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Expectations versus reality in science-based oncology

Well, the latest round of grant applications and pre-applications is finally over, which gave me time this weekend to peruse the stack of journals that’s been accumulating on my desk. Oddly enough, despite my being about as plugged in as you can be at my age, I’m still old-fashioned enough to enjoy the physical sensation and the overall experience of picking up the most recent issue of a journal and randomly flipping through it. There’s something about the feel of the paper, the smell of the coating and print, as well as the sheer undirectedness of it all. It’s how I find articles that I probably would never find if I relied just on perusing the table of contents of an electronic edition.

Sadly, that’s not how I found this week’s topic. The study that I’m going to discuss this week is an E-pub ahead of print that I became aware of through a Reuters story, late last week when I still didn’t have time to deal with it. As is my usual practice, I saved the link for later in Safari’s Reading List, and this time I actually managed to come back to it. The story is entitled “Many cancer patients expect palliative care to cure“, and it’s about a recent publication out of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute published online in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) entitled “Expectations About the Effectiveness of Radiation Therapy Among Patients With Incurable Lung Cancer“. It caught my eye, even a week ago, because managing expectations in patients with advanced cancer. It then led me to do a search for related articles, which brought me to a similar study from last fall in the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled “Patients’ Expectations about Effects of Chemotherapy for Advanced Cancer“, also from the same group at the Dana-Farber. This latter study looked at patients’ expectations regarding chemotherapy, and I even remember having encountered it when it was first published and wanted to blog about it then. I don’t recall why I didn’t, but here’s my chance to revisit it.
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Posted in: Cancer

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“Sense and nonsense” about alternative medicine in USA Today

Sometimes, between blogging, a demanding day (and night) job doing surgery and science, and everything else, I embarrass myself. Sure, sometimes I embarrass myself by saying something that, in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. More often, I embarrass myself by letting things slide that I shouldn’t. For instance, when friends send me a prepublication copy of their books, I should damned well read them, don’t you think? So it was that Paul Offit sent me a copy of his latest book, which just hit the bookstores and online outlets this week, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, and I haven’t finished it. Oh, I’ve read a good chunk of it, but it’s not a huge book (around 335 pages); so I should have finished it by now, particularly since it’s quite good. My failure to properly read and plug the book aside, I’m glad to see that the book’s getting attention in a large media outlet, namely USA Today, in an article by Liz Szabo Book raises alarms about alternative medicine. There’s also a companion piece How to guard against a quack. I figure that the least I can do is to plug Dr. Offit’s book and the USA Today story in which he is featured, just as Harriet plugged his recent speaking appearance.

It’s also nice that Steve Novella and I were both interviewed. Now, excuse me while I get back to doing what I really should have had finished a month or two ago: Reading Dr. Offit’s excellent book.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements

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BBC Panorama investigates Stanislaw Burzynski

Last week, I reviewed a long-expected (and, to some extent, long-dreaded) documentary by Eric Merola, a filmmaker whose talent is inversely proportional to his yen for conspiracy, pseudoscience, and quackery. Through a quirk of fate that couldn’t have worked out better if I had planned it myself, a long-expected investigation of the Burzynski Clinic by the BBC aired on its venerable news program Panorama last Monday. It was entitled, appropriately enough, Cancer: Hope for Sale? Ever since learning that the BBC was working on this back in January or February, skeptics have been looking forward to it with a mixture of anticipation and dread, anticipation because we expected that the Panorama crew would “get it” (in the interests of full disclosure, I will mention that I was interviewed over the phone by a Panorama producer and exchanged e-mails to answer questions and suggestions), but a bit of dread because we feared the bane of all news reporting on issues of science and medicine: false balance.

So now that the report was finally aired, how was it? You can either watch it on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK) or on YouTube (if you’re not, assuming it’s still there):

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Stanislaw Burzynski: A deceptive propaganda movie versus an upcoming news report

Well, I’ve finally seen it, and it was even worse than I had feared.

After having heard of Eric Merola’s plan to make a sequel to his 2010 propaganda “documentary” about Stanislaw Burzynski, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business, which I labeled a bad movie, bad medicine, and bad PR, I’ve finally actually seen the finished product, such as it is. Of course, during the months between when Eric Merola first offered me an “opportunity” to appear in the sequel based on my intense criticism of Burzynski’s science, abuse of the clinical trials process, and human subjects research ethics during the last 18 months or so, there has been intense speculation about what this movie would contain, particularly given how Merola’s publicity campaign involved demonizing skeptics, now rechristened by Merola as “The Skeptics,” a shadowy cabal of people apparently dedicated (according to Merola) to protecting big pharma and making sure that patients with deadly cancers don’t have access to Burzynski’s magic peptides, presumably cackling all the way to the bank to cash those big pharma checks.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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A brief note on killing cancer cells in a dish

I am taking the Memorial Day holiday off. I will return next week (or even earlier if something comes up that I can’t resist blogging about). In the meantime, here’s a general principle that needs to be remembered in cancer research:

I would also add to that list: So does bleach. So does acid. So does alkali. So does pouring the media out of the dish and letting the cells dry out. So do a variety of lethal poisons. So does heat. So does cold. The list goes on.

The point, of course, is that it’s very easy to kill cells in a cancer dish. What is difficult is selectively killing cancer cells in the human body while not harming normal cells.

See you all next week!

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer

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Angelina Jolie, radical strategies for cancer prevention, and genetics denialism

I had been debating whether to blog about Angelina Jolie’s announcement last week in a New York Times editorial entitled My Medical Choice that she had undergone bilateral prophylactic mastectomy because she had been discovered to have a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that is associated with a very high risk of breast cancer. On the one hand, it is my area of expertise and was a big news story. On the other hand, it’s been nearly a week since she announced her decision, and the news story is no longer as topical as it was. Also, I’ve already written about it a couple of times on my not-so-super-secret other blog, making the division of blogging…problematic. So, if some of this is a bit repetitive to those who are also fans of my more—shall we say?—insolent persona, I apologize, but try to be patient. I will be doing more than just rehashing a couple of posts from last week (although there will unavoidably be at least a little of that), because there have been even more examples of reactions to Jolie’s announcement that provide what I like to consider “teachable moments.” I will start by asserting quite bluntly that in my medical opinion, from the information I have available, Angelina Jolie made a rational, science-based decision. How she went about the actual mechanics might have had some less than scientific glitches along the way (more about that later), but the basic decision to remove both of her breasts to prevent breast cancer associated with a BRCA1 mutation that she carried was quite reasonable and very defensible from a scientific standpoint.

One advantage of waiting nearly a week to write about this story is that it provided me with the opportunity to sit back and observe the reactions that Jolie’s decision provoked. One thing that I really didn’t expect (although in retrospect maybe I should have) is the pure denialism on display that genes have any effect whatsoever on cancer. I say “in retrospect I should have” because I’ve written at least a couple of times before about how quacks use and abuse the term “epigenetics” in the same way that they abuse the word “quantum” and how they seem to believe that wishing makes it so (through epigenetics, of course!) to the point where they believe that genetics is irrelevant to cancer. Indeed, they go far beyond that, asserting that, in essence, environment is all. From what I’ve been reading thus far, the second strongest strain of reaction to Jolie’s announcement (after revulsion at the “mutilation” of women that it represented to certain quacks) is pure denial that mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes portend such a high risk of ultimately developing breast cancer. This denial is often accompanied by conspiracy mongering about BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations being a “conspiracy” on the part of the “cancer industry” and Myriad Genetics & Laboratories, the company that holds the patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, to increase genetic testing and preventative mastectomies. Myriad happens to have a complete monopoly on BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing because of this patent and has been criticized for its high prices and stifling of competition. There is currently a case before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding whether human genes are patentable under the law. I’m not a big fan of Myriad, and I’ll tell you why later. (Not that it matters; I’m stuck with them for now.) My personal distaste for Myriad Genetics aside, this sort of conspiracy mongering is part and parcel of the quack approach to denying the significance of BRCA1 mutations.

This denial is usually coupled with confident blather that Angelina Jolie didn’t need to undergo “disfiguring” surgery to prevent BRCA1-associated breast cancer but instead could have achieved the same—or even better!—risk reduction if only she had used this magic herb or that miracle supplement and making certain “lifestyle” changes. It’s utter nonsense, of course, but it’s everywhere.

Before I get to the reactions to Jolie’s announcement, let’s first take a look at what she did, why, and the science behind it.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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“Alternative” cancer cures in 1979: How little things have changed

Sometimes blogging topics arise from the strangest places. It’s true. For instance, although references to how tobacco causes cancer and the decades long denialist campaign by tobacco companies are not infrequently referenced in my blogging (particularly from supporters of highly dubious studies alleging a link between cell phone radiation and cancer and the ham-handed misuse of the analogy by antivaccinationists, who seem to think that vaccine companies engage in deceit on a scale similar to the deceptive practices of tobacco companies in “denying” that vaccines cause autism and all the other conditions, diseases, and horrors their fevered imaginations attribute to them), I’ve never really delved particularly deeply into one of the most useful repositories of documents on the topic that exists, namely the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. Actually, the reason I started poking around there is not due to tobacco science, but because a fellow blogger mentioned to me that there were some articles and documents about Stanislaw Burzynski there dating back to the late 1970s. My curiosity was piqued.

As I explored, however, I learned that the documents there were not so much about Stanislaw Burzynski per se. In fact, they were more about the state of the underground “alternative cancer cures” industry in the late 1970s, which interested me greatly. The reason is that, when it comes to having delved so deeply into cancer quackery, I’m a relative newbie. Compared to, for example, Wally Sampson, Stephen Barrett, Peter Moran, or even Kimball Atwood, I’m inexperienced, having only noticed this phenomenon in a big way in the Usenet newsgroup misc.health.alternative back around 2001 or so, give or take a year. As a result, I don’t have the shared historical perspective that they do, mainly because I can only learn about that era from reading, studying, and talking to people who were active then. After all, in the late 1970s I was still in high school, and in the 1980s I was in college and medical school. There was no Internet (at least none that I had access to and that contained the wealth of easily accessible information to which we have become accustomed). In any case, in high school I had other interests, and throughout the 1980s I was too focused on getting an education and training to be a surgeon and researcher, a process that extended into the late 1990s. (Yes, it takes that long sometimes, particularly if you are masochistic enough to want to get a PhD, complete a general surgery residency, and do a fellowship in surgical oncology.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, History

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Eric Merola’s conspiracy-mongering and more of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s cancer “success” stories

About a month ago, Eric Merola screened his second movie about “brave maverick doctor” Stanislaw Burzynski, Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2 (henceforth referred to as “Burzynski II”), a screening that Brian Thompson and an unnamed colleague from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) attended, took notes, and even managed to ask a question. At the time, I took advantage of Brian’s awesome commentary about his experience on the JREF Swift Blog, his copious notes, and my read on Eric Merola’s trailers for the movie, what he said in the first movie, and his own promotional material to write about how Merola dishonestly demonizes what he refers to as “The Skeptics” (i.e., us) and five major misconceptions about Burzynski, cancer, and skeptics promoted in Burzynski II, all with a heapin’ helpin’ of conspiracy mongering. In this post, I will delve into a little more detail about the fundamental intellectual dishonesty behind Eric Merola’s conspiracy mongering and discuss two of the cases being used to “prove” that Burzynski can cure cancer, mainly because they are appearing along with Merola on the publicity trail. Merola himself, thankfully (I guess) has allowed me to do this by posting an edited version of that original Q&A to YouTube:

In particular, note how everything I said in my previous post about what went on at the Q&A is verified, and, in fact, you now have the details. I will try to mention the specific time points to refer to as I go along. Also note that there is a segment at about the 47:45 mark in which JREF’s Brian Thompson (blurred out but still recognizable) speaks with the husband of one of Burzynski’s patients that is worth watching and that I will briefly discuss further into this post.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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The “no compassion” gambit

As usual, I was impressed with Mark Crislip’s post on Friday in which he discussed the boundaries between science-based medicine and what we sometimes refer to as woo or what Mark often refers to as sCAM. It got me to thinking a bit, which is always a dangerous thing, particularly when such thinking leads to my writing something for my not-so-super-secret other blog (NSSSOB). Of course, this is not my NSSSOB, but that doesn’t make it that much less dangerous. Be that as it may, I started thinking about a gambit I started noticing a few years ago being directed at me by the targets of my logorrheic deconstructions. Actually, I noticed it from the very beginning, when I first started blogging about SBM versus quackery way back in 2004 and even before, back when I was one of a doughty band of pro-science types who waded into the Wild West of online forums known as Usenet, in particular the misc.health.alternative newsgroup.

I happen to be in Washington, DC as I write this. In fact, as I write this I’m here to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the better to soak in all that cancer science goodness and (hopefully) be pumped up to go back and keep trying to do good science and, hopefully, manage to get my lab funded. Of course, the latter task is a really daunting these days, a truly depressing thing to contemplate, given that the current payline for the National Cancer Institute is around the 7th percentile, which makes me worry about how much longer my lab will be open. My self pity aside, Mark got me to thinking about the characteristics of purveyors of non-science-based medicine (i.e., quackery and quackademic medicine) compared to SBM. More precisely, I started thinking about a difference that what Mark calls sCAMmers try to pin on those of us who try to defend SBM against the forces of pseudoscience. To introduce this concept, I think it’s worth going back a few years to a comment I got a long, long time ago on a blog far, far away (i.e., my NSSSOB):

When it comes to autism, you seem to have lost something that I think every physician is well-served to have in abundance: compassion.

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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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AAFP CME Program Succumbs to “Integrative Medicine”

For many years I have been using Continuing Medical Education (CME) programs offered by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The FP Essentials program consists of a monthly monograph with a post-test that can be submitted electronically for 5 hours of CME credit. Over a 9-year cycle, a complete family medicine curriculum is covered to prepare participants for the re-certification board exams. Some examples of typical subjects are skin cancer, hand and wrist injuries, valvular heart disease, and care of the newborn. I rely on these programs to learn, review, and keep up-to-date in my specialty. Imagine my dismay when I opened the latest package to find a monograph on Integrative Medicine.

First it was called various names like folk medicine, quackery, and unproven/untested treatments, then all of those (the less rational right along with the more rational) were lumped together under the umbrella term “Alternative Medicine,” then it became “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” (CAM), and now it has been re-branded as “Integrative Medicine.” The term is designed to make unscientific treatments seem more acceptable to science-based doctors. “Integrative Medicine” is a marketing term, not a meaningful scientific category. It is a euphemism for combining Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) with mainstream medical practice, unproven with proven, magic with science.  It has been critiqued many times on this blog. We have stressed that there is only one medicine, and that when a treatment is proven to work by good evidence, it is just “medicine.” When the evidence for a CAM treatment is not good, it essentially amounts to experimental treatments and/or comfort measures. Worse, sometimes CAM even persists in using treatments that have been proven not to work or that are totally implausible, like therapeutic touch or homeopathy. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia

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