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The mammography wars heat up again

PRELUDE: THE PROBLEM WITH SCREENING

If there’s one aspect of science-based medicine (SBM) that makes it hard, particularly for practitioners, it’s SBM’s continual requirement that we adjust what we do based on new information from science and clinical trials. It’s not easy for patients, either. To lay people, SBM’s greatest strength, its continual improvement and evolution as new evidence becomes available, can appear to be inconsistency, and that seeming inconsistency is all too often an opening for quackery. Even when there isn’t an opening for quackery, it can cause a lot of confusion; some physicians are often resistant to changing their practice. It’s not for nothing that there’s an old joke in medical circles that no outdated medical practice completely dies until a new generation of physicians comes up through the ranks and the older physicians who believe in the practice either retire or die. There’s some truth in that. As I’ve said before, SBM is messy. In particular, the process of applying new science as the data become available to a problem that’s already as complicated as screening asymptomatic people for a disease in order to intervene earlier and, hopefully, save lives can be fraught with confusion and difficulties.

Certainly one of the most contentious issues in medicine over the last few years has been the issue of screening for various cancers. The main cancers that we most commonly subject populations to routine mass screening for include prostate, colon, cervical, and breast cancer. Because I’m a breast cancer surgeon, I most frequently have to deal with breast cancer screening, which means, in essence, screening with mammography. The reason is that mammography is inexpensive, well-tested, and, in general, very effective.

Or so we thought. Last week, yet another piece of evidence to muddle the picture was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and hit the news media in outlets such as the New York Times (Mammograms’ Value in Cancer Fight at Issue).
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation

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Evidence-Based Medicine, Human Studies Ethics, and the ‘Gonzalez Regimen’: a Disappointing Editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology Part 2

NB: If you haven’t yet read Part 1 of this blog, please do so now; Part 2 will not summarize it.

At the end of Part 1, I wrote:

We do not need formal statistics or a new, randomized trial with a larger sample size to justify dismissing the Gonzalez regimen.

In his editorial for the JCO, Mark Levine made a different argument:

Can it be concluded that [the] study proves that enzyme therapy is markedly inferior? On the basis of the study design, my answer is no. It is not possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

That conclusion may be correct in the EBM sense, but it misses the crucial point of why the trial was (ostensibly) done: to determine, once and for all, whether there was anything to the near-miraculous claims that proponents had made for a highly implausible “detoxification” regimen for cancer of the pancreas. Gonzalez himself had admitted at the trial’s inception that nothing short of an outcome matching the hype would do:

DR. GONZALEZ: It’s set up as a survival study. We’re looking at survival.

SPEAKER: Do you have an idea of what you’re looking for?

DR. GONZALEZ: Well, Jeff [Jeffrey White, the director of the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the NCI—KA] and I were just talking a couple weeks ago. You know, to get any kind of data that would be beyond criticism is—-always be criticism, but at least three times.

You would want in the successful group to be three times — the median to be three times out from the lesser successful groups.

So, for example, if the average survival with chemo, which we suspect will be 5 months, you would want my therapy to be at least — the median survival to be at least 15, 16, 17 months, as it was in the pilot study.

We’re looking for a median survival three times out from the chemo group to be significant.

Recall that the median survival in the Gonzalez arm eventually turned out to be 4.3 months.

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Evidence-Based Medicine, Human Studies Ethics, and the ‘Gonzalez Regimen’: a Disappointing Editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology Part 1

Background: the distinction between EBM and SBM

An important theme on the Science-Based Medicine blog, and the very reason for its name, has been its emphasis on examining all the evidence—not merely the results of clinical trials—for various claims, particularly for those that are implausible. We’ve discussed the distinction between Science-Based Medicine (SBM) and the more limited Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) several times, for example here (I began my own discussion here and added a bit of formality here, here, and here). Let me summarize by quoting John Ioannidis:

…the probability that a research finding is indeed true depends on the prior probability of it being true (before doing the study), the statistical power of the study, and the level of statistical significance.

EBM, in a nutshell, ignores prior probability† (unless there is no other available evidence) and falls for the “p-value fallacy”; SBM does not. Please don’t bicker about this if you haven’t read the links above and some of their own references, particularly the EBM Levels of Evidence scheme and two articles by Steven Goodman (here and here). Also, note that it is not necessary to agree with Ioannidis that “most published research findings are false” to agree with his assertion, quoted above, about what determines the probability that a research finding is true.

The distinction between SBM and EBM has important implications for medical practice ethics, research ethics, human subject protections, allocation of scarce resources, epistemology in health care, public perceptions of medical knowledge and of the health professions, and more. EBM, as practiced in the 20 years of its formal existence, is poorly equipped to evaluate implausible claims because it fails to acknowledge that even if scientific plausibility is not sufficient to establish the validity of a new treatment, it is necessary for doing so.

Thus, in their recent foray into applying the tools of EBM to implausible health claims, government and academic investigators have made at least two, serious mistakes: first, they have subjected unwary subjects to dangerous but unnecessary trials in a quest for “evidence,” failing to realize that definitive evidence already exists; second, they have been largely incapable of pronouncing ineffective methods ineffective. At best, even after conducting predictably disconfirming trials of vanishingly unlikely claims, they have declared such methods merely “unproven,” almost always urging “further research.” That may be the proper EBM response, but it is a far cry from the reality. As I opined a couple of years ago, the founders of the EBM movement apparently “never saw ‘CAM’ coming.”

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Ghostwriting As Marketing Tool

An article in the latest issue of PLOS Medicine, The Haunting of Medical Journals: How Ghostwriting Sold “HRT”, details the use of ghostwriting as a marketing tool for pharmaceutical companies. It is a chilling discussion of how at least one pharmaceutical company, Wyeth, used the peer-reviewed literature as a method of distributing marketing messages to physicians.

The author, Adriane J. Fugh-Berman, details a practice that cuts at the heart of science-based medicine – the exploitation and distortion of the literature. The medical profession needs to jealously guard the legitimacy and purity of the peer-review process and the medical scientific literature. I am never one to gratuitously bash “Big Pharma” – this is often used as a method of casually dismissing inconvenient scientific evidence. But at the same time, pharmaceutical companies are in the business of making money. While they are a carefully regulated industry, some in the industry seek ways to skirt around regulations that limit their ability to market their products.

While most physicians consider themselves savvy with respect to pharmaceutical marketing, the story told by Fugh-Berman is one of profound naivete. I guess it should not be a surprise that some academics were bamboozled by expert salespersons who spent a lot of time and effort, apparently, figuring out ways to deceive and manipulate them. But now that the story is out, naivete is no longer an excuse. Here is what happened:

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

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Avastin and metastatic breast cancer: When science-based medicine collides with FDA regulation

One of the most frustrating aspects of taking care of cancer patients is that in general, with only a few specific exceptions, we do not have good curative therapies for patients with stage IV cancer, particularly solid tumors. Consequently, patients with stage IV disease are viewed as “incurable” because, the vast majority of the time, they are incurable. Over the years, we have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at patients with stage IV disease, largely with dissapointing results. That’s not to say that the few specific exceptions to which I alluded are not a reason for hope. After all, patients with colorectal cancer and liver metastases used to have a median survival of around 6 months, but these days, with newer chemotherapeutic regimens like FOLFOX plus Avastin, median survival has more than tripled. While expecting to live less than two years is cold comfort to cancer patients with this particular clinical situation, the prognosis is far better than it was.

Of course, I specifically mentioned Avastin because it’s been in the news a lot recently with respect to my area of clinical specialty, breast cancer. Specifically, beginning in July there started appearing a spate of stories about the FDA considering revoking the approval of Avastin for advanced breast cancer based on recent studies that demonstrate that it does not prolong survival in these patients. Many lay people and patients find this reconsideration of Avastin to be quite puzzling, given that the drug was granted accelerated approval in 2008 and has since gone on to be used fairly widely. Given that the case of Avastin in breast cancer is rapidly becoming a classic case study of how messy science-based medicine can be when practiced in the public eye and debated among pharmaceutical companies, the government, and patient advocacy groups.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Medical Science and Public Opinion: The Avandia Story

The week of 12-16 July saw an FDA Advisory Panel meet to decide the fate of an important drug. Along the way, the FDA charted new territory in using drug comparisons to judge safety, amidst external allegations of corporate malfeasance and patient harm.

Avandia, or rosiglitazone, is one of a new class of anti-diabetes drugs approved for marketing by the FDA in 1999. It, and its competitor, Actos (pioglitazone), are thiazolidinediones (TZD’s), a class of drugs that act to decrease insulin resistance. A third TZD, troglitazone, was withdrawn after studies showed a 1:20,000 incidence of hepatitis and potential liver failure.

Avandia was a clear market success, with sales peaking at $2.5B in 2006, the year prior to the first research “shot across the bow” regarding patient safety.

Among scientists, the mid-July review capped a rising level of concern. Among the public, a tide of safety concern had been rising for several years, flowing from the scientific community into the legal and political arena.
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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Supplement Regulation: Be Careful What You Wish For

A recurring theme at SBM is the regulation of supplements, and the impact and consequences of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). As one of SBM’s international contributors, I thought it might be helpful to look at how the DSHEA stacks up against the equivalent regulations of its neighbor to the north, Canada. Given the multiple calls for overhauls and changes to DSHEA, an international comparison may help focus the discussion around what a more science-based framework could look like.

Briefly, the DSHEA is an amendment to the U.S. Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that establishes a regulatory framework for dietary supplements. It effectively excludes manufacturers of these products from virtually all regulations that are in place for prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The FDA notes:

Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements. Manufacturers must make sure that product label information is truthful and not misleading. FDA’s post-marketing responsibilities include monitoring safety, e.g. voluntary dietary supplement adverse event reporting, and product information, such as labeling, claims, package inserts, and accompanying literature. The Federal Trade Commission regulates dietary supplement advertising.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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NCCAM Director Dr. Josephine Briggs and the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians

On Friday, one of my partners in crime here at Science-Based Medicine, Dr. Kimball Atwood, wrote an excellent Open Letter to Dr. Josephine Briggs. Dr. Briggs, as most regular readers of SBM know, is the Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). As most regular readers of SBM also know, we at SBM have been quite critical of NCCAM for its funding of studies of dubious scientific value, including one that I mentioned quite early on in the history of this blog, in which an R21 grant was awarded to investigators at the University of Arizona for a project entitled Dilution and succussion in homeopathic remedy dose-response patterns. The purpose of this project was to compare the effectiveness of a homeopathic remedy at different dilutions. It even compared remedies that are succussed (vigorously shaken) at each dilution step against remedies that were merely stirred. Although this is merely the most egregious example I could find at the time, two years ago I did catalog many more examples, as well as the “educational” grants disbursed through NCCAM in order to teach (and, by doing so, promote) CAM.

Given NCCAM’s long history of promoting pseudoscience, we were all quite surprised when early this year we received an e-mail from Dr. Briggs herself inviting us to NCCAM to meet with her. Unfortunately, due to our work obligations, Steve Novella, Kimball Atwood, and I were not able to coordinate our schedules to travel to Bethesda and enter the heart of darkness itself until early April. Our conversation with Dr. Briggs and her staff was cordial and mutually respectful, as Steve Novella described, and we assured her that we understood that studies such as the one I mentioned above were funded before her tenure. At the same time we were a bit disappointed that Dr. Briggs appeared far too eager to dismiss such problems as being before her time. Still, we understood and approved of Dr. Briggs’ stated goal of making NCCAM more scientifically rigorous, even though we did point out that there is nothing done at NCCAM that couldn’t be done as well in the NIH’s structure before NCCAM existed.

Unfortunately, not too long before or after Dr. Briggs met with us, she also met with a group of homeopaths, leading us to worry that perhaps in her quest to appear “open-minded,” Dr. Briggs was being so open-minded that her brain was in acute danger of falling out, particularly after we saw her infamous “science must be neutral” director’s newsletter a month later, which Dr. Kimball skewered as part of his open letter and I recently used as an example of misinterpreting what scientific “neutrality” means during my talk at the SBM Workshop at TAM8 a couple of weeks ago. In fact, I now wonder if I missed a little gray matter oozing out of Dr. Briggs’ ears during the meeting even though I sat right next to her.

Unfortunately, Dr. Atwood’s open letter gives me even more reason to despair, because in it he pointed out that Dr. Briggs will be speaking at the 25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) from August 11-15 in Portland, OR. (One wonders if Mark Crislip would be willing to make an appearance there for a Very Special Episode of his Quackcast and thereby continue to expand his Internet empire. I realize that doing so would really be “taking one for the team,” but think of the blogging and podcast material!) Kimball’s explanation why this is disturbing is excellent and detailed, as usual, but one thing he didn’t do as much of as I would have is to go into a bit more detail of what sorts of dubious medical modalities and even outright quackery Dr. Briggs will be associating herself with by speaking at this particular convention. He probably didn’t feel the need, given that he referenced his two comprehensive deconstructions of the quackery that is naturopathy, but I’m not as well-versed in naturopathy as he is, and, I suspect, neither are you. Dr. Atwood didn’t need to delve into the woo that will be presented at the AANP. I do. That’s why I thought a bit of a survey of what will be presented at the conference was in order.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Open Letter to Dr. Josephine Briggs

Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

Director, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Dear Dr. Briggs,

As you know, we’ve met twice. The first time was at the Yale “Integrative Medicine” Symposium in March. The second was in April, when Drs. Novella, Gorski and I met with you for an hour at the NCCAM in Bethesda. At the time I concluded that you favor science-based medicine, although you are in the awkward position of having to appear ‘open-minded’ about nonsense.

More about that below, but first let me address the principal reason for this letter: it is disturbing that you will shortly appear at the 25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP). It is disturbing for two reasons: first, it suggests that you know little about the tenets and methods of the group that you’ll be addressing; second, your presence will be interpreted as an endorsement of those methods and of that group—whether or not that is your intention. If you read nothing more of this letter or its links, please read the following articles (they’re “part of your education,” as my 91 y.o. mother used to say to me):

Naturopathy: A Critical Appraisal

Naturopathy, Pseudoscience, and Medicine: Myths and Fallacies vs Truth

The first article is an introduction to the group to which you will be speaking; the second is my response to complaints, from that group and a few of its apologists, about the first article. It was a surprise to me that the editor, George Lundberg, preferred that I make my response a comprehensive one.

Thus the second article inevitably became the crash course—call it CAM for Smarties—that your predecessors never offered you, replete with examples of useless and dangerous pseudoscientific methods, real science being brought to bear in evaluating such methods, proponents’ inaccurate or cherry-picked citations of biomedical literature, bits of pertinent but little-known history, the standard logical fallacies, embarrassing socio-political machinations, wasteful and dangerous ‘research’ (funded—unwittingly, I’m sure—by the NCCAM), bait-and-switch labeling of rational methods as “CAM,” vacuous assertions about ‘toxins’ and ”curing the underlying cause, not just suppressing the symptoms,” anti-vaccination hysteria, misleading language, the obligatory recycling of psychokinesis claims, and more.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The Texas Medical Board acts in the case of the Winkler County whistle blowing nurses

I can’t speak for anyone else who blogs here at Science-Based Medicine, but there’s one thing I like to emphasize to people who complain that we exist only to “bash ‘alternative’ medicine.” We don’t. We exist to champion medicine based on science against all manner of dubious practices. Part of that mandate involves understanding and accepting that science-based medicine is not perfect. It is not some sort of panacea. Rather, it has many shortcomings and all too often does not live up to its promise. Our argument is merely that, similar to Winston Churchill’s invocation of the famous saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” science-based medicine is the worst form of medicine except for all the others that have been tried before. (Look for someone to quote mine that sentence soon.) It’s not even close, either. SBM has produced far and away better results than any form of medicine that has come before it, which is why it’s always puzzled me that so much of “alternative” medicine seems to be a throwback to ancient, pre-scientific, sometimes religion-based medical systems that existed in the days before germ theory and a rudimentary understanding of human physiology. After all, it wasn’t until William Harvey in 1626 that doctors even knew for sure that there was a direct connection between the arterial and venous system, for example, and the sphygmomanometer wasn’t invented until 1881. Monitoring blood pressure didn’t become routine until the early 20th century, and monitoring the diastolic blood pressure wasn’t routine until the 1920s.

If there’s one area that SBM needs to do better in, it’s regulating our own. To me, the license to practice medicine is a privilege, not a right. That I should even have to emphasize such a statement is bothersome to me, but all too often medical licenses, once obtained, seem to be treated as a right that can’t easily be taken away. That’s not to say that actually getting to the point of being licensed and board-certified isn’t difficult. It is. There’s the need to maintain excellent grades in college, after which there’s medical school and residency, both of which can be quite brutal. But once a physician is fully trained, board certified, and licensed, it seems that medical boards bend over backwards not to take away his license, seemingly even if he’s providing treatments so far outside the standard of care that they might as well be magic.

The case that provoked this complaint from me is one I’ve written about before, namely that of the Winkler County, TX family practitioner, Dr. Rolando Arafiles, Jr.. At the time, Dr. Arafiles was selling dubious supplements, hawking colloidal silver, promoting Morgellon’s disease quackery, and had anti-vaccine propaganda on his website. It turns out that — finally! — Dr. Arafiles is facing the Texas Medical Board for his substandard practice, as documented in a story on Medscape entitled Physician in Whistle-Blower Case Charged by Texas Medical Board:

The Texas Medical Board (TMB) has charged a family physician at the center of a nationally publicized whistle-blower case involving 2 nurses with poor medical judgment, nontherapeutic prescribing, failure to maintain adequate records, overbilling, witness intimidation, and other violations.

The charges follow a report that the 2 nurses — Anne Mitchell, RN, and Vickilyn Galle, RN — made anonymously to the TMB last year about patient care rendered by Rolando Arafiles, Jr, MD, at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, Texas, where the 2 nurses and Dr. Arafiles worked.

After the TMB contacted him about the report, Dr. Arafiles asked the sheriff of Winkler County to investigate its source. The sheriff, the physician’s acknowledged friend and patient, traced the report back to Mitchell and Gale, who were then charged in a state court with misuse of official information, which is a third-degree felony.

The American Nurses Association at the time called the criminal prosecution “outrageous,” arguing that nurses were obligated to stand up for patient safety.

A local news report on the case can be found here:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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