, is analyzing it and figuring out how to apply it. Another problem, of course, is developing the necessary targeted drugs to attack the pathways that are identified as being dysregulated in cancer cells. Oh, and there’s that pesky evolution of resistance to antitumor therapies. Indeed, most recently, the Cancer Genome Atlas is bearing fruit in breast cancer (a study that I’ve been meaning to blog about).
One problem with modeling the pathways based on next generation sequencing data and expression profiling is testing whether therapies predicted to work from these analyses actually do work without actually testing potentially toxic drugs on patients. Cell culture is notoriously unreliable as a predictor. However, there is another way that’s intriguing. Unfortunately, as intriguing as it is, it has numerous problems, and, unfortunately, it’s being prematurely marketed to patients. Although I had heard of this technique as a research tool before, I learned about its marketing to patients when I came across an article by Andrew Pollack in the New York Times entitled Seeking Cures, Patients Enlist Mice Stand-Ins. Basically, it’s about a trend in science and among patients to use custom, “personalized’ mouse xenograft models in order to do “personalized” therapy:
As part of my ongoing effort to make sure that I never run out of blogging material, I subscribe to a number of quack e-mail newsletters. In fact, sometimes I think I’ve probably overdone it. Every day, I get several notices and pleas from various wretched hives of scum and quackery, such as NaturalNews.com, Mercola.com, and various antivaccine websites. I think of it as my way of keeping my finger on the pulse of the antiscience and pseudoscience wing of medicine, but I must admit that I don’t really read them all, but they do allow me to know what the quacks are selling and what new arguments they’re coming up with without actually going to each of their websites. I can then judge by the headlines and the blurbs included in the e-mails whether I think it’s worth it to go to the website itself and, of course, whether the topic might represent fodder for a good blog post. I will admit that not all the sites I monitor are as loony as the Health Ranger’s. In fact, I monitor the blogs and websites of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), various naturopath organizations, and the like in order to learn of the “respectable” arguments being used to tout various nostrums.
Sometimes—albeit rarely—I even learn about some interesting new science.
One of the most common themes (besides antivaccine hysteria, claims that diet can prevent 95% of all cancers, etc.) tends to be one of a variety of pitches for various “cures” of serious diseases like cancer and heart disease that “they” don’t want you to know about; i.e., the Kevin Trudeau gambit. Who this “they” is can range from doctors to pharmaceutical companies to universities to the government, but the central message is that someone out there doesn’t want you to know The Truth. A variation of this sort of appeal is the claim that there is a promising new therapy, a cure even, usually natural, that is languishing somewhere because it can’t be patented, because pharmaceutical companies would lose money if it were ever validated and brought into clinical use, or because it goes against current medical dogma. It doesn’t even have to be natural. After all, dichloroacetate (DCA) is not exactly “natural.” After it was shown to have promise in animal models, a pesticide salesman named Jim Tassano sold DCA bought from chemical companies to desperate cancer patients from a website that claimed to be selling it only for pets with cancer, a ruse that fooled no one. Yet the “natural treatment” crowd embraced it whole-heartedly because it looked as though sellers of DCA were sticking it to The Man.
I do not want to get all angsty and omphaloskeptic, but I have been thinking more of late about the purpose of the blog and my role in it. Blogs,and the people who write them, are ephemeral. It takes a unique personality and commitment to churn out these essays and commit them to the ether. Especially since Michelson and Morley.
I have never given much thought as to who our readers are, at least as a composite. I read most of the comments on every entry and have certainly developed a mental picture of some of our regular commenters, although I suspect I probably do not have even the gender correct most of the time. The commenters represent a tiny fraction of the regular readers and an even smaller fraction of occasional readers. It occurs to me I haven’t a clue who the real audience of this blog is.
I write first for my own education and entertainment, then for the slightly bored and overwhelmed medicine resident, since that is who I spend most of my time educating at work. Someone educated with an understanding of basic medicine but has more important things on their mind than a need for a detailed understanding of why homeopathy is complete nonsense. I doubt the majority of my readers are health care workers and I suspect continuing medical education is not a major part of the blog.
I never considered SBM to be a consumer protection group, but this week my wife showed me a half page advertisement in the local paper, and I realized that not only was the advertisement a good topic for blogging, but consumer protection is a fundamental result of this blog. There really is no site on the interweb that looks at both SCAM and real medicine with quite the same skeptical eye. Here is the headline:
A Special Wellness Report
New Medicine Based On An 88- Year Old Theory By Albert Einstein Can Help Almost Everyone Who Is Sick Or Injured! (more…)