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Direct-To-Consumer Science

Dr. Olivier Ameisen is a prominent French cardiologist who believes that the muscle-relaxant drug baclofen relieves the cravings of alcoholism. This is indeed an interesting, and as yet unsettled, scientific medical question. Dr. Ameisen has decided to take his personal scientific opinion directly to the public in his book – Le Dernier Verre (The Last Glass). The result has been a surge of interest among alcoholics for this new “miracle cure” for their affliction.

Increasingly the medical community is caught between two opposing imperatives. There is the desire to make medical information freely available and the process of medical research transparent. On the other hand, the public is best served when new ideas in medicine are put through the mill of science before they become part of medical practice. As we enter headlong into the information age these two imperatives are increasingly at odds.

Problems arise when a new treatment, syndrome, intervention, or concept in medicine is promoted to the public prior to undergoing a reasonable degree of scientific vetting. What is the point, after all, of spending tremendous resources on medical research if proponents are going to bypass the process altogether to market their modalities and promote their ideas directly to the public?

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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H. influenzae—it ain’t the flu, but it’s still pretty cool

I’ve been thinking about an interesting organism lately, an organism that illustrates some basic principles in science-based medicine.

The organism is called Haemophilus influenzae (H flu), a gram-negative bacterium discovered in the late 19th century. H flu has a great story, both in historic and modern times.

The brilliant microbiologist Richard Pfeiffer isolated H flu from influenza patients in the late 1800′s (hence its name) and for many years, it was believed to be the cause of the epidemic illness, and when the flu pandemic of 1918 hit, researchers worked tirelessly to develop anti-sera against H flu.

But some things weren’t adding up. As thousands died of the flu, doctors were isolating H flu from victims, but also other virulent bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae. Influenza was decimating military camps, and was seriously degrading our ability to fight in WW I, so military bases were a focus of research. Doctors looked for H flu in patients, but could not find it consistently. For example in Camp Dodge, Iowa, an autopsy series showed H flu in only 9.6% of victims.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Google Trends and the Interest in Alternative Medicine

USA Today has come out with a new survey – apparently, three out of every four people make up 75% of the population.

–David Letterman

How popular is alternative medicine? One way is to survey people and ask them. Like all surveys, the nature of the question determines the answer. The first, and probably most referenced, and misquoted, article on ‘alternative’ medicine to address the question was “Unconventional Medicine in the United States — Prevalence, Costs, and Patterns of Use” from the NEJM .

‘Alternative’ proponents quote this article, often as the opening sentence of the paper. “One in three respondents (34 percent) reported using at least one unconventional therapy in the past year.” No one, it appears, ever reads past the abstract. As is so often the case, the substance of the article may not reflect the spin found in the abstract.

There are many issues with this paper (see http://www.quackwatch.org/11Ind/eisenberg.html for a detailed critique) , not the least of which is the definition of unconventional therapy. To get to this huge percentage of users they had to include exercise (26%), prayer (25%) and relaxation techniques (13%) as unconventional therapies. Little did I know that I participate in unconventional therapies every day.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Psychological support and breast cancer – again

Does the degree of efficacy is depend on the time at which it is measured? Apparently so. The case of psychological support and breast cancer longevity again.

After an original 1989 report of positive effects on metastatic breast cancer, by 2006- 7 the majority of RCTs on such effects had settled the issue in the negative. This was only after 20 years of repeated research grants and RCTs based on hunches and feelings that somehow emotional support really affected the course of cancer. Investigations continued despite analyses showing the few original positive studies had been so flawed in design or defective in reported details, that they should have been dismissed and perhaps excluded from systematic reviews. (Spiegel D, Bloom JR, Kraemer H, Gottheil E. Psychological support for cancer patients, Lancet ,1989 Dec 16;2(8677):1447., Fawzy FI, Fawzy NW, et al. Malignant melanoma. Effects of an early structured psychiatric intervention, coping, and affective state on recurrence an survival 6 years later. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1993 Sep;50(9):681-9.)

But to advocates, conflicting results served as motive to prove the claims by repeating the studies for 20 years, “doing them right this time.” As of mid-2008, consensus was the issue was still “negative.” Now another study, claimed to be positive, makes the news.

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

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Open-Access Peer Review: Increasing the Noise To Signal Ratio

Readers of Science Based Medicine are quite familiar with the distressingly common logical leap made by disgruntled healthcare consumers into alternative medicine. It goes something like this: I had a terrible experience with a doctor who [ignored/patronized/misdiagnosed] me and I also heard something horrible in the media about a pharmaceutical company’s misbehavior [hiding negative results/overstating efficacy/overcharging for medications], therefore alternative treatments [homeopathy/acupuncture/energy healing, etc.] must be more effective than traditional medicine.

Much to my dismay, a similar logical leap is being made about online health information. It goes something like this: Peer reviewing is biased and often keeps innovative research hidden to the world at large, therefore the best kind of peer review is open-access where anyone in the world can contribute.

You may feel free to slap your forehead now.

While I have absolutely no doubt that doctors have their shortcomings, and that some have created less than pleasant healthcare experiences for their patients – the solution to these shortcomings is not to dive headlong into snake oil. Moreover, I agree that the current peer-review process has its flaws and limitations – the solution is not to ask Aunt Enid in Omaha what she thinks of the recent meta-analysis of perioperative beta blockers in patients having non-cardiac surgery.

Peter Frishauf, the founder of Medscape, recently published a webcast editorial predicting that:

“Peer review as we know it will disappear. Rather than the secretive prepublication review process followed by most publishers today, including Medscape, most peer review will occur transparently, and after publication.”

He goes on to describe a Wikipedia-like review scenario where:

“Any user can start an article, link it to related sources, and publish revisions with a click of the mouse. Anyone who reads an article can edit it.”

I know and like Peter very much, and his foresight (that publishing should become open-access), combined with the leadership of editorial heavy-weight, Dr. George Lundberg, led to the creation of the first really successful, quality, free online medical journal. This was no small feat, and a sure victory for global medical education efforts.

But the reason for The Medscape Journal’s success is not the “democratization” of peer review – but the democratization of access to trustworthy information. The quality controls are still in place – and must remain so – otherwise its value as a peer-reviewed journal will be utterly lost. Who should trust the edits of unqualified readers? Should science be determined by popular vote? Should all research be published by journals, regardless of its fatal flaws?

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Posted in: General, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Do over one in five breast cancers detected by mammography alone really spontaneously regress?

ResearchBlogging.orgIt figures.

Last Wednesday, right before the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend, as I was far more interested in preparing to have family over the next day than in what was going on in the medical news or the blogs, the results of a most fascinating study hit the news. In Medscape, the title of the news report was Mammography Study Suggests Some Breast Cancer May Spontaneously Regress; on WebMD, the story ran under the title Can Breast Cancer Disappear?; on Medical News Today, Mammograms May Identify Cancers That Would Otherwise Just Regress by Drs. Per-Henrik Zahl, Jan Maehlen, and H. Gilbert Welch. Not surprisingly, the study found its way out of the medical news and into mainstream media outlets as well, given how provocative the findings seemingly are. From the Medscape report on this study:

A mammography study from Norway has come up with the controversial proposal that one fifth of breast cancer detected on screening may spontaneously regress. But there is no easy way to verify whether this is the case, say experts.

The study was published in the November 24 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. It found that the cumulative incidence of invasive breast cancer in a cohort of women, aged 50 to 64 years, who received 3 mammograms over 6 years was 22% higher than in a control group of age-matched women who received only 1 mammogram at the end of a 6-year period.

In their review of possible explanations for the difference in the breast cancer rates between the 2 groups — which had similar risk factors for breast cancer — the researchers write that the “natural course for some screen-detected breast cancers may be to spontaneously regress.”

“I anticipate that many clinicians will react negatively to the possibility of spontaneous regression, said coauthor Jan Maehlen, MD, PhD, professor of pathology at the Ulleval University Hospital, in Oslo, Norway, in an interview with Medscape Oncology.

Before I discuss the study itself, let me briefly discuss why clinicians may have a bit of a problem with the implications of this study, if they accurately reflect the biology of breast cancer.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The science of purging, or the purging of science?

It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S., one of my favorite holidays.  Thanksgiving habits get set down early in life, and the while I may find your lima bean casserole execrable, to you it’s just not Thanksgiving without it.

And speaking of excrement, you can expect to see adds encouraging you to “detox” from all of your holiday excesses.  Outside the field of substance abuse, what the hell is “detox” anyway?  “Detoxification” is apparently the pinnacle of modern health care, if you believe the dozens of adds on late-night TV.

For me to explain to you why even the very idea is laughable, I have to teach you a bit of human biochemistry—just a little, I promise. My scientific readers will find this grossly oversimplified, but hopefully they will forgive me.

Detox sounds so simple, but in fact, human biology is more complex and beautiful than is dreamt of in the quacks’ philosophies.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Bee Venom Therapy – Grassroots Medicine

Pat Wagner (or “The Bee Lady,” as she likes to be called) treats herself for multiple sclerosis (MS) by allowing bees to sting her. She calls this bee-venom therapy (BVT) and believes it has saved her from MS.

There are now thousands of people who administer BVT to themselves or others, mostly in private homes by unlicensed practitioners. BVT is not prescribed by a doctor, yet it is used like any other drug, given in regular doses at regular intervals. There is no scientific evidence to support its use, and yet thousands of multiple sclerosis sufferers and others tout its effectiveness.

BVT, which is one modality within Apitherapy, or the use of various bee products as a medical treatment, is still a relatively small phenomenon. It is largely an unrecognized grassroots or folk medicine treatment – but like all such phenomena has been given a huge boost recently by the easy spread of information via the internet. It has also been adopted by many so-called alternative medicine (CAM) practitioners, and has been increasingly wrapped in the typical marketing jargon of CAM. So, in a way, this grassroots treatment has been corporatized by the CAM industry.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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NCCAM: the not-even-wrong agency

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is a government agency tasked with (among other things), “[exploring] complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science.” In this space we have talked about NCCAM quite a bit, but I have to admit that I don’t think about them very much. The other day, though, I was reading though JAMA and I came across a study funded by the agency. The study, which showed that Ginkgo does not prevent Alzheimer’s-type dementia, was pretty good, so I cruised on over to NCCAM’s website to see what else they’ve been up to.

A quick glance at NCCAM’s front page:

    “Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) Study Fails To Show Benefit in Preventing Dementia in the Elderly”
    “CAM and Hepatitis C: A Focus on Herbal Supplements ‘No CAM treatment has yet been proven effective for treating hepatitis C or its complications.’”
    “Selenium and Vitamin E in Prostate Cancer Prevention Study, ‘selenium and vitamin E supplements, taken either alone or together, did not prevent prostate cancer.’”

It seems that NCCAM is finding out something we already strongly suspected:  improbable medical claims are usually wrong.  Since that’s not how they see things,  and since I don’t believe that there is such a thing as alternative medicine, I was curious how they defined CAM.

CAM is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Conventional medicine is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degrees and by their allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. Some health care providers practice both CAM and conventional medicine. While some scientific evidence exists regarding some CAM therapies, for most there are key questions that are yet to be answered through well-designed scientific studies–questions such as whether these therapies are safe and whether they work for the diseases or medical conditions for which they are used.

The list of what is considered to be CAM changes continually, as those therapies that are proven to be safe and effective become adopted into conventional health care and as new approaches to health care emerge. emphasis mine, ed.

The list of NCCAM studies appears to fall into three broad categories.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Health Care Freedom

Freedom is a cherished commodity in our culture, as it should be. Our laws are largely based upon the premise that individuals should have the liberty to do what they want, unless there is a compelling public or governmental concern that overrides such liberties.

It is therefore no surprise that freedom is a common marketing theme – selling the idea of individuality or personal freedom of choice.

The marketers of dubious, unscientific, or fraudulent health care products and services are savvy to the marketing theme of freedom and have used it to great effect. It is all ultimately, however, a deception. There is an ulterior motive that has nothing to do with the freedoms of the public but rather is an end run around regulations meant to protect the public.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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