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A Skeptic In Oz

UPDATE 4/27/2011: Here’s the online video of Dr. Novella’s appearance on The Dr. Oz Show:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

I must say I was a bit shocked two weeks ago when I was contacted by a producer for The Dr. Oz Show inviting me on to discuss alternative medicine. We have been quite critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz over his promotion of dubious medical treatments and practitioners, and I wondered if they were aware of the extent of our criticism (they were, it turns out).

Despite the many cautions I received from friends and colleagues (along with support as well) – I am always willing to engage those with whom I disagree. I knew it was a risk going into a forum completely controlled by someone who does not appear to look kindly upon my point of view, but a risk worth taking. I could only hope I was given the opportunity to make my case (and that it would survive the editing process).

The Process

Of course, everyone was extremely friendly throughout the entire process, including Dr. Oz himself (of that I never had any doubt). The taping itself went reasonably well. I was given what seemed a good opportunity to make my points. However, Dr. Oz did reserve for himself the privilege of getting in the last word—including a rather long finale, to which I had no opportunity to respond. Fine—it’s his show, and I knew what I was getting into. It would have been classy for him to give an adversarial guest the last word, or at least an opportunity to respond, but I can’t say I expected it.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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The Free Speech About Science Act (H.R. 1364), “health freedom,” and misinformed consent

“Health freedom.” It’s a battle cry frequently used by supporters of “alternative” medicine against what they perceive to be persecution by the medical and scientific establishment that uses the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and other federal agencies charged with regulating pharmaceuticals, food, cosmetics, and medical devices in order to protect the public against fraud, adulterated food, and quackery. It’s a potent argument to those not versed in skepticism and science-based medicine, and even to many who are. After all, Who could argue with “health freedom”? How dare the government tell me what I can and can’t use to treat my own body? Of couse, as I (and others) have said many times before, in reality “health freedom” is a sham. In reality, “health freedom” is not an argument made for the benefit of the consumer; it’s an argument made for the benefit of the sellers of supplements. In practice “health freedom” really means freedom for quacks from any pesky laws and regulations that would prevent them from exercising their quackery.

So it was last week when I saw two websites known for anything but science-based medicine (SBM), namely the quackery-promoting website NaturalNews.com and the quackery apologist blog Vitamin Lawyer Health Freedom Blog promoting a bill that I hadn’t heard of before, namely H.R. 1364, entitled the “Free Speech About Science” (FSAS) Act of 2011. This bill is being touted in all the usual “health freedom” venues as an antidote to what supplement manufacturers apparently see as the “overreach” of the FDA. For example, Ethan A. Huff of NaturalNews.com (where’s Mike Adams, one wonders?) urges his readers to tell Congress to support the Free Speech about Science Act of 2011., while “vitamin lawyer” Ralph Fucetola subtitles his post HR 1364, S.216 and the Struggle for Health and Food Freedom Action Item. So what do these advocates for dubious supplements say?
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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The Hazards of “CAM”-Pandering

Steven Salzberg, a friend of this blog and Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland, is on the editorial boards of three of the many journals published by BioMed Central (BMC), an important source of open-access, peer-reviewed biomedical reports. He is disturbed by the presence of two other journals under the BMC umbrella: Chinese Medicine and BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. A couple of days ago, on his Forbes science blog, Dr. Salzberg explained why. Here are some excerpts:

The Chinese Medicine journal promotes, according to its own mission statement, studies of “acupuncture, Tui-na, Qi-qong, Tai Chi Quan, energy research,” and other nonsense. Tui na, for example, supposedly “affects the flow of energy by holding and pressing the body at acupressure points.”

Right. What is this doing in a scientific journal?… I support BMC…But their corporate leaders seem to care more about expanding their stable than about maintaining the integrity of science. Chinese Medicine simply does not belong in the company of respectable scientific journals.

Forming a scientific journal whose goal is to validate antiquated, unproven superstitions is simply not science, whatever the editors of Chinese Medicine claim.

BMC should be embarrassed to be publishing journals that promote anti-scientific theories and otherwise muddy the literature. By supporting these journals, they undermine the credibility of many excellent BMC journals. They should cut these journals loose.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Herbal Remedies, Street Drugs, and Pharmacology

David Kroll’s recent article on thunder god vine is a great example of what can be learned by using science to study plants identified by herbalists as therapeutic. The herbalists’ arsenal can be a rich source of potential knowledge. But Kroll’s article is also a reminder that blindly trusting herbalists’ recommendations for treatment can be risky.

Herbal medicine has always fascinated me. How did early humans determine which plants worked? They had no record-keeping, no scientific methods, only trial and error and word of mouth. How many intrepid investigators poisoned themselves and died in the quest? Imagine yourself in the jungle: which plants would you be willing to try? How would you decide whether to use the leaf or the root? How would you decide whether to chew the raw leaf or brew an infusion? It is truly remarkable that our forbears were able to identify useful natural medicines and pass the knowledge down to us.

It is equally remarkable that modern humans with all the advantages of science are willing to put useless and potentially dangerous plant products into their bodies based on nothing better than prescientific hearsay. (more…)

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How to Interrogate an Herbal Medicine: Thunder God Vine

ResearchBlogging.orgThunder god vine may not be a useful herbal medicine but the compounds isolated from it are fascinating – if not as medicines, then most certainly as laboratory tools. Nature Chemical Biology recently published an article where a research team from Johns Hopkins, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Drew University in New Jersey, has determined the molecular mechanism of action of triptolide, an unusual triepoxide compound from the plant.

Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F, or thunder god vine, is known as lei gong teng in Chinese traditional medicine and has a history of use as an anti-inflammatory herb. As with many traditional medicines, usage patterns do not necessarily indicate scientific validity. In fact, a Cochrane review published just last month on herbal therapies for rheumatoid arthritis indicated that the efficacy of thunder god vine was mixed. More concerning is that the herb had significant adverse effects in some trials, from hair loss to one case of aplastic anemia.

Nevertheless, the herb’s components have been studied since the 1970s for since they also appears to kill tumor cells in culture with nanomolar potency and have immunosuppresant activity in animal models. The group of the late natural products chemist at the University of Virginia, S. Morris Kupchan, first identified the unusual structures of triptolide and tripdiolide from Tripterygium wilfordii as described in this 1972 paper from the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Cytotoxic activity toward tumor cells in culture was used to guide the chemical fractionation of extracts. The unusual presence of three consecutive epoxides in the structures of both compounds led Kupchan to hypothesize later in Science that they target leukemia cells by covalent binding to cellular targets involved in cellular growth. (more…)

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Diet Supplements or Nutritional Supplements: A Ruse by Any Other Name is Still a Ruse

I was surprised to get this e-mail from a reader:

Surely, Dr. Hall, the public mania for nutritional supplements is baseless. All the alleged nutrients in supplements are contained in the food we eat. And what governmental agency has oversight responsibility regarding the production of these so-call nutritional supplements? Even if one believes that such pills have value, how can the consumer be assured that the product actually contains what the label signifies? I have yet to find a comment on this subject on your otherwise informative website.

My co-bloggers and I have addressed these issues repeatedly. Peter Lipson covered DSHEA (The Diet Supplement Health and Education Act) nicely. It’s all been said before, but perhaps it needs to be said again; and maybe by writing this post I can make it easier for new readers to find the information.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Treating The Common Cold

For the last week I have had a cold. I usually get one each winter. I have two kids in school and they bring home a lot of viruses. I also work in a hospital, which tends (for some reason) to have lots of sick people. Although this year I think I caught my cold while traveling.  I’m almost over it now, but it’s certainly a miserable interlude to my normal routine.

One thing we can say for certain about the common cold – it’s common. It is therefore no surprise that there are lots of cold remedies, folk remedies, pharmaceuticals, and “alternative” treatments. Finding a “cure for the common cold” has also become a journalistic cliche – reporters will jump on any chance to claim that some new research may one day lead to a cure for the common cold. Just about any research into viruses, no matter how basic or preliminary, seems to get tagged with this headline.  (It’s right up there with every fossil being a “missing link.”)

But despite the commonality of the cold, the overall success of modern medicine, and the many attempts to treat or prevent the cold – there are very few treatments that are actually of any benefit. The only certain treatment is tincture of time. Most colds will get better on their own in about a week. This also creates the impression that any treatment works – no matter what you do, your symptoms are likely to improve. It is also very common to get a mild cold that lasts just a day or so. Many people my feel a cold “coming on” but then it never manifests. This is likely because there was already some partial immunity, so the infection was wiped out quickly by the immune system. But this can also create the impression that whatever treatment was taken at the onset of symptoms worked really well, and even prevented the cold altogether.

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The risks of CAM: How much do we know?

Working in pharmacies where supplements are sold alongside traditional (over-the-counter) medications, I’m regularly astonished at the different perceptions consumers can have about the relative efficacy and safety of different types of products. Once, speaking with a customer about a medical condition she wanted to treat, I indicated that there were no effective non-prescription therapies — she needed to see a physician for access to an effective treatment by prescription — and I gestured behind the counter. “Back there?!” she pointed. “That’s where you keep the stuff that kills people! I want something natural!” Suggesting that my patients with heart disease or HIV had a somewhat different perspective, I tried (unsuccessfully) to talk her out of a questionable-looking supplement (Hint: avoid anything from a company with a P.O. box as a mailing address.) This appeal to nature, combined with a perception that natural products are safe, and conventional drugs are unsafe, is pervasive. (more…)

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For shame, Dr. Oz, for promoting Joseph Mercola on your show!

I’ve been highly critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Vice Chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program (i.e., Columbia’s quackademic medicine) program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Those are his academic titles. More important, in terms of his promotion of pseudoscience, is his role as daytime medical show host. Dr. Oz’s television show, called, appropriately enough, The Dr. Oz Show, is a direct result of his having been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show on numerous occasions as one of her regular medical experts. Because of his popularity, Dr. Oz became Oprah’s protégé and ultimately scored his very own daytime TV show, which has been quite successful since its debut in September 2009.

So what has led me to conclude that I’ve finally completely had it with Dr. Oz? Or, as Popeye would say, “I’ve had all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”

The final straw occurred yesterday, but this has been building up for a while. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that Dr. Oz has a weak spot for “alternative medicine.” A decade ago, he was known for bringing reiki masters into the operating room do their mystical magical gestures during cardiac surgery, the better to channel the healing energy of the “universal source” into his patients before they went onto the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. His wife is also a reiki master, which might explain his particular fondness for this form of faith healing. Even so, even though I always knew Dr. Oz was into some woo, most of the times I ever saw him on Oprah’s show and the rare occasion that I’ve seen his show, the worst I could say about him was that he is at best a shruggie and at worst too prone to mixing perfectly valid, science-based information with the “softer” forms of “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM) modalities, such as acupuncture and reiki. Even so, CAM didn’t seem to be a major part of his show. That seems to have changed in 2010.

As 2010 dawned, I became aware of a show in which Dr. Oz promoted reiki completely uncritically, beginning the year with a show entitled Dr. Oz’s Ultimate Alternative Medicine Secrets. It wasn’t too long before Dr. Oz did it again, delivering a two-fer of “quantum” quackery coupled with just plain quackery, when he invited Deepak Chopra and Joe Mercola on his show. Around the same time, Dr. Oz also revealed in an interview also hadn’t had his children vaccinated against H1N1. In all fairness, he seemed embarrassed to admit this and uncomfortable about the situation (Dr. Oz has never, to my knowledge, expressed anti-vaccine views), but, even so, he did seem to be more sympathetic than the evidence warrants to the concept that vaccines might somehow cause autism. None of these occurrences was good, but, as disturbing as they were, none of them quite crossed a line. Quite.

As 2011 dawns, there is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Oz has now irrevocably crossed his Woo-bicon (link there to make my pun painfully obvious), gone over to the Dark Side, betrayed the cause, gone woo, or whatever you want to call it. He’s done, as far as science-based medicine goes. That’s because yesterday he featured one of the biggest promoters of highly dubious medical remedies on the Internet on his show in one fawning segment after another. I’m referring, of course, to Dr. Joe Mercola, who was the main guest on The Dr. Oz Show yesterday in segments entitled The Alternative Health Controversy (part 1, part 2, part 3), coupled with another segment entitled The Surprising Supplement You Need. Let’s just say that Dr. Oz’s journey to the Dark Side is now complete. He has controlled his fear but released his woo, and it is strong woo indeed.
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Cranberry Juice

It always somewhat surprises me how some interventions never seem to die. Theophylline seems to have disappeared in the medical pantheon, but what comes around, goes around.  I predict a resurgence of theophylline this century.  Despite the recent study that shows, yet again, echinacea has no effect on colds, I predict the study will neither decrease the sales of echinacea nor prevent further funds being spent on clinical trials on its efficacy.  Hear that JREF?  I made predictions.  I will await my million dollar check. Make it out to Mark Crislip.

Another therapy that refuses to be put to rest, or even to be clarified, is the use of cranberry juice for urinary tract infections.  Pubmed references go back to 1962, and there are over 100 references.  Firm conclusions are still lacking.

There is a reasonable, but incomplete,  basic science behind the use of the cranberry juice for urinary tract infections. (more…)

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