Every so often, I come across studies that leave me scratching my head. Sometimes, these studies are legitimate scientific studies that have huge flaws or come from an assumption that is very off-base. Other times, they involve what Harriet Hall has termed “tooth fairy science,” wherein the tools of science are used to study a phenomenon that is fantastical, whose very existence hasn’t been demonstrated. Many such studies, not surprisingly, are studies of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM). Modalities like reiki (which is faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Christian beliefs) and homeopathy (which is, when you boil it down to its essence, sympathetic magic) fall into the category of therapeutic modalities that are based on fantasy but are studied as with the latest tools of science, producing no end to confusing noise. This “tooth fairy science” has, over the last few years, reached its epitome in the application of the latest genomics technology to, in essence, magic, and I’ve recently come across an incredible example of just such a thing. But, first, let’s take a step back to what is going on in medical science now before I introduce a concept that I’ve dubbed “woo-omics.”
A prelude to woo-omics: Genomics, proteomics, everywhere an “omics”
One of the most difficult problems in science-based medicine is how to do a better job identifying which patients will respond to which treatments. Clinical trials, by their very design, have to look at average responses in populations. In essence, a treatment is compared to either placebo or standard-of-care, a choice mainly driven by ethics and whether effective treatments exist for the condition being studied. It is then determined using statistics whether a significant difference exists between the two groups. The difficulty, as any clinician knows, is applying the results of clinical trials to individual patients. In any population, there is, after all, a range of responses to any drug or treatment, and it would be desirable to be able to predict which patients will fall at the end of the bell-shaped curve where the treatment is most effective and which will fall at the end of the curve where the treatment works poorly or not at all.
I have mixed emotions regarding Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On the one hand, I look forward to it because it provides us with a pretext to get out science-based messages about breast cancer and to highlight a lot of the cool science that we do at our cancer center. On the other hand, the quacks see an opportunity in Breast Cancer Awareness Month to spread their message too. That message, not surprisingly, generally involves attacking science-based modalities for the detection and treatment of breast cancer and promoting their “alternative” methods. For example, last year, Christiane Northrup promoted thermography as somehow being better than mammography for the early detection of breast cancer. It’s not. Yet there she is this year again, still promoting the same nonsense. In years past, I’ve seen people like Dennis Byrne promoting a link between abortion and breast cancer, a link that is not supported by science. I’ve seen the likes of Mike Adams claiming that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is nothing more than a conspiracy by the male-dominated “cancer industry” to keep women down and misinformation about “myths” of breast cancer while likening the “cancer industry” to Nazi extermination camp commanders and chemotherapy to Zyklon-B. I kid you not about that last part. Indeed, during October, I frequently get to look forward to images like this one (click for a larger image):
Or this one:
“Strong Medicine”: Ted Kaptchuk and the Powerful Placebo
At the beginning of the first edition of The Web that has no Weaver, published in 1983, author Ted Kaptchuk portended his eventual academic interest in the placebo:
A story is told in China about a peasant who had worked as a maintenance man in a newly established Western missionary hospital. When he retired to his remote home village, he took with him some hypodermic needles and lots of antibiotics. He put up a shingle, and whenever someone came to him with a fever, he injected the patient with the wonder drugs. A remarkable percentage of these people got well, despite the fact that this practitioner of Western medicine knew next to nothing about what he was doing. In the West today, much of what passes for Chinese medicine is not very different from the so-called Western medicine practiced by this Chinese peasant. Out of a complex medical system, only the bare essentials of acupuncture technique have reached the West. Patients often get well from such treatment because acupuncture, like Western antibiotics, is strong medicine.
Other than to wonder if Kaptchuk had watched too many cowboy ‘n’ Native American movies as a kid, when I first read that passage I barely blinked. Although the Chinese peasant may have occasionally treated someone infected with a bacterium susceptible to his antibiotic, most people will get well no matter what you do, because most illnesses are self-limited. Most people feel better even sooner if they think that someone with special expertise is taking care of them. If you want to call those phenomena the “placebo effect,” in the colloquial sense of the term, fine. That, I supposed, was what Kaptchuk meant by “strong medicine.”
Turns out I was mistaken. Let’s briefly follow Kaptchuk’s career path after 1983. In the 2000 edition of The Web, he wrote:
There has been an ongoing debate about placebos on SBM, both in the articles and in the comments. What does it mean that a treatment has been shown to be “no better than placebo?” If our goal is for patients to feel better and they feel better with placebos, why not prescribe them? Do placebos actually do anything useful? What can science tell us about why a patient might report diminished pain after taking an inert sugar pill? The subject is complex and prone to misconceptions. A recent podcast interview offers a breakthrough in understanding.
On her Brain Science Podcast Dr. Ginger Campbell interviewed Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, a physician and clinical neurophysiologist who is one of the world’s leading researchers on the neurobiology of placebos. A transcript of the interview [PDF] is available on her website for those who prefer reading to listening. The information Dr. Benedetti presents and the expanded remarks by Dr. Campbell after the interview go a long way towards explaining the placebo phenomenon and its consequences for clinical medicine. Dr. Campbell also includes a handy list of references. I’ll try to provide a summary of the main points, but I recommend reading or listening to the original.
A common misconception is that the response to placebos is a purely subjective psychological response involving only the cortical level of the brain; but evidence is accumulating that real, measurable, objective subcortical neurophysiologic phenomena are involved. One of the first hints was a 1978 study showing that the placebo response to pain could be blocked by naloxone, a narcotic antagonist drug, indicating that the placebo must have actually caused an increase in endogenous opioids. (more…)
As most readers of the blog know, I am mostly an Infectious Disease doc. I spend my day diagnosing and treating infections and infectious complications. It is, as I have said before, a simple job. Me find bug, me kill bug, me go home. Kill bug. It is the key part of what I do everyday, and if there is karmic payback for the billions of microbial lives I have erased from the earth these past 25 years, my next life is not going to be so pleasant. I will probably come back as a rabbit in a syphilis lab.
It is always fun when my hobby, writing for SBM, crosses paths with my job. This month the Annals of Internal Medicine published “Oseltamivir Compared With the Chinese Traditional Therapy Maxingshigan–Yinqiaosan in the Treatment of H1N1 Influenza. A Randomized Trial.”
I though big pharma was good at coming up with names I do not know how to pronounce. If someone could provide a pronunciation guide in the comments, it would be ever so helpful, so I will not have to embarrass myself when this entry becomes a Quackcast. Dr. Hall wrote about this article on Tuesday, and I have avoided reading her post until this one is up, so there may be overlap in what is discussed. (more…)
About three weeks ago, ironically enough, right around the time of TAM 9, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) inadvertently provided us in the form of a new study on asthma and placebo effects not only material for our discussion panel on placebo effects but material for multiple posts, including one by me, one by Kimball Atwood, and one by Peter Lipson, the latter two of whom tried to point out that the sorts of uses of these results could result in patients dying. Meanwhile, Mark Crislip, in his ever-inimitable fashion, discussed the study as well, using it to liken complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as the “beer goggles of medicine,” a line I totally plan on stealing. The study itself, we all agreed, was actually pretty well done. What it showed is that in asthma a patient’s subjective assessment of how well he’s doing is a poor guide to how well his lungs are actually doing from an objective, functional standpoint. For the most part, the authors came to this conclusion as well, although their hedging and hawing over their results made almost palpable their disappointment that their chosen placebos utterly failed to produce anything resembling an objective response improving lung function as measured by changes (or lack thereof) in FEV1.
In actuality, where most of our criticism landed, and landed hard—deservedly, in my opinion—was on the accompanying editorial, written by Dr. Daniel Moerman, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. There was a time when I thought that anthropologists might have a lot to tell us about how we practice medicine, and maybe they actually do. Unfortunately, my opinion in this matter has been considerably soured by much of what I’ve read when anthropologists try to dabble in medicine. Recently, I became aware that Moerman appeared on the Clinical Conversations podcast around the time his editorial was published, and, even though the podcast is less than 18 minutes long, Moerman’s appearance in the podcast provides a rich vein of material to mine regarding what, exactly, placebo effects are or are not, not to mention evidence that Dr. Moerman appears to like to make like Humpty-Dumpty in this passage:
In the three and a half years that the Science-Based Medicine blog has existed, we contributors have come in for our share of criticism. Sometimes, the criticism is relatively mild; often it’s based on a misunderstanding of what SBM is; but sometimes it’s quite nasty. I can’t speak for the rest of the SBM crew on this, but I’ve gotten used to it. It comes with the territory, and there’s little to do about it other than to skim each criticism as it comes in to see if the author makes any valid points and, if he doesn’t, to ignore it and move on. Indeed, there’s enough criticism being flung our way that I rarely respond directly anymore. Exceptions tend to be egregious examples, incidents that spark real problems, such as when Age of Autism blogger and anti-vaccine activist Jake Crosby tried to paint me as being hopelessly in the thrall of big pharma, which resulted in the anti-vaccine horde who read that blog to try to get me fired by sending complaints to the Board of Governors at my university and the dean of my medical school. Other examples tend to be what I call “teachable moments,” in which the mistakes made in the criticism provide fodder for making a point about SBM versus alternative medicine, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or “integrative medicine” (IM)—or whatever the nom du jour is.
File this next one under the “teachable moment” variety of criticism directed at SBM.
So, you’re curious about herbal medicine. Is there any truth to this stuff?
Uncle Howie tells you that he read in the National Enquirer about an herb that has better antibacterial effects on cuts and scrapes than Neosporin ointment — never mind that Neosporin is composed of three different antibiotics that come originally from bacteria themselves.
So you set out on a quest to purchase some of this herb, known colloquially as goldenseal. When you go to your local Whole Hippie Dump-a-Load-of-Cash Emporium you find goldenseal alright, in about twenty different forms. On one side of the aisle are containers with loose, crushed up leaves and roots that look like medical marijuana. On a shelf, you find see-through capsules that seem to contain a powdered version of the herb. Down the aisle a bit you find boxes of blister-packs containing a proprietary extract of free-range goldenseal from the Appalachians harvested under moonlight by bare-breasted virgins. The same company also makes an ointment, allegedly procured the same way.
Mea culpa to the max. I completely forgot that today is my day to post on SBM, so I’m going to have to cheat a little. Here is a link to a recent article by yours truly that appeared on Virtual Mentor, an online ethics journal published by the AMA with major input from medical students. Note that I didn’t write the initial scenario; that was provided to me for my comments. The contents for the entire issue, titled “Complementary and Alternative Therapies—Medicine’s Response,” are here. Check out some of the other contributors (I was unaware of who they would be when I agreed to write my piece).
Everything you know may be wrong. Well, not really, but reading the research of John Ioannidis does make you wonder. His work, concentrated on research about research, is a popular topic here at SBM. And that’s because he’s focused on improving the way evidence is brought to bear on decision-making. His most famous papers get to the core of questioning how we know what we know (or what we assume) to be evidence. (more…)