Archive for Basic Science

Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Flu

Infectious diseases (ID), as those who read my not-so-secret other blog know, is without a doubt the most interesting speciality of medicine. Every interesting disease is infectious in etiology. What is cool about ID is that it has connections into almost every facet of human culture and history.

I note that at some point I have gone from being the young whippersnapper to the Grandpa Simpson at my hospitals and am one of the few who has been around long enough to be a repository of institutional memory. I remember what it was like 20 plus years ago, when no one consistently washed their hands, when all S. aureus (S. aureui?) were sensitive to beta-lactams and we wore an onion on our belt, as was the style of the day. Oh the changes I have seen.

Besides remembering the not so good old days of my professional career, ID keeps me reminded of how the world used to be in the past. Medicine used to be about the epidemics that would routinely sweep across the world. Polio, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, tuberculosis and on and on. I occasionally see TB but thanks to modern medicine many of these scourges have mostly faded from medical practice in the US. Not a one, I might add, has faded due to the efforts of alt med practitioners.

Influenza still gives me pause. It is, as infections go, quite the tricky virus and it remains a difficult beast to treat and prevent. Which is a drag as it remains one of the more consistent causes of infectious morbidity and mortality. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Epidemiology, History, Science and Medicine

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Doves, Diplomats, and Diabetes

In the past I have criticized evolutionary medicine for its tendency to rely on unverifiable “Just-So Stories,” but a new book has helped me appreciate what the best kind of evolutionary thinking can contribute to our understanding of medicine. Doves, Diplomats, and Diabetes: A Darwinian Interpretation of Type 2 Diabetes and Related Disorders by Milind Watve investigates diabetes from an evolutionary perspective, suggesting how it might have originated, why it persisted, and how it is related to survival advantages. Watve develops well-reasoned hypotheses that can be tested by examining their expected consequences. He believes it is impossible to understand metabolism without understanding behavioral ecology, and he makes a good case.

A reassessment of the evidence concerning Type II diabetes (T2D) reveals a number of paradoxes. Elevated blood glucose is the defining feature of T2D but controlling it doesn’t prevent all the complications of diabetes, and it doesn’t appear that elevated blood sugar could produce all the pathological changes of diabetes.  Insulin resistance is believed to be central to a cluster of deadly diseases in humans, but in other animals it has no adverse effects on health and even increases lifespan. Studying diabetes from an evolutionary perspective can shed light on such paradoxes. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

I write about a lot of depressing subjects, and sometimes a change of pace is welcome. Mary Roach, billed as “America’s funniest science writer,” has followed up on her earlier explorations of cadavers (Stiff), sex (Bonk), the afterlife (Spook), and survival on spaceships (Packing for Mars) with a new book entitled Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

Forget all that mythology about diet, detoxification, and 10-year-old hamburger accretions in the bowel. The reality of human digestive physiology is far more interesting and has the extra-added attraction of being true. And in Roach’s hands, often howlingly funny.  She is a hands-on investigative reporter who is ready to try anything; among other adventures she inserts her entire arm in a cow’s stomach. Her highly entertaining odyssey takes her to Igloolik to eat narwhal skin, to a dog food tasting lab in Missouri, to Minnesota to observe a fecal transplant, and to strange and exotic outposts at the cutting edge of science, populated by colorful characters. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, History

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Comprehending the Incomprehensible

Medicine is impossible. Really. The amount of information that flows out the interwebs is amazing and the time to absorb it is comparatively tiny.

If you work, sleep and have a family, once those responsibilities are complete there is remarkably little time to keep up with the primary literature. I have made two of my hobbies (blogging and podcasting) dovetail with my professional need to keep up to date, but most health care providers lack the DSM-4 diagnoses to consistently keep up.

So we all rely on short cuts. People rely on me to put new infectious disease information into context and there are those I rely upon to help me understand information both in my specialty and in fields that are unrelated to ID.

Up and down the medical hierarchies we trust that others are doing their best to understand the too numerous to count aspects of medicine that no single person could ever comprehend.

If I want to know about the state of the art on the treatment of atypical mycobacterium or how best to treat Waldenströms or who knows the most about diagnosing sarcoid, there is always someone who can distill their expertise on a topic to the benefit of the patient and my knowledge.

Trusting others is the biggest shortcut we routinely take in medicine to wade through the Brogdignagian amounts of information that flood into medical practice. We have to trust other clinicians, the researchers and the journals that all the information is gathered and interpreted honestly and accurately. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science

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Epigenetics: It doesn’t mean what quacks think it means

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 or, 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.

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Evolution, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Closing out 2012 with a bit of fun: Do you want some quantum with that pseudoscience?

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.

Posted in: Basic Science, Health Fraud, Humor

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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…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Evolution, History, Science and Medicine

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A truly homeopathic defense of homeopathy

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.

Posted in: Basic Science, Homeopathy

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The NIH funding process: “Conformity” and “mediocrity”?

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.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Getting NCCAM’s money’s worth: Some results of NCCAM-funded studies of homeopathy

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).

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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