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Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R.

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.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

A Loose End

In the last post I wondered if Ted Kaptchuk, when he wrote the article titled “Effect of interpretive bias on clinical research,” had understood this implication of Bayes’s Theorem: that interpretations of most scientific investigations are exercises in inverse probability, and thus cannot logically be done without consideration of knowledge external to the investigation in question. I argued that if Kaptchuk had

…understood the point when he wrote his treatise, he was dishonest in not explaining it and in not citing at least one pertinent article, such as Steven Goodman’s (which I’m willing to bet he had read). If he didn’t understand the point he should have withheld his paper.

In researching more of Kaptchuk’s opinions I’ve discovered that he had certainly read Goodman’s article, but that he either didn’t understand it or preferred to obscure its implications in deference to his ongoing project in belittling scientific knowledge. In a letter to the editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2001, Kaptchuk opined that even if “more trials of distant healing with increased methodologic rigor” were positive, it still would not “be persuasive for the medical community”:

The situation resembles the predicament with homeopathy trials, another seemingly implausible intervention, where the evidence of multiple positive randomized, controlled trials will not convince the medical community of its validity. Additional positive trials of distant healing are only likely to further expose the fact that the underpinning of modern medicine is an unstable balance between British empiricism (in the tradition of Hume) and continental rationalism (in the tradition of Kant).

…It seems that the decision concerning acceptance of evidence (either in medicine or religion) ultimately reflects the beliefs of the person that exist before all arguments and observation. [Kaptchuk cites the second of the two Goodman articles that I referred to above, discussed here]

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Health Fraud, Legal, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Greater Good: Pure, unadulterated anti-vaccine propaganda masquerading as a “balanced” documentary

I’ve heard it said (actually, I’ve said it myself) that if you don’t have the science and evidence to back up your point of view, in order to persuade someone, make a movie. At least, this seems to be the philosophy of a number of cranks who have produced movies promoting pseudoscience over the last five years or so. The first one of these movies that really caught my attention was an anti-evolution, pro-”intelligent design” creationism documentary narrated by Ben Stein and released in 2008, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie was pure creationist propaganda, complete with Ben Stein visiting Auschwitz and Dachau, the better to try to link “Darwinism” to the Holocaust.

Movies promoting religious pseudoscience such as intelligent design creationism are not the only kinds of pseudoscience propaganda films. Indeed, medicine is rife with them, and Wally Sampson has referred to this particularly pernicious genre of documentary as “medical propaganda films.” During the existence of this blog, we’ve reviewed a few such films (or at least written about what we could find out about them without paying for the DVD). For example, I’ve written about The Beautiful Truth, a paean to the Gerson protocol for cancer, complete with coffee enemas, and reviewed Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days, a film dedicated to the claim that you can cure almost everything (including not just type II but type I diabetes) with a raw vegan diet. Harriet reviewed The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing, a movie promoting “energy medicine” quackery. There’s even a film out now praising Stanley Burzynski and his highly dubious “antineoplaston” therapy that I’ve been meaning to review. I finally found a free copy of it to watch, and perhaps I’ll get to it before the end of the month. In the meantime, there’s a documentary people have been begging me to check out called The Greater Good that has been making the rounds of various film festivals and will be debuting at the IFC Center in New York on November 18. The very fact that Joe Mercola has hosted the movie streaming on his website in celebration of what he and Barbara Loe Fisher have dubbed “Vaccine Awareness Week” should tell you all you need to know about the movie.

I’m going to tell you more, though, because I’ve actually managed to sit through the whole thing. The things I do for my readers! To give you an idea of what you’re in for (in case the video is no longer available by the time that you read this), here’s the trailer:

The first thing I noticed about The Greater Good is that it’s slick and very well produced—considerably better produced, I think, than Expelled! The only aspect of it that I found annoying (besides the sheer quantity of anti-vaccine misinformation, pseudoscience, talking points, and distortions, all of which were plenty annoying) was the little animated segments. (Well, the little animated segments and any segment featuring Dr. Bob Sears.) However, given the sheer mass of anti-vaccine propaganda contained within this documentary, quibbling about a stylistic element like that is rather like quibbling about the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The documentary is structured, as many documentaries are, around three families, the better to provide the human interest “hook” for the rest of the story. Interspersed with segments about each family are interviews with various experts. Perhaps I should say two experts arrayed against a whole lot of “experts,” because defending vaccines we have real experts like Dr. Paul Offit; Dr. Melinda Wharton of the CDC; Dr. Norman Baylor, who is Director of the Office of Vaccines Research and Review in the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research; and Dr. Mark B. Feinberg, Vice President for Medical Affairs and Policy for Merck Vaccines and Infectious Diseases at Merck & Co., Inc. Arrayed against them we have a whole lot of anti-vaccine pseudoexperts, such as Barbara Loe Fisher, grande dame of the anti-vaccine movement and founder of the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC); Dr. Bob Sears, a pediatrician known for his non-science-based “alternative” vaccination schedule, who of late appears to have ceased mere flirting with the anti-vaccine movement and thrown his lot in with it; Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a “wholistic” pediatrician; Dr. John Green III, who is described as a “specialist in clinical ecology and nutritional medicine“; and several trial lawyers known for representing parents suing for “vaccine injury,” lawyers such as Clifford Shoemaker, Kevin Conway, and Renee Gentry.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“And one more thing” about Steve Jobs’ battle with cancer

I’ve written quite a bit about Steve Jobs in the wake of his death nearly four weeks ago. The reason, of course, is that the course of his cancer was of intense interest after it became public knowledge that he had cancer. In particular, what I most considered to be worth discussing was whether the nine month delay between Jobs’ diagnosis and his undergoing surgery for his pancreatic insulinoma might have been what did him in. I’ve made my position very clear on the issue, namely that, although Jobs certainly did himself no favors in delaying his surgery, it’s impossible to know whether and by how much he might have decreased his chances of surviving his cancer through his flirtation with woo. However much his medical reality distortion field might have mirrored his tech reality distortion field, my best guess was that Jobs probably only modestly decreased his chances of survival, if that. I also pointed out that, if more information came in that necessitated it I’d certainly reconsider my conclusions.

The other issue that’s irritated me is that the quackery apologists and quacks have been coming out of the woodwork, each claiming that if only Steve Jobs had subjected himself to this woo or taken this supplement, he’d still be alive today. Nicholas Gonzalez was first out of the gate with that particularly nasty, unfalsifiable form of fake sadness, but he wasn’t the only one. Recently Bill Sardi claimed that there are all sorts of “natural therapies” that could have helped Jobs, while Dr. Robert Wascher, MD, a surgical oncologist from California (who really should know better but apparently does not) claims that tumeric spice could have prevented or cured Steve Jobs’ cancer, although in all fairness he also pointed out that radical surgery is currently the only cure. Unfortunately, he also used the failure of chemotherapy to cure this kind of cancer as an excuse to call for being more “open-minded” to alternative therapies. Even Andrew Weil, apparently stung by the speculation that Jobs’ delay in surgery to pursue quackery might have contributed to his death, to tout how great he thinks integrative cancer care is.

Last week, Amazon.com finally delivered my copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but, because of the intense interest in Jobs’ medical history, not to mention a desire on my part to see (1) if there were any new information there that would allow me to assess how accurate my previous commentary was and (2) information that would allow me to fill in the gaps in the story from the intense media coverage. So I couldn’t help myself. I skipped ahead to the chapters on his illness, of which there are three, entitled Round One, Round Two, and Round Three. Round One covers the initial diagnosis. Round Two deals with the recurrence of Jobs’ cancer and his liver transplant. Finally, Round Three deals with the final recurrence of Jobs’ cancer, his decline, and death.

Before I start, a warning: I’m going to discuss these issues in a fair amount of detail. If you want “medical spoilers,” don’t read any further. On the other hand, one spoiler I will mention is that there was surprisingly little here that wasn’t reported before; the only difference is that there is more detail. However, the details are informative.
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Steve Jobs’ medical reality distortion field

As I pointed out in my previous post about Steve Jobs, I’m a bit of an Apple fan boy. A housemate of mine got the very first Mac way back in 1984, and ever since I bought my first computer that was mine and mine alone back in 1991 (a Mac LC), I’ve used nothing but Macintosh computers, except when compelled to use Windows machines by work—and even then under protest. Indeed, as I searched for jobs at various times in my life, I asked myself whether I could accept a job at an institution that didn’t permit me to have a Mac in my office, such as the V.A. Fortunately, I never had to make that choice. All of this explains why I paid a lot of attention to Steve Jobs and also why his death saddened me and, relevant to this blog, the clinical history of the cancer that killed him fascinates me.

It’s often been said that there was a sort of “reality distortion field” around Steve Jobs. It was a part joking, part derogatory, part admiring term applied to Jobs’ talent for persuasion in which, through a combination of personal charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, and persistence, Jobs was able to persuade almost anyone, even developers and engineers, of almost anything. In particular, it referred to his ability to convince so many people that each new Apple product was the greatest thing ever, even when that product had obvious flaws. Unfortunately, as more news comes out about how Steve Jobs initially dealt with his diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (specifically, an insulinoma) back in 2003 and 2004, it’s become apparent that Jobs had his own medical reality distortion field, at least in the beginning right after his diagnosis of a rare form of pancreatic cancer, that allowed him to come to think that he might be able to reverse his cancer with diet plus various “alternative” modalities.

In the immediate aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death, I summarized the facts about Jobs’ case that were known at the time. In particular, I took issue with the claims of a skeptic that “alternative medicine killed Steve Jobs.” At the time, I pointed out that, although it was very clear that Steve Jobs did himself no favors by delaying his initial surgery for nine months after his initial diagnosis, we do not have sufficient information to know what his clinical situation was and therefore how much, if at all, he decreased his odds of survival by not undergoing surgery expeditiously. To recap: Did Steve Jobs harm himself by trying diet and alternative medicine first? Quite possibly. Did alternative medicine kill him? As I’ve argued before, that’s impossible to say, and any skeptic who dogmatically makes such an argument has taken what we known beyond what can be supported. Regular readers know that when I see a story that looks as though “alternative medicine” directly contributed to the death of someone, I usually pull no punches, but in this case I had a hard time being so definitive because the unknowns are too many, with all due respect to Ramzi Amri, a Research Associate at Harvard Medical School who in my opinion also went too far. I did, however, point out that I’m always open to changing my opinion if new evidence comes in. Jobs was always incredibly secretive about his medical condition, so much so that it didn’t even come out in the press until after it had happened that he had undergone a liver transplant in 2008 for metastatic insulinoma in his liver, just as his cancer diagnosis in 2003 remained secret for 9 months, not being revealed until he sent an e-mail to Apple employees announcing that he had undergone surgery.

It turns out that, with the imminent release of a major biography of Steve Jobs, more information is finally trickling out about his medical history. For instance, Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson is going to appear on 60 Minutes this Sunday, and apparently he is going to say this:
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Steve Jobs’ cancer and pushing the limits of science-based medicine

Editor’s note: There is an update to this post.

An Apple fanboy contemplates computers and mortality

I’m a bit of an Apple fanboy and admit it freely. My history with Apple products goes way back to the early 1980s, when one of my housemates at college had an Apple IIe, which I would sometimes use for writing, gaming, and various other applications. Indeed, I remember one of the first “bloody” battle games for the IIe. It was called The Bilestoad and involved either taking on the computer or another opponent with battle axes in combat that basically involved hacking each other’s limbs off, complete with chunky, low-resolution blood and gore. (You youngsters out there will be highly amused at the gameplay here.) Of course, it’s amazing that nothing’s changed when it comes to computer games except the quality of graphics. Be that as it may, this same roommate was one of the first students to get a hold of the new Macintosh when it was released in early 1984. I really liked it right from the start but only got to play with it occasionally for a few months. After using a Macintosh SE to do a research project during my last year of medical school, I have used the Macintosh platform more or less exclusively, and the first computer I purchased with my own money was a Mac LC back in 1990 or 1991. Today, I have multiple Apple products, including my MacBook Air, my iPhone, and my old school iPod Classic, among others. Oddly enough, I do not have an iPad, but that’s probably only a matter of time, awaiting software that lets me do actual work on it.

All of this is my typical long-winded way of explaining why I was immensely saddened when I learned of Steve Jobs’ death last week. Ever since speculation started to swirl about his health back 2004 and then again in 2008, capped off by the revelation that he had undergone a liver transplant for a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2009, I feared the worst. Last week, the end finally came. However, there is much to learn relevant to the themes of this blog in examining the strange and unusual case of Steve Jobs. Now, after his death five days ago, which coincidentally came a mere day after the launch of iCloud and the iPhone 4S, it occurs to me that it would be worthwhile to try to synthesize what we know about Jobs’ battle with cancer and then to discuss the use (and misuse) of his story. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do because Jobs was notoriously secretive and I can only rely on what has been published in the media, some of which is conflicting and all of which lacks sufficient detail to come to any definite conclusions, but I will try, hoping that the upcoming release of his biography by Walter Isaacson in couple of weeks might answer some of the questions I still have remaining, given that Isaacson followed Jobs through his battle with cancer and was given unprecedented access to Jobs and those close to him.

In the meantime, I speculate. I hope my speculations are sufficiently educated as not to be shown to be completely wrong, but they are speculations nonetheless.
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Posted in: Cancer, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Science and the Media, Surgical Procedures

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Scientific American Mind Is Not So Scientific

When Scientific American first announced that they would publish Scientific American Mind, I hurried to subscribe, thinking it would keep me informed about new developments in a field I am passionately interested in. I have enjoyed the magazine, particularly the regular columns, the news items about research findings, the reviews that alert me to books I will want to read, the “Ask the Brains” Q and A, the challenging “Head Games” quiz, and the presentation of many intriguing ideas. The board of advisers is impressive, and the columns by Christof Koch, Scott Lilienfeld, Hal Arkowitz, the Ramachandrans and others have been consistently excellent. Unfortunately, some of the other articles have descended into pop psychology, speculation, poor science and even pseudoscience. Contributing editor Robert Epstein’s articles have particularly raised my blood pressure.

Love-Building Exercises

In December 2009 I was annoyed enough to write this letter to the editor:

After reading Robert Epstein’s article in the last issue, I had to go back to the cover and verify that the word “scientific” was indeed part of the title of your magazine. The Love Building Exercises he recommends are more appropriate to a magazine of fantasy and science fiction.

Two as One — feeling that the two of you have merged?
Soul Gazing — looking into the very core of your beings?
A Mind-Reading Game — wordlessly trying to broadcast a thought to another person?
Love Aura — feeling “eerie kinds of sparks” when your palm is close to another’s?

Thought transfer? Auras? Come on! Shame on you for publishing such metaphysical pseudoscientific psychobabble!

They published my letter to the editor with the heading “Hating ‘Love’.” There was no response from the author.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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Survey says, “Hop on the bandwagon of ‘integrative medicine’!”

A Brief Clinical Vignette

In researching this post, I found an article published nearly two years ago in The Hospitalist entitled Growth Spurt: Complementary and alternative medicine use doubles, which began with this anecdote:

Despite intravenous medication, a young boy in status epilepticus had the pediatric ICU team at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison stumped. The team called for a consult with the Integrative Medicine Program, which works with licensed acupuncturists and has been affiliated with the department of family medicine since 2001. Acupuncture’s efficacy in this setting has not been validated, but it has been shown to ease chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, as well as radiation-induced xerostomia.

Following several treatments by a licensed acupuncturist and continued conventional care, the boy’s seizures subsided and he was transitioned to the medical floor. Did the acupuncture contribute to bringing the seizures under control? “I can’t say that it was the acupuncture — it was probably a function of all the therapies working together,” says David P. Rakel, MD, assistant professor and director of UW’s Integrative Medicine Program.

The UW case illustrates both current trends and the constant conundrum that surrounds hospital-based complementary medicine: Complementary and alternative medicine’s use is increasing in some U.S. hospitals, yet the existing research evidence for the efficacy of its multiple modalities is decidedly mixed.

My jaw dropped in horror when I read this story. Acupuncture for status epilepticus? There’s no evidence that it works and no scientific plausibility suggesting that it might work. And what does the questionable research suggesting that acupuncture might ease chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting or radiation-induced xerostomia (which, if you look more closely at the studies, it almost certainly does not, but that’s a post for another time) have to do with this case, anyway? Nothing. Worse, Dr. Rakel fell for the classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy; i.e., despite his disclaimer, he appears to be implying that, because the child recovered, acupuncture must have contributed to his recovery. He also repeats the classic fallacy that I’ve written about time and time again in the context of cancer therapy, namely that if a patient is using quackery as well as science-based medicine, then either it was the quackery that cured him or the quackery somehow made the conventional medical care work better.

I expect better from an academic medical center like the University of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, increasingly I’m not getting it. Quackademic medicine is infiltrating such medical centers like kudzu.
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Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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TIME Magazine, Dr. Oz, What to Eat, and Supplements

Here on SBM we have frequently had cause to criticize the media for poor science reporting and for spreading misinformation. Among many other individual offenders, we have criticized Dr. Oz for promoting alternative medicine on his TV show and gullibly promoting guests who pretend to talk to the dead and pretend to heal people with carnival sideshow tricks. We tend to be negative and critical because somebody has to do it, but it’s not pleasant.  For once, I have some good things to say.

The September 12 issue of TIME magazine was a Special Nutrition Issue. The cover featured pictures of food and the title “What to Eat Now: Uncovering the Myths about Food by Dr. Oz.” It devotes 7 pages to an article by him entitled “The Oz Diet: No more myths. No more fads. What you should eat — and why.” This is followed by a 5 page article by John Cloud “Nutrition in a Pill? I took 3000 supplements over five months. Here’s what happened.” Both articles have a rational, science-based perspective without any intrusions of woo-woo. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Gullible George

I get the occasional email.  Very little hate mail, unfortunately, since hate mail is often more amusing.  I read what little email I receive, and usually do not respond, mostly as I do not have the time.  I am a slow writer and a slower typist, and there are just so many hours in the day, and the older you get, the shorter th0se hours become.

Recently, over at the center of the growing Mark Crislip multimedia empire, I had the following in the feedback section:

Just thought you’d like to know:

My kids watch the PBS show “Curious George” which usually does a good job with introductory Physics, Astronomy, scientific method, etc. Interspersed with the cartoons they have scenes with real children that do a real-life parallel investigation of what happened on Curious George.

Today’s episode involved the Man with the Yellow Hat catching a cold, and Curious George going to the pharmacy and picking up various drugs to assist in making the guy feel better, mainly to have him sleep and be comfortable.

The interspersed skit, however, had the children visit a naturopath, where they learned:
* Oregano cures infections
* Various pressure points that correspond to energy lines
* And that taping magnets to these points is really effective.

I sat here simply amazed.

Me, not so much.  Alternative medicine has always been a blind spot for PBS.  While PBS  would not show perpetual motion machines,  suggest that astrology is legitimate, or give credence to a flat earth, alternative medicine, as it is for many otherwise thoughtful people, is exempt from even cursory critical thinking. PBS has broadcast  Drs. Chopra and North, so its track record with science based medicine is not so good. My children are long past the Curious George part of their lives, but I read them the books when they were kids.  Not my favorite (I like the Madeleine books better; 6 weeks in hospital for an acute appendix never failed to amuse me) but they were a quick read when the kids wanted a story at bedtime and I was too tired for a longer exposition. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy, Science and the Media

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