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Now that Burzynski has gotten off in 2012, Burzynski The Movie will spawn a sequel in 2013

About a year ago, I became interested in a physician named Stanislaw Burzynski who has been treating cancer with compounds that he calls “antineoplastons” for over three decades without, in my opinion, ever having ever produced any compelling evidence that antineoplastons have significant anticancer activity. Although I had been vaguely aware of Burzynski and his activities, it was the first time that I had looked into them in a big way.

Having found very few skeptical, science-based takes on Burzynski and having noted that the Quackwatch entries on Burzynski (1, 2, 3) were hopelessly out of date, I wrote a trilogy of posts about him, starting with a review of an execrably bad movie made by a simultaneously credulous yet cynical independent writer, producer, and director named Eric Merola whose primary business, appropriately enough, is mainly marketing. The movie was Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is A Serious Business, a “documentary” (and I’m being polite here) that I characterized at the time as a bad movie and bad P.R. In brief, I saw this movie as a hagiography, a propaganda film so ham-fisted that, if she were still alive, it would easily simultaneously make Leni Riefenstahl blush at its blatantness and feel nauseated how truly awful it was from a strictly film making standpoint. It was also chock full of highly dubious science, in particular Burzynski’s latest venture, which is to sell “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” similarly lacking in oncological insight, so much so that I observed at the time that it was as though Dr. Burzynski read a book called Personalized Cancer Therapy for Dummies and decided he is an expert in genomics-based tailoring of targeted therapies to individual cancer patients. Finally, I completed the trilogy by pointing out that lately Burzynski has been rebranding an orphan drug that showed mild to moderate promise as an anticancer therapy.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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Bad Pharma: A Manifesto to Fix the Pharmaceutical Industry

“There is no medicine without medicines” write Ben Goldacre in his new book Bad Pharma. To Goldacre, an author, journalist and physician, this cause is personal. The title, a reference to both his first book, Bad Science, as well as the pharmaceutical industry’s nickname Big Pharma, is a bit of a misnomer. While the focus is pharmaceutical companies and their actions, there are a number of enablers in the health care system – medical journals, regulators, and even medical professionals, all of whom have put the industry’s needs ahead of good medicine. According to Goldacre, the damage is pervasive and deep, right to the roots of modern medicine. These problems know no borders, and affect us all. Despite the different health care systems that exist worldwide, we all depend on for-profit pharmaceutical companies to develop and market new medicines. These companies collectively wield enormous clout, due in part to the remarkable success of medicines over the past several decades. The global pharmaceutical market will probably top $1 trillion (yes, 12 zeros) this year. And Goldacre argues the industry is not only compromised, it is broken. And over 400 pages, he defends the following paragraph:

Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion. In their forty years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all. These are ongoing problems, and although people have claimed to fix many of them, for the most party they have failed; so all of these programs persist, but worse than ever, because now people can pretend that everything is fine after all.

We all have our own biases, and I should disclose mine. I’m a pharmacist who has seen HIV go from a death sentence to a chronic disease, thanks to newly developed drugs. I’ve watched cancers like leukemias be effectively cured, thanks to medication. And I’m amazed that surgeries like double-lung transplants, impossible in the past, are now a reality, thanks in part to drug treatments. Yet I’ve also spent more than a decade reviewing the efficacy and safety of prescriptions drugs. Regrettably few are truly innovative. Many are approved with lingering questions about long-term safety and effectiveness. The value some offer can be questionable. I’ve also seen tremendous harms caused by drugs – from individual patients who have suffered horrible adverse drug reactions to population-level disasters like the Vioxx (COX-2) debacle. And I haven’t ignored the countless fines levied on pharmaceutical companies for bad, and sometimes even criminal, behavior. With its repeated capacity for self-sabotage, the pharmaceutical industry is its own worst enemy. My colleagues who work in the pharmaceutical industry agree. They’re smart, honest people that genuinely want to help get good treatments to patients. They’re embarrassed by what they see. So while I have no doubts about the astonishing track record of innovative new drugs that have transformed medicine, I also have no illusions that drug companies always behave in ways that support science-based medicine. And I think there is the potential for the industry to do much better. So how do we get this? (more…)

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However, after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a book that contains science-based nutrition information I decided to agree to the review. This is how the book was described to me in an email:

In their provocative new book, Eat to Save Your Life, best-selling authors Dr. Jerre Paquette and Gloria Askew, RRN, sort through the piles of information and misinformation about nutrition to reveal the true connection between food and health. Fed up with the advertising hype and conflicting nutritional advice, the duo provides common sense explanations for consumers everywhere who are looking to make smart nutritional choices.

Unfortunately, I was sold (quite predictably) a bill of goods. And rather than ignore the book and simply not do a review, I figured that maybe a negative review would reduce the number of incoming PR requests for future tomes of pseudoscience. In the end, I’ll probably just become the focus of personal attacks by dedicated proponents of various snake oils. 

That being said, I thought it might be somewhat instructive to remind SBM readers of certain basic “warning signs of pseudoscience” that I accidentally overlooked in agreeing to review the book. For a more complete review of similar “signs” I highly recommend Dr. David Gorski’s 2007 classic, humorous take on predictable arguments and behaviors of alternative medicine proponents (written in the style of comedian Jeff Foxworthy).  As for me, I tend to think of much of the world of integrative medicine as a militant group of bakers eager to add odd, inert and occasionally toxic substances to cake recipes. 
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Nutrition

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Lessons from the History of Insulin

On my recent trip to Nashville for CSICon, I took advantage of the long hours on the plane to read Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle, by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg. One of our commenters recommended it. I’m not sure who (was it Chris?), but I want to thank you.

It’s the history of insulin told from the perspective of the scientists and of a typical patient, and it touches on a number of issues that we have addressed on SBM. It shows how science works to save lives, in stark contrast to the empty promises of CAM. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Pharmaceuticals

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The War Against Chiropractors

In 2011, chiropractor J.C. Smith published The Medical War Against Chiropractors: The Untold Story from Persecution to Vindication. He promises an exposé comparable to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s exposé of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His thesis is that the AMA waged a shameless attack on competition, motivated only by money. I think the reality is closer to what he quoted from Dr. Thomas Ballantine, Harvard Medical School:

The confrontation between medicine and chiropractic is not a struggle between two professions. Rather it is more in the nature of an effort by an informed group of individuals to protect the public from fraudulent health claims and practices.

The book is self-published, long-winded, repetitive, and flawed. It is a vicious screed crammed with bias, half-truths, insulting language, and innumerable references to Nazis and racial prejudice. In my opinion, Smith not only fails to make his case but degrades chiropractic.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Chiropractic, History

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Thumbthing Worth Reading

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.

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

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Learning from Animals: Evolutionary Medicine with a Twist

In 2005, cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz was called to the zoo to examine a non-human patient, an emperor tamarin with heart failure.  She was surprised when the veterinarian told her not to look her patient in the eyes because eye contact could cause capture myopathy. In this condition, when an animal is captured, restrained, and feels threatened, there is a catastrophic surge of adrenaline that damages muscle tissues and can kill. It was described decades ago, but medical doctors don’t read the veterinary literature. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that American doctors began to recognize a similar phenomenon in human patients, takotsubo or stress-induced cardiomyopathy.

She began to wonder whether animals got other human diseases. She quickly learned that they did. Jaguars get breast cancer and may carry the same BRCA1 gene that plagues Ashkenazi Jewish women, rhinos get leukemia, penguins get melanoma, gorillas die from ruptured aortas, and koalas are in the midst of an epidemic of sexually transmitted chlamydia.  Wild dragonflies infected with parasites become obese and develop a form of metabolic syndrome. Pretty much every human disorder occurs in animals too.

With the help of writer Kathryn Bowers, she distilled her findings into a book: Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing.  It’s a good read: informative, well argued, spiced with intriguing trivia, and more entertaining than a trip to the zoo. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Evolution, Veterinary medicine

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Book Reviews: “The Cure for Everything” and “Which comes first, cardio or weights?”

Do you have any skeptical blind spots? I’ve had a skeptical perspective for a long time (my teenage cynicism wasn’t just a phase) but the framework for my thinking has developed over years. Professionally, the blind spot that the pharmacy profession has towards supplements and alternatives to medicine was only clear after I spent some time working in a pharmacy with thriving homeopathy sales. In looking for some credible evidence to guide my recommendations, I discovered there was quite literally nothing to homeopathy. Once I discovered blogs like Respectful Insolence, the critical thinking process, and scientific skepticism, took off. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Naturopathy

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Do We Need “Evolutionary Medicine”?

3 years ago I wrote an article critical of “evolutionary medicine” as it was presented in a new book.   Recently a correspondent asked me if I thought another book, Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, by Randolph M. Nesse, MD and George C. Williams, PhD, was a more reasonable approach to the subject. It was published in 1994 and got good reviews from respected scientists like Richard Dawkins (“Buy two copies and give one to your doctor.”) and E.O. Wilson (“bringing the evolutionary vision systematically into one of the last unconquered provinces…”).  I was able to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan.

The book was interesting and gave me some things to think about, but it didn’t convince me that “Darwinian medicine” is a new science, that its existence as a separate discipline is justified, or that its unique approach offers any real practical benefits for improving medical care.

Why do we get sick? A simplistic view of evolution holds that it systematically eliminates any factors that decrease fitness for survival. So why does disease persist? Why didn’t we evolve to be “fit” enough to never get sick? Because evolution is not a straightforward process.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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The Forerunners of EBM

The term “evidence-based medicine” first appeared in the medical literature in 1992. It quickly became popular and developed into a systematic enterprise. A book by Ulrich Tröhler To Improve the Evidence of Medicine: The 18th century British origins of a critical approach argues that its roots go back to the 1700s in Scotland and England. An e-mail correspondent recommended it to me. Can’t remember who, but I would like to thank him.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) differentiated between “ordinary experience” (chance observations) and more objective “ordered experience” (methodological observations). Both of these involved empirical knowledge.  It’s hard to get back into the mindset of his time, when most physicians rejected empiricism as the sphere of quacks and surgeons.  Tröhler helps us understand why they did:

…since antiquity, the mark of distinction of a learned man had been the certainty of his knowledge. A doctor knew — he did not need to test his kind of knowledge empirically because this would imply acknowledgement of uncertainty.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History

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