Archive for Medical Ethics

Anti-vaccine warriors vs. research ethics

Three weeks ago, the anti-vaccine movement took a swing for the fences and, as usual, made a mighty whiff that produced a breeze easily felt in the bleachers. In brief, a crew of anti-vaccine lawyers headed by Mary Holland, co-author of Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children, published a highly touted (by Generation Rescue and other anti-vaccine groups, that is) “study” claiming to “prove” that the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) had actually compensated children for autism. As is typical with such “studies” generated by the anti-vaccine movement, it was bad science, bad law, and just plain bad all around. The authors intentionally conflated “autism-like” symptoms with autism, trying to claim that children with neurological injury with “autism-like” symptoms actually have autism. Never mind that there are specific diagnostic criteria for autism and that, if the children actually had autism, many of them would have been given a diagnosis of autism. Never mind that what they were doing was akin to claiming that all patients with “Parkinson’s-like symptoms” have Parkinson’s disease. (Hint: They don’t.) Never mind that all they did was to demonstrate a prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among the VICP-compensated children that was clearly within the range of what would be anticipated if there were no relationship between vaccines and autism. Never mind all that. This was Holland’s big chance, but it went over like the proverbial lead balloon. No one bit, other than FOX News.

The study rapidly faded into the obscurity it so richly deserves, in spite of mighty efforts by Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, and the likes of Ginger Taylor to keep it alive and use it as a rallying point to persuade legislators to pass anti-vaccine-friendly legislation. You could feel the frustration in its backers as Holland’s study, into which groups like Generation Rescue had apparently poured their hopes of being vindicated, crashed and burned.

However, there’s one aspect of this study that I didn’t discuss. In fact, I thought of it as I read it, but I wasn’t sure. What I (and others) have noticed is that there was no statement in the article that approval had been obtained from the relevant institutional review boards (IRBs) to do human subjects research. For those not familiar with what an IRB is, an IRB is a committee that oversees all human subject research for an institution. It is the IRB’s responsibility to make sure that all studies are ethical in design and that they conform to all federal regulations. Basically, IRBs are charged with weighing the risks and benefits of proposed human subject research and making sure that

  1. risks are minimized and that the risk:benefit ratio, at least as well as it can be estimated, is very favorable;
  2. to minimize any pain, suffering or distress that might come about because of the experimental therapy; and
  3. to make sure that researchers obtain truly informed consent.

During the course of a study, regular reports must be made to the IRB, which can shut down any study in its institution if it has concerns about patient welfare.

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Placebo Prescriptions

Whether it’s acupuncture, homeopathy or the latest supplement, placebo effects can be difficult to distinguish from real effects. Today’s post sets aside the challenge of identifying placebo effects and look at how placebos are used in routine medical practice.  I’ve been a pharmacist for almost 20 years, and have never seen a placebo in practice, where the patient was actively deceived by the physician and the pharmacist. So I was quite surprised to see some placebo usage figures cited by Tom Blackwell, writing in the National Post last week:

The practice is discouraged by major medical groups, considered unethical by many doctors and with uncertain benefit, but one in five Canadian physicians prescribes or hands out some kind of placebo to their often-unknowing patients, a new study suggests.

The article references a paper in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry which, sadly, does not have much of a web presence. The article continues:

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Asian Bear Bile Remedies: Traditional Medicine or Barbarism?

Imagine living 20 years spending 24 hours a day in a cage that tightly fits your body, not giving you room to stand up, stretch out, turn around, or move at all.

Imagine that twice a day during these years you would have a metal catheter inserted into a hole which has been cut into your abdomen, allowing the catheter to easily puncture your gall bladder, or maybe a long syringe inserted into your gall bladder, piercing through your skin again and again, by people who are not doctors.

Imagine becoming infected and cancerous because of this twice-daily physical invasion, and becoming neurotic due to your claustrophobic imprisonment.

Imagine having one or both of your hands cut off so someone can sell them for a lot of money.

Imagine you begin to chew at your hands, if you are lucky enough to have one or both left, due to your developing neuroticism, and to distract yourself from the pain you experience twice a day, every day, for your entire life.

This is reality for an estimated minimum of 12,000 bears across Asia.

– Sara Pegarella, JD

Currently, animal activists across China are up in arms because Gui Zhen Tang Pharmaceutical Corporation, a Fujian-based company that sells bear bile for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), has tried to increase production through an initial public offering (IPO). The company is being accused of cruelty towards animals in the process of extracting their bile at an industrial scale. Bear bile, or Xiong Dan (熊胆), is an important ingredient in TCM.


Posted in: Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Ethics in human experimentation in science-based medicine

Science-based medicine depends upon human experimentation. Scientists can do the most fantastic translational research in the world, starting with elegant hypotheses, tested through in vitro and biochemical experiments, after which they are tested in animals. They can understand disease mechanisms to the individual amino acid level in a protein or nucleotide in a DNA molecule. However, without human testing, they will never know if the end results of all that elegant science will actually do what it is intended to do and to make real human patients better. They will never know if the fruits of all that labor will actually cure disease. However, it is in human experimentation where the ethics of science most tend to clash with the mechanisms of science. We refer to “science-based medicine” (SBM) as “based” in science, but not science, largely because medicine can never be pure science. Science has resulted in amazing medical advances over the last century, but if there is one thing that we have learned it’s that, because clinical trials involve living, breathing, fellow human beings, what is the most scientifically rigorous trial design might not be the most ethical.

About a week ago, the AP reported that experiments and clinical trials that resemble the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and the less well known, but recently revealed Guatemala syphilis experiment were far more common than we might like to admit. As I sat through talks about clinical trial results at the Society of Surgical Oncology meeting in San Antonio over the weekend, the revelations of the last week reminded me that the intersection between science and ethics in medicine can frequently be a very tough question indeed. In fact, in many of the discussions, questions of what could or could not be done based on ethics were frequently mentioned, such as whether it is ethically acceptable or possible to do certain followup trials to famous breast cancer clinical trials. Unfortunately, it was not so long ago that such questions were answered in ways that bring shame on the medical profession.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part IV: More Cochrane and a little Bayes

NB: This is a partial posting; I was up all night ‘on-call’ and too tired to continue. I’ll post the rest of the essay later…


This is the fourth and final part of a series-within-a-series* inspired by statistician Steve Simon. Professor Simon had challenged the view, held by several bloggers here at SBM, that Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) has been mostly inadequate to the task of reaching definitive conclusions about highly implausible medical claims. In Part I, I reiterated a fundamental problem with EBM, reflected in its Levels of Evidence scheme, that although it correctly recognizes basic science and other pre-clinical evidence as insufficient bases for introducing novel treatments into practice, it fails to acknowledge that they are necessary bases. I explained the difference between “plausibility” and “knowing the mechanism.”

I showed, with several examples, that in the EBM lexicon the word “evidence” refers almost exclusively to the results of clinical trials: thus, when faced with equivocal or no clinical trials of some highly implausible claim, EBM practitioners typically declare that there is “not enough evidence” to either accept or reject the claim, and call for more trials—although in many cases there is abundant evidence, other than clinical trials, that conclusively refutes the claim. I rejected Prof. Simon’s assertion that we at SBM want to “give (EBM) a new label,” making the point that we only want it to live up to its current label by considering all the evidence. I doubted Prof. Simon’s contention that “people within EBM (are) working both formally and informally to replace the rigid hierarchy with something that places each research study in context.”

In Part II I responded to the widely held assertion, also held by Prof. Simon, that there is “societal value in testing (highly implausible) therapies that are in wide use.” I made it clear that I don’t oppose simple tests of basic claims, such as the Emily Rosa experiment, but I noted that EBM reviewers, including those employed by the Cochrane Collaboration, typically ignore such tests. I wrote that I oppose large efficacy trials and public funding of such trials. I argued that the popularity gambit has resulted in human subjects being exposed to dangerous and unethical trials, and I quoted language from ethics treatises specifically contradicting the assertion that popularity justifies such trials. Finally, I showed that the alleged popularity of most “CAM” methods—as irrelevant as it may be to the question of human studies ethics—has been greatly exaggerated.


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part III: Parapsychology is the Role Model for “CAM” Research

This is the third post in this series*; please see Part II for a review. Part II offered several arguments against the assertion that it is a good idea to perform efficacy trials of medical claims that have been refuted by basic science or by other, pre-trial evidence. This post will add to those arguments, continuing to identify the inadequacies of the tools of Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) as applied to such claims.

Prof. Simon Replies

Prior to the posting of Part II, statistician Steve Simon, whose views had been the impetus for this series, posted another article on his blog, responding to Part I of this series. He agreed with some of what both Dr. Gorski and I had written:

The blog post by Dr. Atwood points out a critical distinction between “biologically implausible” and “no known mechanism of action” and I must concede this point. There are certain therapies in CAM that take the claim of biological plausibility to an extreme. It’s not as if those therapies are just implausible. It is that those therapies must posit a mechanism that “would necessarily violate scientific principles that rest on far more solid ground than any number of equivocal, bias-and-error-prone clinical trials could hope to overturn.” Examples of such therapies are homeopathy, energy medicine, chiropractic subluxations, craniosacral rhythms, and coffee enemas.

The Science Based Medicine site would argue that randomized trials for these therapies are never justified. And it bothers Dr. Atwood when a systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration states that no conclusions can be drawn about homeopathy as a treatment for asthma because of a lack of evidence from well conducted clinical trials. There’s plenty of evidence from basic physics and chemistry that can allow you to draw strong conclusions about whether homeopathy is an effective treatment for asthma. So the Cochrane Collaboration is ignoring this evidence, and worse still, is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) calling for more research in this area.

On the other hand:

There are a host of issues worth discussing here, but let me limit myself for now to one very basic issue. Is any research justified for a therapy like homeopathy when basic physics and chemistry will provide more than enough evidence by itself to suggest that such research is futile(?) Worse still, the randomized trial is subject to numerous biases that can lead to erroneous conclusions.

I disagree for a variety of reasons.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part II: Is it a Good Idea to test Highly Implausible Health Claims?


This is the second post in a series* prompted by an essay by statistician Stephen Simon, who argued that Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) is not lacking in the ways that we at Science-Based Medicine have argued. David Gorski responded here, and Prof. Simon responded to Dr. Gorski here. Between that response and the comments following Dr. Gorski’s post it became clear to me that a new round of discussion would be worth the effort.

Part I of this series provided ample evidence for EBM’s “scientific blind spot”: the EBM Levels of Evidence scheme and EBM’s most conspicuous exponents consistently fail to consider all of the evidence relevant to efficacy claims, choosing instead to rely almost exclusively on randomized, controlled trials (RCTs). The several quoted Cochrane abstracts, regarding homeopathy and Laetrile, suggest that in the EBM lexicon, “evidence” and “RCTs” are almost synonymous. Yet basic science or preliminary clinical studies provide evidence sufficient to refute some health claims (e.g., homeopathy and Laetrile), particularly those emanating from the social movement known by the euphemism “CAM.”

It’s remarkable to consider just how unremarkable that last sentence ought to be. EBM’s founders understood the proper role of the rigorous clinical trial: to be the final arbiter of any claim that had already demonstrated promise by all other criteria—basic science, animal studies, legitimate case series, small controlled trials, “expert opinion,” whatever (but not inexpert opinion). EBM’s founders knew that such pieces of evidence, promising though they may be, are insufficient because they “routinely lead to false positive conclusions about efficacy.” They must have assumed, even if they felt no need to articulate it, that claims lacking such promise were not part of the discussion. Nevertheless, the obvious point was somehow lost in the subsequent formalization of EBM methods, and seems to have been entirely forgotten just when it ought to have resurfaced: during the conception of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine’s Introduction to Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine.

Thus, in 2000, the American Heart Journal (AHJ) could publish an unchallenged editorial arguing that Na2EDTA chelation “therapy” could not be ruled out as efficacious for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease because it hadn’t yet been subjected to any large RCTs—never mind that there had been several small ones, and abundant additional evidence from basic science, case studies, and legal documents, all demonstrating that the treatment is both useless and dangerous. The well-powered RCT had somehow been transformed, for practical purposes, from the final arbiter of efficacy to the only arbiter. If preliminary evidence was no longer to have practical consequences, why bother with it at all? This was surely an example of what Prof. Simon calls “Poorly Implemented Evidence Based Medicine,” but one that was also implemented by the very EBM experts who ought to have recognized the fallacy.

There will be more evidence for these assertions as we proceed, but the main thrust of Part II is to begin to respond to this statement from Prof. Simon: “There is some societal value in testing therapies that are in wide use, even though there is no scientifically valid reason to believe that those therapies work.”


Posted in: Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Vaccine Wars: the NCCAM Drops the Ball

If you go to the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), you’ll find that one of its self-identified roles is to “provide information about CAM.” NCCAM Director Josephine Briggs is proud to assert that the website fulfills this expectation. As many readers will recall, three of your bloggers visited the NCCAM last April, after having received an invitation from Dr. Briggs. We differed from her in our opinion of the website: one of our suggestions was that the NCCAM could do a better job providing American citizens with useful and accurate information about “CAM.”

We cited, among several examples, the website offering little response to the dangerous problem of widespread misinformation about childhood immunizations. As Dr. Novella subsequently reported, it seemed that we’d scored a point on that one:

…Dr. Briggs did agree that anti-vaccine sentiments are common in the world of CAM and that the NCCAM can do more to combat this. Information countering anti-vaccine propaganda would be a welcome addition to the NCCAM site.

In anticipation of SBM’s Vaccine Awareness Week, I decided to find out whether such a welcome addition has come to fruition. The short answer: nope.


Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Legal, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Uff Da! The Mayo Clinic Shills for Snake Oil

A couple of weeks ago, in a review of the Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies, Harriet Hall expressed relief that she hadn’t found any “questionable recommendations for complementary & alternative medicine (CAM) treatments” in that book:

Since “quackademic” medicine is infiltrating our best institutions and organizations, I wasn’t sure I could trust even the prestigious Mayo Clinic.

The Home Remedies book may be free of woo, but Dr. Hall was right to wonder if she could trust the Mayo Clinic. About a year ago I was asked to comment on an article in the American Journal of Hematology (AJH), in which investigators from the Mayo Clinic reported that among a cohort of lymphoma patients who were “CAM” users,

There was a general lack of knowledge about forms of CAM, and about potential risks associated with specific types of CAM…

This suggests the need to improve access to evidence-based information regarding CAM to all patients with lymphoma.

No surprise, that, but I couldn’t help calling attention to the paradox of one hand of the Mayo Clinic having issued that report even as the other was contributing to such ignorance:

The Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine details dozens of natural therapies that have worked safely for many patients in treating 20 top health issues. You may be surprised that Mayo Clinic now urges you and your doctor to consider yoga, garlic, acupuncture, dietary supplements and other natural therapies. Yet the record is clear. Many of these alternative therapies can help you achieve reduced arthritis pain, healthier coronary arteries, improved diabetes management, better memory function and more.

Mayo Clinic cover

Nor could such a paradox be explained by the right hand not having known what the left was doing: Brent Bauer, MD, the Director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, is both the medical editor of the Book of Alternative Medicine (MCBAM) and a co-author of the article in the AJH.

As chance would have it, I had picked up a copy of the latest (2011) edition of the MCBAM only a couple of days before Dr. Hall’s post. Does it live up to its promises? Do its “straight answers from the world’s leading medical experts” respond to “the need to improve access to evidence-based information regarding CAM?” Let’s find out. In some cases I’ll state the implied questions and provide the straight answers.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Guatemala syphilis experiment and medical ethics in science-based medicine

Several of the bloggers here at SBM have repeatedly criticized various clinical trials for so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” interventions for various conditions and diseases (or should I say dis-eases?) for being completely unethical. Examples include the misbegotten clinical trial for the Gonzalez protocol for pancreatic cancer, which — surprise, surprise! — ended up showing that patients undergoing Dr. Gonzalez’s combination of 150 supplements a day, dietary manipulations, and coffee enemas, actually did much worse than those undergoing standard of care, despite how depressingly poor the results of standard of care are; clinical trials of homeopathy in Honduras and other Third World countries, which both Wally Sampson and I lambasted; and ongoing clinical trial of chelation therapy for cardiovascular disease. I’ve also criticized the “autism biomed” movement, that amalgamation of parents who believe that vaccines cause autism and yet are willing to subject their children to all sorts of quackery to “cure” the “vaccine injury” of uncontrolled and unethical experimentation on autistic children. As valid as all these criticisms are, it is important to recognize that science-based medicine is not free of its own abuse of ethics.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the concept of clinical equipoise. Clinical equipoise is a critical concept in any clinical trial. Basically, a state of clinical equipoise exists when there is genuine scientific uncertainty over which of the options being tested in/on living, breathing human beings is better, and any clinical trial in which a state of clinical equipoise does not exist is at the very least ethically dodgy and probably downright unethical. For example, when the occasional anti-vaccine activist argues for a randomized controlled clinical trial comparing vaccinated children and unvaccinated children, it’s easy to shoot that idea down as unethical because there is no clinical equipoise. The children receiving placebo vaccines would be put at a much higher risk of suffering harm compared to the vaccinated children because they would be left unprotected against life-threatening diseases. In the realm of conventional medicine, the reason that few cancer clinical trials involve a placebo control group anymore but instead test a new therapy either against the standard of care or with the standard of care is because in many, if not nearly all, cases placebo use in a cancer patient is unethical when there exists effective therapy, even if the therapy is not all that effective. What all this boils down to is that science is only part of the basis of science-based medicine. Medical ethics must take precedence. After all, arguably the most efficacious way to test a new antibiotic would be to infect people with the bacteria the antibiotic treats and then divide these people up into a placebo control group and a group receiving the antibiotics to see how each group does. After all, this is the sort of thing that the Nazis and Japanese did during World War II, and the same sort of dehumanization and abuse of research subjects that every ethical precept regarding human subjects research that has been developed since then, such as the Helsinki Declaration of 1964, has been designed to prevent.

Unfortunately, medical scientists in the U.S. have not always lived up to these precepts. The most famous example is arguably the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which poor black men with syphilis were studied and the control group denied effective therapy for syphilis even after it was known that penicillin was an effective treatment for syphilis. This study spanned 40 years, from 1932 to 1972, and is justifiably held up as one of the worst examples of research misconduct in American history, if not the history of the world. The shock the revelation of this study to the American public in 1972, when it learned of men dying of syphilis, women contracting syphilis, and babies being born with congenital syphilis, all unnecessarily, led to Belmont Report and the establishment of the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP).

It turns out that there was an even worse atrocity against medical science perpetrated by U.S. investigators in Guatemala over 60 years ago that only now has come to light in stories in the New York Times, MSNBC, and elsewhere. So bad was the offense that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius have issued a formal apology to the Guatemalan government for the experiments in which Guatemalan prisoners were intentionally infected with syphilis and then treated with antibiotics, an apology that President Obama reiterated in a personal telephone call to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom on Friday.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics

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