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Cancer research: Going for the bunt versus swinging for the fences

A couple of weeks ago, our resident skeptical medical student Tim Kreider wrote an excellent article about an op-ed in NEWSWEEK by science correspondent Sharon Begley, in which he pointed out many misconceptions she had regarding basic science versus translational research, journal impact factors, and how journals actually determine what they will publish. Basically, her thesis rested on little more than a few anecdotes by scientists who didn’t get funded or published in journals with as high an impact factor as they thought they deserved, with no data, science, or statistics to tell us whether the scientists featured in her article were in fact representative of the general situation. Begley’s article caught flak from others, including Mike the Mad Biologist and our very own Steve Novella. Naturally, as the resident cancer surgeon and researcher, I had thought of weighing in, but other issues interested me more at the time.

In retrospect, I rather regret it, given that this issue crops up time and time again. In essence, it’s a variant of the lament that pops up in the press periodically, when science journalists look at survival rates for various cancers and ask why, after nearly 40 years, we haven’t yet won the war on cancer. Because of his youth, Tim probably hasn’t seen this issue crop up before, but, trust me, every couple of years or so it does. Begley’s article and the NYT article strike me as simply “Why are we losing the war on cancer?” 2009 edition.

Now the New York Times has given me an excuse both to revisit Begley’s article and discuss yesterday’s front page article in the NYT Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe. Basically, they are variants of the same complaints I’ve heard time and time again. Now, don’t get me wrong. By no means am I saying that the current system that the NIH uses to determine which scientists get funded. Those who complain that the system is often too conservative have a point. The problem, all too often, however, is that the proposals for how to fix the problem are usually either never spelled out or rest on dubious assumptions about the nature of cancer research themselves.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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Applying evolutionary principles to cancer treatment

ResearchBlogging.orgEDITOR’S NOTE: Unfortunately, this weekend, I was forced to get my slides together for the upcoming SBM Conference, plus editing a manuscript for resubmission, plus working on a manuscript that I should have submitted six months ago, plus reading over some grants, plus…well, you get the idea. What this means is that, alas, I didn’t have any time to prepare one of the new, long posts that you’ve come to love (or hate). Fortunately, there are a lot of other things I’ve written out there that can be rapidly adapted to SBM. For instance, what I am about to present now. Since I wrote this, I’ve thought of a couple of things that I should have said the first time (and was kicking myself for not having done so); so publishing an updated version here allows me to rectify those omissions.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a lot of hype about a study that hadn’t been released yet. Indeed, there was a story in Wired entitled To Survive Cancer, Live With It and an editorial by the study’s lead author in Nature entitled A change in strategy in the war on cancer. Not bad for a study that hadn’t been released yet. Intrepid medical and science blogger that I am, I waited until the actual study was published a week ago the June 1 episode of Cancer Research. It’s a clever study, but the hype over it was a bit overblown. For example:

For all the weapons deployed in the war on cancer, from chemicals to radiation to nanotechnology, the underlying strategy has remained the same: Detect and destroy, with no compromise given to the killer. But Robert Gatenby wants to strike a peace.

A mathematical oncologist at the Moffitt Cancer Center, Gatenby is part of a new generation of researchers who conceive of cancer as a dynamic, evolutionary system. According to his models, trying to wipe cancer out altogether actually makes it stronger by helping drug-resistant cells flourish. Rather than fighting cancer by trying to eradicate its every last cell, he suggests doctors might fare better by intentionally keeping tumors in a long-term stalemate.

Maybe I’m being a bit picky, but what annoys me about the news reports on this study is that the concept of turning cancer into a manageable chronic disease like diabetes or hypertension is not by any means a new idea. Remember, one of my major research interests is the inhibition of tumor angiogenesis. Consequently, I know that the late, great Judah Folkman first proposed the concept of using antiangiogenic therapy to turn cancer into a chronic disease at least as early as the mid-1990′s. The only difference is the strategy that he proposed. The idea had also been floating around for quite a while before that, although I honestly do not know who first came up with it.

But let’s see what Dr. Gatenby proposes. What makes it interesting is that his study actually looks at how scientists have applied evolutionary principles to cancer until recently, argues that we’ve been doing it wrong. He then proposes a way to use the evolutionary dynamics of applied ecology. He may well be on to something. First, here’s the problem:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Science and Medicine

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The case of chemotherapy refusenik Daniel Hauser

I’ve written before about clinical trials as one place where “the rubber hits the road,” so to speak regarding the interface between science-based medicine and actual medical practice. Another critical place where an equal amount of rubber hits an equal amount of road is how the medical system and the law deal with the medical care of minors. In the vast majority of cases, parents take their children to physicians ostensibly practicing science-based medicine and, more or less, follow their advice. One of the more common areas where there is resistance to science-based medicine is, of course, the issue of vaccination, which I and other bloggers at SBM have written about extensively. Another issue, which has not yet been touched upon on this blog, is what to do about parents who refuse chemotherapy for their children with curable childhood cancers or children who refuse chemotherapy whose parents either agree with them or are unwilling to do the hard work of convincing their children that they must undergo therapy. Most often, the reason cited by such “chemotherapy refuseniks” is either religion or a desire to undergo “alternative” therapy rather than conventional therapy. One such case, a particularly high profile one, has been in the news over the last couple of weeks. In this post, I plan to discuss the case of Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old boy from Minnesota with Hodgkin’s lymphoma who, after one round of chemotherapy, is currently refusing further therapy. This case ended up in court (as these cases often do) and led to a decision that is likely to satisfy no one (as these cases nearly always do).

Before I discuss Daniel’s case in more depth, however, let me make one thing clear. From my perspective, competent adults have the right to choose whatever treatment they wish–or to refuse treatment altogether–for virtually any condition. The sole exception that I can think of would be the case of a highly contagious infectious disease, where society has a right to prevent epidemics and, if necessary, quarantine someone who refuses treatment and refuses to avoid interaction with others. Note, however, that the right competent adults to choose whatever quackery they desire should in no way be construed to imply that quacks have any sort of “right” to provide them with quack treatments. The reason is that providing such treatments inherently involves making claims for them that are not supportable by science. In essence, selling such treatments involves fraud, even if the practitioner is a true believer and just as deluded about the efficacy of the woo he is selling as the person buying it is. Be that as it may, if a competent adult wants to refuse treatment and understands the consequences, then I will call him a fool if what he has is a potentially very curable disease like Hodgkin’s disease and chooses bogus (word choice intentional) alternative “cures” instead, but it’s his call.

However, from my perspective (and that of the law in most states) the key to such self-determination is that the person must be informed of and understand the consequences of his actions, and there are three components to this understanding. First, of course, is mental competence; i.e., no serious untreated mental illness that impairs a person’s ability to perceive reality can be present. Untreated schizophrenia, for example, can definitely interfere with a person’s ability to evaluate information. The second is the ability to understand the disease and what the consequences of treatment or doing nothing are. That is why adults with mental retardation severe enough to prevent them from understanding are in general not considered competent to make such decisions. Indeed, it is why parents are expected to act on the behalf of their normal children to make such decisions. Finally, there is informed consent. A person refusing treatment must be told the consequences of his refusal and acknowledge them. Whether he believes what he is told is another matter, but it is not up to physicians to force treatment on someone just because that person doesn’t believe what they tell him, as long as the first two conditions are met.

The conflict arises when a parent decides to pursue quackery for a life-threatening but potentially curable illness for a child or a child refuses therapy. It is on such occasions that society as represented by the state has a compelling interest in overriding the parent’s decision and making sure that the child gets the best science-based treatment available. It is also a situation when parental rights, rights of self-determination, and the legitimate interest of society in protecting children can all clash in a most chaotic and nasty manner. That is exactly what is at issue in the case of Daniel Hauser, as described in a news report of the testimony given in his case:
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Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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The Huffington Post‘s War on Medical Science: A Brief History

I realize that our fearless leader Steve Novella has already written about this topic twice. He has, as usual, done a bang-up job of describing how Arianna Huffington’s political news blog has become a haven for quackery, even going so far as to entitle his followup post The Huffington Post’s War on Science. And he’s absolutely right. The Huffington Post has waged a war on science, at least a war on science-based medicine, ever since its inception, a mere two weeks after which it was first noticed that anti-vaccine lunacy ruled the roost there. Because I’ve had experience with this topic since 2005, I thought I’d try to put some perspective on the issue, in order to show you just how pervasive pseudoscience has been (and for how long) at the blog whose name is often abbreviated as “HuffPo.”
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Medical Propaganda Films

David Gorski suggested I expand on a comment I left recently on one of his November posts. His subject was the then new documentary movie, “A Beautiful Truth.“ “Truth” is about the Gerson method – the dietary deprivation cum coffee enema cancer treatment developed by Dr. Max Gerson, a refugeee from Germany I the 1930s. His daughter, Charlotte now runs the Gerson Institute in Tijuana, Mexico. Gerson is one of the models for the Gonzales method recently reviewed by Kim Atwood.

I had previously referred to the movie in a prior post (1) (but in a different context. Here I’ll explore the movie from a different angle – with its partners, propaganda documentaries.

David called my attention to “Truth” plus another by the same producer – with trailers on You Tube. When I watched the trailers last year I saw myself interviewed briefly, but could not recall being filmed, or even identify where the scene took place. I had to email Steve Barrett, also in the movie, who reminded me about filmmaker Steve Kroschel’s visits 2-3 years before, although neither did he have strong memory of the interview.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, General, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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When Should We Call A Quack A Quack?

It is not uncommon for Science Based Medicine to receive complaints about the tone of our writing. Some people feel that it is indelicate to use the “q” word (for the uninitiated, “q” is for “quack”) when describing practitioners who promote disproven therapies with jubilant fervor. Others believe it unkind to lump “well meaning” alternative medicine experts in with those who are engaged in overtly illegal activities.

We are all affected by the tension between wanting to call a spade a spade and respecting our cultural need to be polite. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this inner conflict is Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog. As the name implies, Orac is both thoughtful and brutally honest – he expresses our communal reticence to make waves, but follows up with a reasoned hostility that is quite understandable, given the circumstances described in each post. Respectful Insolence is fun to read because it is educational, persuasive, and expressive – and it captures how many of us feel about various forms of hucksterism. However, snake oil salesmen and their sympathizers are unlikely to enjoy the blog.

Here at Science Based Medicine, readers find a wide range of expression with a common commitment to science and reason. Just as physicians have different practice styles (some are more nurturing in temperament, others offer “tough love”) so too do we authors vary in tone. For those readers who favor one style over another – I hope you’ll find the voice that suits you and return regularly for more. Please don’t assume that one particular post is representative of the entire blog, and please don’t be offended by the legitimate exasperation of writers who have suffered through decades of observing swindlers swindle.
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Posted in: Cancer, General, Science and Medicine

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Alternative medicine use and breast cancer

Of all the posts I and my cobloggers have written for SBM over the last 15 months, most provoke relatively few comments. However, a few stand out for having provoked hundreds of comments. The very first post that provoked hundreds of comments was Harriet’s excellent discussion of the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. In fact, Harriet seems to be quite good at writing posts that provoke a lot of comment, as another of her posts, specifically the one in which she discussed circumcision, also garnered hundreds of comments. However, to my great surprise, the one post that stands out as having received the most comments thus far in the history of SBM is one that I wrote. Specifically, it was a post I called Death by “alternative” medicine: Who’s to blame?, which has collected an astonishing 611 comments thus far. The topic of the post was a case report that I had heard while visiting the tumor board of an affiliate of my former cancer center describing a young woman who had rejected conventional therapy for an eminently treatable breast cancer and then returned two or three years later with a large, nasty tumor that was much more difficult to treat and possibly metastatic to the bone, which would make it no longer even potentially curable. My discussion centered on what the obligation of a physician is to such patients who utterly refuse the science- and evidence-based medicine that we know to be able to cure them of a potentially fatal disease, and I was not only surprised but somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the discussion.

Since that post, I’ve always been meaning to take a look at what, exactly, the effect of choosing “alternative” medicine over “conventional” medicine is on the odds of survival for breast cancer patients. Even though intuitively one would hypothesize that refusing scientific medicine and relying on placebo medicine instead would have a detrimental effect on survival, it turns out that this question is not as easy to answer as you might think. For example, if you do a search on PubMed using terms like “alternative medicine,” “breast cancer,” and “survival,” the vast majority of the hits will be studies of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and breast cancer with little reference to what possible effect these therapies might have on survival. I can envision several reasons for this, the first being that–thankfully–relatively few women actually use alternative medicine exclusively to treat their breast cancer. Also, those that do probably drop off the radar screen of their science-based practitioners, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to capture data regarding their outcomes, given that they all too often stick with their alternative healers until the end. True, they may pop up again in their surgeon’s or primary care doctor’s office with huge, fungating tumors, only to be told that they have to undergo chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before any surgery is possible, after which they will often disappear again. Another important reason is that the natural history of breast cancer is extremely variable, from nasty, aggressive tumors that kill within months to indolent, slow-growing tumors that, even when metastatic, women can survive with for several years. (It is, of course, these women who usually show up in “alternative medicine” testimonials, because they can survive a long time with little or no treatment before their tumors progress.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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The China Study

One of our readers asked that we evaluate a book I had not previously heard of: The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health, by nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell, PhD, with his non-scientist son Thomas M. Campbell II. The China Study was an epidemiologic survey of diet and health conducted in villages throughout China and is touted as “the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted.” The book’s major thesis is that we could prevent or cure most disease (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye and other diseases) by eating a whole foods plant-based diet, drastically reducing our protein intake, and avoiding meat and dairy products entirely.

Opinions of the book

There’s a lot of praise for this book on the Internet. It was named VegNews Book of the Year. PETA loves it (not surprisingly). Heather Mills McCartney calls it inspirational. It was featured on Oprah.com and endorsed by two of her favorite doctors: Mehmet Oz and Dean Ornish. Its author was even interviewed on Coast to Coast AM.

But I also found this critical review which makes some excellent points and accuses the authors of misrepresenting the findings of the study. And this commenter on an Amazon.com forum also charges Campbell with misrepresenting the data from the study and points out numerous flaws in his reasoning.

Problematic references

I didn’t look at the praise or criticism of others until after I read the book, and the following represents my independent impressions. I approached the book as I do any book with scientific references: I read until I come across a statement of fact that strikes me as questionable and then I check the references given for the statement. This immediately got me off on the wrong foot with this book. In the first chapter I found the statement:

Heart disease can be prevented and even reversed by a healthy diet. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Nutrition

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An all-too-common breast cancer testimonial for “alternative medicine”

One of the consistent themes of SBM since its very inception has been that, when it comes to determining the efficacy (or lack thereof) of any particular medicince, therapy, or interventions, anecdotes are inherently unreliable. Steve Novella explained why quite well early in the history of this blog, and I myself described why otherwise intelligent people can be so prone to being misled by personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately, as I have also demonstrated, it’s not just patients who can allow themselves to be misled by anecdotes, but certain physicians who do not understand the scientific method but in their hubris think that their “personal clinical experience” trumps science, clinical trials, and epidemiology.

None of this is to say that there aren’t frequent instances when applying data from population-based studies to individual patients is problematic. It can indeed be. However, it often goes beyond that, and, indeed, if there is one defining characteristic of a quack that I’ve never failed to find when looking at individual cases, it’s a belief that he is able to identify when a treatment works based on his own personal experience and anecdotes. Unfortunately, it’s not just quacks who sometimes fall prey to this, because humans are cognitively wired to infer causation from correlation. This tendency, which was no doubt adaptive early in our evolution, simply doesn’t work well when it is applied to medicine and science. Without a doubt, it is the key driver, for example, behind the widely believed myth that vaccines somehow cause autism and that chelation therapy and other biomedical quackery can “cure” autism, a view popularized most recently by the very popular but very ignorant Jenny McCarthy in the U.S. and before that by the outright dishonest Andrew Wakefield in the U.K.

One of the other reasons why testimonials for quackery seem convincing is because most people simply do not know enough about disease, be it my specialty (cancer) or any other disease, how it is treated, and what its natural course can be expected to be. That is why, when I came across an example of just such a testimonial, specifically a breast cancer testimonial, I saw what is known as a “teachable moment. This teachable moment occurred on the very popular science blog Pharyngula, written by the ever sarcastic biology professor from Minnesota, P.Z. Myers. It actually surprised me in that the usual topics on Pharyngula include evolution, biology, the pseudoscience known as “intelligent design” creationism, politics, and atheism. P.Z. doesn’t usually dabble much in the realm of medical quackery, but my guess is that he was attracted to this particular piece of pseudoscience because of the religious angle.

Specifically, the quackery under consideration is known as God’s Answer to Cancer (GAC). Basically, it looks a lot like any number of quack electronic devices that promise to cure cancer; examples include Bill Nelson’s Electro Physiological Feedback Xrroid (EPFX) machine (1, 2, 3), Hulda Clark’s parasite zapper, or Alan Back’s Advanced Bio-photon Analyzer. All of these devices promise, in essence, to use low level electrical energy to “boost the immune system” and “replenish your life energy” plus or minus an additional promise to “zap parasites” (Hulda Clark’s unique spin on these devices, in which she claims that all cancer, AIDS, and most other diseases are due to a liver fluke, which her device supposedly “zaps.” Like these devices, the maker of GAC promises vague “immune system boosts,” but with the added twist that he claims that all disease is due to original sin (along, apparently, with the conventional alt-med “toxins,” diminished qi, and uncharacterized immune dysfunction). Amusingly, the Monsignor who created this device also disses Hulda Clark and advocates the use of laetrile and Linus Pauling’s orthomolecular medicine. The main difference is that he claims to have received the design for the device from God through a dream.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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The Anniversary

I received a surprising morning call several weeks ago

“Wally?”

“This is he.”

“This is Judy V…. I just wanted to call and thank you again for what you did for me. It’s the 35th anniversary of my cancer…“

Judy V. is a physician’s widow. Her husband, a surgical specialist died in his 40s, 20plus years ago.   She had a Stage II breast cancer; the surgeon had done a modified radical, and I was consulted for possible adjuvant chemotherapy.

Thirty-five years ago the standard was simpler. Same for our knowledge of staging and biological behavior. Genomics was not a word yet. Targeted therapy was not a concept. Tamoxifen was the ony estrogen agonist and had just been introduced.  The standard adjuvant therapy was single agent melphalan or its equivalent. But even then, patients had choices. The surgery had probably cured her, but then… Chemo or none.
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Posted in: Cancer, General, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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