A point I make over and over again when talking about new or alternative therapies that are not supported by good clinical trial evidence is that lower-level evidence, such as theoretical justifications, anecdotes, and pre-clinical research like in vitro studies and animal model testing, can only be suggestive, never reliable proof of safety or efficacy. It is necessary to begin evaluating a new therapy that does not yet have clinical evidence to support it by showing a plausible theory for why it might work and then moving on to demonstrate that it actually could work through pre-clinical research, which includes biochemistry, cell culture, and animal models. These sorts of supporting preclinical evidence are what we refer to when we refer to the “prior plausibility” of a clinical study. But this kind of evidence alone is not sufficient to support using the therapy in real patients except under experimental conditions, or when the urgency to intervene is great enough to balance the significant uncertainty about the effects of the intervention.
In support of this conclusion, we can consider the inherent unreliability of individual human judgments and all the many ways in which inadequately controlled research can mislead us. And we can reflect on how promising results in early trials often melt away when better, larger, more rigorous studies are done that better control for bias (the so-called Decline Effect). And it is not at all difficult to compile a large list of examples of the harm inadequately studied medical interventions can cause.
But what I’d like to do here is focus on a particularly good specific example of why thorough clinical trial evaluation of promising ideas is not just a nice extra to confirm what we already believe is true, it is the only way to genuinely know whether our treatments to more good than harm.
As I contemplated what I’d like to write about for the first post of 2012, I happened to come across a post by former regular and now occasional SBM contributor Peter Lipson entitled Another crack at medical cranks. In it, Dr. Lipson discusses one characteristic that allows medical cranks and quacks to attract patients, namely the ability to make patients feel wanted, cared for, and, often, happy. As I (and several of us at SBM) have said before, it’s not necessary to invoke magic, quackery, or pseudoscience in order to show empathy to patients and provide them with the “human touch” that forges a strong therapeutic relationship between physician and patient and maximizes placebo effects without deception. In the old days, this used to be called “bedside manner,” but in these days of capitation and crappy third party payor reimbursement it’s very difficult for physicians to take the time necessary to listen to patients and thereby build the bonds of trust and mutual respect that can augment the treatments that are prescribed. Unfortunately, because of this the quacks have been all too eager to leap into the breach.
One aspect of this tendency of medical cranks is to claim that they somehow “individualize” their treatment to the patient, as Peter points out:
There are a number of so-called holistic doctors in town who claim to practice “individualized” medicine. What this really means isn’t clear. My colleagues and I certainly individualize the treatment plans for all of our patients, using data gleaned from decades of scientific studies of large groups of patients. What “individualized” care seems to mean in this other context is “stuff I made up to make that patient feel more unique and special.”
Last week, I wrote a magnum opus of a movie review of a movie about a physician and “researcher” named Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, founder of the Burzynski Clinic and Burzynski Research Institute in Houston. I refer you to my original post for details, but in brief Dr. Burzynski claimed in the 1970s to have made a major breakthrough in cancer therapy through his discovery of anticancer substances in the urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons,” which turned out to be mainly modified amino acids and peptides. Since the late 1970s, when he founded his clinic, Dr. Burzynski has been using antineoplastons to treat cancer. Over the last 25 years or so, he has opened a large number of phase I and phase II clinical trials with little or nothing to show for it in terms of convincing evidence of efficacy. Worse, as has been noted in a number of places, high doses of antineoplastons as sodium salts are required, doses so high that severe hypernatremia is a concern.
Although antineoplastons are the dubious cancer therapy upon which Dr. Burzynski built his fame, they aren’t the only thing he does. Despite the promotion of the Burzynski Clinic as using “nontoxic” therapies that “aren’t chemotherapy” by “natural medicine” cranks such as Joe Mercola and Mike Adams, Dr. Burzynski’s dirty little secrets, at least as far as the “alternative medicine” crowd goes, are that (1) despite all of the attempts of Dr. Burzynski and supporters to portray them otherwise antineoplastons are chemotherapy and (2) Dr. Burzynski uses a lot of conventional chemotherapy. In fact, from my perspective, it appears to me as though over the last few years Dr. Burzynski has pivoted. No longer are antineoplastons the center of attention at his clinic. Rather, these days, he appears to be selling something that he calls “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy.” In fact, it’s right there in the first bullet point on his clinic’s webpage, underlined, even! Antineoplastons aren’t even listed until the third bullet point.
But what is “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” according to Dr. Burzynski? Here is how it is described:
And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.
Cleric from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
I’ve always wondered about the power of the number three. When it comes to quackery propaganda movies, certainly three seems to be the magic number. For example, The Greater Good, an anti-vaccine propaganda film, features three anecdotes, three children allegedly suffering from vaccine injury, and it interspersed its interviews with experts, both real (such as Dr. Paul Offit) and phony (such as Barbara Loe Fisher) with vignettes from these children’s stories interspersed between them in a highly biased manner. I have to wonder whether these cliches are taught in film school, given that they seem to be so common. Such were the thoughts running through my brain as I watched the latest medical propaganda film by writer/producer Eric Merola that’s floating around the blogosphere and the film circuit, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business. In this movie, there are three testimonials, and, if anything, they are far more manipulative than even the testimonials featured in The Greater Good, because each of them are of the type that portrays doctors as sending a patient home to die; that is, until a “brave maverick doctor,” one Stanislaw R. Burzynski, MD, PhD, comes to the rescue with his unconventional and unproven therapy. The only difference is that this film counts testimonials up to the number three in the beginning as “proof” that Burzynski can cure cancer before lobbing the Holy Hand Grenade of Burzynski towards its foes in the hopes that, being naughty in the filmmaker’s sight, the FDA and Texas Medical Board will snuff it. Or, as a caption says right at very the beginning of the movie:
This is the story of a medical doctor and PhD biochemist who has discovered the genetic mechanism that can cure most human cancers. The opening 30 minutes of this film is designed to thoroughly establish this fact — so the viewer can fully appreciate the events that follow it.
It turns out that the grenade is a dud.
I first wrote about Hoodia in my “SkepDoc” column in Skeptic magazine (Vol. 13, No. 1, 2007). The following is adapted from that column with an update from new research revealing that it doesn’t work and that it causes worrisome side effects.
I first heard of Hoodia in 2006, when a radio ad informed me that it was the new miracle weight loss pill. Shortly after that, I started seeing ads for Hoodia everywhere. Anna Nicole Smith took it. It was featured on Oprah. Lesley Stahl went to Africa to taste the plant on 60 Minutes. There are nearly 40 competing brands of pills, a patch version, and even a Hoodia lollipop. It seems to have taken the world by storm; but it’s not new.
Hoodia gordonii is a cactus that grows in the deserts of southern Africa, and the San people have traditionally used it as an appetite suppressant, thirst quencher and to treat severe abdominal cramps, hemorrhoids, tuberculosis, indigestion, hypertension and diabetes. The claim is that it banishes hunger and thirst. What is the evidence? At this point it’s strictly anecdotal. Skinny Bushmen report it relieves hunger pangs in starvation conditions on long hunts; we don’t know what happens if it’s used by lazy fat people with access to food. Before the new study, there hadn’t been a single published study in humans. (more…)
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:
I seem to be writing a lot about the urinary tract this month. Just coincidence, I assure you. As I slide into old age, medical issues that were once only of cursory interest for a young whippersnapper have increasing potential to be directly applicable to grumpy old geezers. Like benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). I am heading into an age where I may have to start paying attention to my prostate (not prostrate, as it is so often pronounced, although an infection of the former certainly can make you the latter), so articles that in former days I would have ignored, I read. JAMA this month has what should be the nail in the coffin of saw palmetto, demonstrating that the herb has no efficacy in the treatment of symptoms of BPH: Effect of increasing doses of saw palmetto extract on lower urinary tract symptoms: a randomized trial.
It demonstrated that compared to placebo, saw palmetto did nothing. There have been multiple studies in the past with the more or less the usual arc of clinical studies of CAM products: better designed trials showing decreasing efficacy, until excellent studies show no effect. There is the usual meta analysis or two, where all the suboptimal studies are lumped together, the authors bemoan the quality of the data, and proceed to draw conclusions from the garbage anyway. GIGO.
The NEJM study from 2006 demonstrated that saw palmetto was no better than placebo but it was suggested that perhaps the dose of saw palmetto was not high enough or that the patients were not treated long enough to demonstrate an effect, and the JAMA study hoped to remedy that defect. (more…)
Science-based medicine rests on twin pillars that are utterly essential to the development of treatments that are safe and efficacious. Both of these pillars depend on science, but in different ways. The first of these is, of course, the basic science that provides the hypotheses to test about the mechanisms behind the diseases and malfunctions that plague the human body. This basic science suggests ways of either correcting or alleviating these malfunctions in order to alleviate symptoms and prevent morbidity and mortality and how to improve health to increase quality and quantity of life. Another critical aspect of basic science is that it also provides scientists with an estimate of the plausibility of various proposed interventions, treatments and cures designed to treat disease and improve health. For example, if a proposed remedy relies upon ideas that do not jibe with some of the most well-established laws in science, such as homeopathy, the concepts behind which violate multiple laws of physics and chemistry, it’s a very safe bet that that particular treatment will not work and that we should test something else. Of course, the raison d’être of this blog derives from the unfortunate fact that in today’s medicine this is not the case and we are wasting incredible amounts of time, money, and lost opportunities in order to pursue the scientific equivalent of fairy dust as though it represented a promising breakthrough that will save medicine, even though much of it is based on prescientific thinking and mysticism. Examples include homeopathy, reiki, therapeutic touch, acupuncture, and much of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, all of which have managed to attach themselves to medical academia like kudzu.
Of course, basic science alone is not enough. Humans are incredibly complex organisms, and what we consider to be an adequate understanding of disease won’t always result in an efficacious treatment, no matter how good the science is. Note that this is not the same thing as saying that utter implausibility from a scientific basis (as is the case with homeopathy) doesn’t mean a treatment won’t work. When a proposed treatment relies on claiming “memory” for water that doesn’t exist or postulates the existence of a “life energy” that no scientific instrument can detect and the ability to manipulate that life energy that no scientist can prove, it’s a pretty safe bet that that treatment is a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys. Outside of these sorts of cases, though, clinical trials and epidemiological studies are the second pillar of science-based medicine, in particular clinical trials, which is where the “rubber hits the road,” so to speak. In clinical trials, we take observations from the laboratory that have led to treatments and test them in humans. The idea is to test for both safety and efficacy and then to begin to figure out which patients are most likely to benefit from the new treatment.
Parenting an infant can be totally overwhelming. One of the earliest challenge many face is learning to deal with periods of intractable crying. I often speak with sleep deprived parents when they’re looking for something — anything — to stop their baby from crying. They’ve typically been told by friends of family that their baby must have “colic” and they’ve come to the pharmacy, looking for a treatment. Colic is common, affecting up to 40% of babies in the few months of life.
While distressing, colic is a diagnosis of exclusion — that it, it is given only after other causes have been ruled out (hunger, pain, fatigue, etc.). The most common definition for colic is fussing or crying for more than 3 hours per day, more than 3 days per week, for more than 3 weeks. These criteria, first proposed by Morris Wessel in 1954, continue to be used today. However, scientific evidence to explain the cause is lacking. Ideas proposed include:
- changes in gastrointestinal bacteria/flora
- food allergies
- lactose intolerance
- excess gas in stomach
- cramping or indigestion
- intolerance to substances in the breast milk
- behavioural issues secondary to parenting factors
Despite its intensity, colic resolves on its own with no interventions. By three months of age, colic has resolved in 60% of infants. By four months, it’s 90%. It sounds harmless and short-lived, but colic’s ability to induce stress in parents cannot be overstated. Parents may be angry, frustrated, depressed, exhausted, or just feel guilty, ascribing their baby’s cries to some parenting fault. (more…)