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Science-based medicine throughout time

As 2013 comes to a close, because this probably will be my last post of 2013 (unless, of course, something comes up that I can’t resist blogging about before my next turn a week from now), I had thought of doing one of those cheesy end-of-year lists related to the topic of science-based medicine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with anything I haven’t already done. I even thought of coming up with a list of New Year’s resolutions for 2014. In fact, I even thought of making the first one—in a self-deprecating manner, of course—to be to stop being so mean, nasty, and dogmatic, the better to satisfy my detractors. But then I remembered that nothing is likely to satisfy my detractors and, besides, my ever-lovin’ cuddliness is what makes me so popular. Besides, I have to be me and gotta be true to myself, and all that rot, so that idea went out the window. Of course, what was worse than my inability to come up with something was that I couldn’t think of a way to make it funny. When you’re trying to be funny following the inimitable Mark Crislip, you’d damned well better be funny. So, until my humorous instincts come back, serious it has to be.

But serious doesn’t necessarily mean heavy. The end of a year is a time both to look back on the year before and look forward to the year to come. This year in many ways was a good year for us here at SBM. We launched a Facebook page, reinvigorated our Twitter feed, and have experienced a significant growth in our traffic. Those who know me and/or follow me on various social media know that I’m a big Doctor Who fan, I have been since the 1980s. So the last two big events of the year, the 50th anniversary special in November and the Christmas special on, well, Christmas got me to thinking about time travel, and thinking about time travel revived memories of a topic I covered on my not-so-super-secret other blog four years ago and had been meaning to treat here sometime. It’s a fun topic to finish out the year, not to mention a way for me to blatantly sneak Doctor Who references into an SBM post.

Being a Doctor Who fan and all, not surprisingly, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be able to travel through time and visit times and places in history that I’m most interested in. For instance, being a World War II buff, I’d certainly want to be able to check out what everyday life was like here in the U.S. during World War II. Given my affinity for psychedelic music and that I was only four years old during most of the Summer of Love, I’d think it cool to check out Haight-Ashbury, although I suspect my reaction to the reality of it would be similar to that of George Harrison when he checked it out for the first time. I guess, if pushed, I’d have to admit that if I were old enough to have been a high school or college student in 1967, I probably would have been one of those straight-laced, short-haired types destined either to go to college to become a doctor or engineer, or to go to Vietnam to fight. Despite loving the music, I never had any interest in experimenting with the drugs. Beer, wine, and—occasionally—a martini or two are my drugs of choice and then only for medicinal purposes, as they say. Heck, I never even tried to smoke tobacco. Even as a child I couldn’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke to the point where it was never even really a temptation.

In any case, what provoked my original bit of musing was a post a few years ago by Martin Rundkvist, who wrote about Fear of Time Travel, where he imagines what it would be like for a modern person to be transported back in time:

First, imagine that you’re dropped into a foreign city with only the clothes you wear. No wallet, no hand bag, no money, no cell phone, no identification. Pretty scary, huh? But still, most of us would get out of the situation fairly easily. We would find the embassy of our country of origin, or if it were in another city, contact the local police and ask to use their phone. A few days later we would be home.

That’s not the scary scenario I rehearse. Imagine that you’re dropped into the city you live in with only the clothes you wear. No wallet, no hand bag, no money, no cell phone, no identification. And it’s 500 years ago. (Or for you colonial types, 300 years ago in one of your country’s first cities.)

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Posted in: Cancer, Critical Thinking, Science and the Media, Surgical Procedures

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Garcinia Probably Works But Is Far From a Weight Loss Miracle

Women make up a majority of Dr. Oz’s audience. The majority of women would like to lose weight. That is a match made in heaven, a marketer’s dream. And Oz has never hesitated to exploit that fact to increase audience share, playing fast and loose with sensationalized evidence instead of giving his viewers science-based advice.Garcinia

Dr. Oz has promoted a series of weight loss supplements on his show. Raspberry ketones were presented as a fat-busting miracle, then green coffee bean extract was touted as “magic,” “staggering,” and “unprecedented.” And now both of those miracles have apparently been superseded by an even greater miracle: Garcinia cambogia extract.

Dr. Oz calls it “The newest, fastest fat buster.” A way to lose weight without “spending every waking moment exercising and dieting.” “Triples your weight loss.” “The most exciting breakthrough in natural weight loss to date.” “The Holy Grail.” Oz claims that “Revolutionary new research says it could be the magic ingredient that lets you lose weight without diet or exercise.” That sounds too good to be true, and it is. Garcinia probably does work to some extent to improve weight loss, but the evidence doesn’t begin to justify such grandiose claims. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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No, carrying your cell phone in your bra will not cause breast cancer, no matter what Dr. Oz says

I don’t think very highly of Dr. Oz.

Yes, yes, I realize that saying that is akin to saying that water is wet, the sun rises in the east, and that it gets damned cold here in the upper Midwest in December, but there you go. This year, I’ve been mostly avoiding the now un-esteemed Dr. Mehmet Oz, a.k.a. “America’s doctor,” even though his show could, if I paid much attention to it anymore, provide me with copious blogging material, because I’ve come to the conclusion that he is beyond redemption. He’s gone over to the Dark Side and is profiting handsomely from it. There’s little I can do about it except for, from time to time, writing about some of Dr. Oz’s more egregious offenses against medical science and reason, putting our tens of thousands of readers per day against his millions of viewers per day. It’s an asymmetric battle that we don’t have much of a shot at winning. However, at least from time to time I can correct misinformation that Oz promotes, particularly when it impacts my speciality. Consider it doing something pre-emptively to help myself. When one of my patients ask about something that’s been on Oz’s show, I can simply point her to specific blog posts, as I did the last time around when Oz arguably flouted the human subjects protection regulations of his own university and of the Department of Health and Human Services by running in essence a poorly-designed clinical trial to show that green coffee bean extract can promote weight loss. Of course, it showed nothing of the sort.

This time around, Dr. Oz caught my attention about a week and a half ago. I had planned on blogging about it last week, but the case of the Amish girl with cancer whose parents stopped her chemotherapy after less than two full courses, thus endangering her life, intervened. (It also didn’t help that I hadn’t recorded the show and the segment hadn’t shown up on Dr. Oz’s website by Sunday night last week.) I figured that I probably wouldn’t get back to Oz, but—wouldn’t you know it?—a week later I’m still annoyed at this story. So better late than never. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Science and the Media

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“Low T”: The triumph of marketing over science

A man on TV is selling me a miracle cure that will keep me young forever. It’s called Androgel…for treating something called Low T, a pharmaceutical company–recognized condition affecting millions of men with low testosterone, previously known as getting older.

The Colbert Report, December 2012

 

And now for something completely different…sort of.

After writing so much about the latest developments in the ongoing saga of the cancer doctor who is not an oncologist and not a legitimate cancer researcher, plus a rumination on what’s up with President Obama’s nominee for Surgeon General and our favorite form of unscientific medicine, so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), also known as “integrative medicine,” I thought it was time for a change of pace. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about as Sunday rolled around, but fortunately, as sometimes happens, the New York Times dropped a topic right in my lap, so to speak, both figuratively and literally. It comes in the form of a long article on something that directly concerns men of a certain age, which unfortunately happens to mean men of my age and older. I’m referring to what pharmaceutical company advertising campaigns have dubbed “low T,” short for low testosterone. It’s not clear how the term “low T” originated but Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, founder of Men’s Health Boston, claims to have coined the term when his patients were embarrassed by their difficulty pronouncing the word “testosterone.” Other sources report that it was Solvay Pharmaceuticals that coined the phrase. It doesn’t really matter where the term “low T” came from. The term has stuck, even though the more “correct” medical term would be hypogonadism, as in a man’s testes not working.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media

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The new Surgeon General nominee and CAM: Is there a problem here?

Our fearless leader, Steve Novella, has informed me that he is traveling today. Unfortunately, I am preparing a talk for later today, and no one else seemed able to come up with a post; so I decided to adapt a recent post from my not-so-super-secret other blog and see what a different readership thought of it. I realize that I’m risking subjecting you all to Gorski overload, but, hey, if the world needs more Mark Crislip, why wouldn’t the world need more David Gorski too? Steve will return next Wednesday, as usual.

I don’t normally give a lot of thought to the Surgeon General because, quite frankly, in recent years it hasn’t been a position of much authority or influence. That’s why I didn’t noticed late last week that President Obama had nominated a new Surgeon General. Normally, my failure to notice isn’t such a big deal, because there really hasn’t been a Surgeon General who has really been particularly well-known or had much of an impact since Dr. C. Everett Koop, although back when President Obama first took office Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s name was floated as a possibility for the position. Obviously, he didn’t get it. (I’m guessing that being a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent probably pays much better than being Surgeon General.) To be honest, I didn’t even know that the prior Surgeon General had stepped down, but apparently she did in July, leaving the position filled by an interim Surgeon General until a new one could be nominated.

The other day, I learned whom President Obama nominated to be her successor, Dr. Vivek Murthy, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School:

President Obama will nominate Dr. Vivek Murthy of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital as surgeon general of the United States, the White House announced Thursday night.

Murthy is a hospitalist at the Brigham and is co-founder and president of Doctors for America, a Washington, D.C.-based group of 16,000 physicians and medical students that advocates for access to affordable, high quality health care and has been a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

If he’s confirmed by the Senate, Murthy would replace acting surgeon general Boris Lushniak. The surgeon general serves a four-year term and the post is essentially a bully pulpit to speak out on public health issues.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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The Burzynski Empire strikes back

You might have noticed that I was very pleased last Friday, very pleased indeed. Given the normal subject matter of this blog, in which we face a seemingly-unrelenting infiltration of pseudoscience and quackery into even the most hallowed halls of academic medicine, against which we seem to be fighting a mostly losing battle, having an opportunity to see such an excellent deconstruction of bad science and bad medicine in a large mainstream news outlet like USA TODAY is rare and gratifying. As you might recall, USA TODAY reporter Liz Szabo capped off a months-long investigation of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his Burzynski Clinic with an excellent (and surprisingly long and detailed) report, complete with sidebars explaining why cancer experts don’t think that Burzysnki’s anecdotes are compelling evidence that his treatment, antineoplastons, has significant anticancer activity and a human interest story about patients whom Burzynski took to the cleaners. Most of this, of course, is no news to SBM readers, as I’ve been writing about Dr. Burzynski on a fairly regular basis for over two years now. It’s just amazing to see it all boiled down into three articles and ten short videos in the way that Szabo and USA TODAY did, to be read by millions, instead of the thousands who read this blog. Szabo also found out who the child was who died of hypernatremia due to antineoplastons in June 2012, a death that precipitated the partial clinical hold on Burzynski’s bogus clinical trials, about which both Liz Szabo and I have quoted Burzynski’s own lawyer, Richard Jaffe, from his memoir, first about Burzynski’s “wastebasket” trial, CAN-1:

As far as clinical trials go, it was a joke…it was all an artifice, a vehicle we and the FDA created to legally give the patients Burzynski’s treatment. The FDA wanted all of Burzynski’s patients to be on an IND, so that’s what we did.

And Jaffe’s characterization of the six dozen phase II clinical trials that Burzynski submitted in the late 1990s was this:

A cancer clinic cannot survive on existing patients. It needs a constant flow of new patients. So in addition to getting the CAN-1 trial approved, we had to make sure Burzynski could treat new patients. Mindful that he would likely only get one chance to get them approved, Burzynski personally put together seventy-two protocols to treat every type of cancer the clinic had treated and everything Burzynski wanted to treat in the future…Miracle of miracles, all of Burzynski’s patients were now on FDA-approved clinical trials, and he would be able to treat almost any patient he would want to treat!

I’m just repeating those quotes again, because they can’t be emphasized enough. Quite frankly, if I were Burzynski, I’d fire Jaffe for having published such statements in his book. But that’s just me. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the counterattack and why Burzynski’s excuses regarding the deficiencies found in the FDA reports do not ring true.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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USA Today versus Stanislaw Burzynski

This is an SBM public service announcement—with blogging! Think of it as a bonus post, and don’t forget to read Mark Crislip’s regular biweekly offering, as it’s about an article in Skeptical Inquirer that particularly irritated him—and me, as well. Because, as we all know, the world needs more Mark Crislip.

I’ve made no secret of how much I despise Stanislaw Burzynski, the self-proclaimed cancer doctor and medical researcher who has been treating patients with an unproven, unapproved chemotherapeutic agent since 1977, seemingly slithering around, under, over, and past all attempts to investigate him and shut him down. Indeed, just type his name in the search box of this blog, and you will see copious evidence of my disdain for the man. Over 37 years, Burzynski has become a hero to the cancer quackery industry, touted as the man who can cure incurable cancers that science-based medicine can’t, even though his treatment, antineoplastons, allegedly peptides isolated from blood and urine that normally keep cancer in check in healthy people, are by any reasonable definition chemotherapy. Indeed, they are toxic, with a number of side effects reported, the most common and dangerous of which being life-threatening hypernatremia (elevated sodium levels in the blood). All you have to do is to type Burzynski’s name into the search box of this blog, and you’ll find copious documentation of the abuses of patients, science, and clinical trials perpetrated by Stanislaw Burzynski and the cult of personality that has evolved around him. He’s even acquired his very own film propagandist, a credulous fellow named Eric Merola, who has made two astoundingly bad documentaries that are nothing more than unabashed hagiographies of the brave maverick doctor curing cancer where no one else can. They’re chock full of misinformation, pseudoscience, spin, and obvious emotional manipulation, and the first one at least, was very popular.

For the longest time, I’ve been hoping that major mainstream news organizations would take this story on. It’s happened from time to time, but until 2013 it hadn’t happened in a long time. Earlier this year, the BBC featured Burzynski in an episode of its long-running series Panorama. It was a mixed bag that took the fairly easy path of making it all about the patients and never really delved into what I believe to be the central mystery of the four-decade-long Stanislaw Burzynski story, and that’s how he’s managed to keep his medical license and register clinical trials right up until 2012. That was a disappointment, although much of the rest of the Panorama episode was very good. He still has his medical license, but as I’ve pointed out several times, the FDA placed a partial clinical hold on Burzynski’s antineoplaston phase II clinical trials back in the summer of 2012. A partial clinical hold means that no new patients could be enrolled, but patients already on them could continue to receive treatment. In 2012, apparently a child died on antineoplastons, and so a partial clinical hold was placed on the trials involving children. That clinical hold was extended to adults in January 2012, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Burzynski apologists, as the FDA investigated between January and March. We now know the results of that investigation, but we never knew much about how that partial clinical hold came about.

Now, thanks to Liz Szabo at USA Toda, we know from her article “Doctor accused of selling false hope to families“:
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Irritated by the Skeptical Inquirer. Again.

I have a confession. I have been interested in issues skeptical since high school when I came across a copy of the Zetetic at Powells. In the pre-digital era I had a complete library of Zetetic-Skeptical Inquirers (SI) that a decade ago was tossed in the recycle bin along with a similar collection of MacWorlds. I have been interested in skepticism a long time and, here is my confession, I no longer find much of the subject matter covered by SI all that interesting. Even big ticket topics like the existence of God are uninteresting. It is not that the topics are not important, they are, and each generation has to relearn why Bigfoot or haunted houses or UFO’s are nonsense. But for me it is a large serving of been-there, done-that.

So while I subscribe to SI, it is more from a sense of obligation to support institutions I think are important than from an expectation that I will be either educated by the content or entertained by the style of the writers. I usually skim the magazine while accomplishing tasks that do not require my full attention probably because SI is the only magazine I still receive in dead tree format, the rest of my life being digital.

So I ran across “Taking our medicine: What hope for skepticism in healthcare?” by Kenneth W. Krause and after skimming it I was irritated. So I read it again and I was more irritated, which is often a good sign. But I could not quite put a finger on what it was. So I read it again and then went for a walk and thought about it.

All the facts were fine. I had no issue with the content of the article. It was the adjectives that irritated me. And the essay was, from my perspective, incomplete. It was like reading a relationship/birth control article by the Pope. Sure, he knows the facts of the situation, but not being an active participant in the process and with an agenda to promote, vital information will be missing or distorted. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Medical cranks: Why we fight

Never let it be said that I can’t match Mark Crislip in shameless self-promotion. The world might indeed need more Mark Crislip™, but I like to think that it needs a bit more David Gorski, too. So, in that spirit, here are the videos, recently released by the James Randi Educational Foundation, of Bob Blaskiewicz, myself, and some key SBM players that you’ve come to know and love. The first video is my talk at The Amazing Meeting in July about Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. It’s entitled Why We Fight (Part I): Stanislaw Burzynski Versus Science-Based Medicine. The second video is Bob Blaskiewicz, of Skeptical Humanities and The Other Burzynski Patient Group, It’s entitled, appropriately enough, Why We Fight (Part II): It’s All About the Patients. The third video is of the panel that followed to discuss Medical Cranks and Quacks. Enjoy!

Oh, and consider it a bit of a taste of what’s to come tomorrow…and don’t forget to pay attention to Bob Blaskiewicz’s plea at the end of his talk to contact him if you’re interested in becoming active. At TAM, he had a sign-up sheet that he discussed at around 21:06 in the video. Online, just mosey on over to The Other Burzynski Patient Group and contact Bob Blaskiewicz. We will very likely be asking you to help very soon.

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

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Redefining cancer

Blogging is a rather immediate endeavor. Over the last nine years (nearly), I’ve lost track of how many times I saw something that I wanted to blog about but by the time I got around to it, it was no longer topical. Usually what happens is that my Dug the Dog tendencies take over, as I’m distracted by yet another squirrel, although sometimes there are just too many targets topics and too little time. Fortunately, however, sometimes the issue is resurrected, sometimes in a really dumb way, such that I have an excuse to correct my previous oversight. This is just such a time, and the manner in which the topic has been resurrected is every bit as dumb as the rant by the Food Babe that Mark Crislip so delightfully deconstructed last Friday. Unfortunately, for purposes of snark, I’m not Mark Crislip—but, then, who is?—but fortunately I am known elsewhere (and sometimes here) for being a bit “insolent.” So let’s dig in. We’ll start with the idiocy and then use that as a “teachable moment” about cancer biology. Funny how I manage to do that sort of thing so often.

Abuse of cancer science for political purposes

I realize that we at SBM are supposed to stay, for the most part, apolitical, but the idiocy that’s leading me to revisit a topic is unavoidably political because it involves using a profound misunderstanding of science for political ends. Specifically, I’m referring to the misuse of a legitimate scientific debate about cancer screening and diagnosis for purely political ends. First, however, for those not living in the US or my fellow citizens who might be blissfully unaware (in this case) of recent events, during the first half of October, our nation underwent what can only be described as a self-inflicted crisis that could have caused worldwide economic turmoil if it hadn’t been (sort of) resolved at the last minute. The reason for the crisis boiled down to the extreme resistance of some of our more radically conservative Representatives to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, usually referred to as just the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or, colloquially, Obamacare. Normally when we write about Obamacare here on SBM, it’s to complain about how advocates of unscientific medicine and outright quackery have tried to piggyback their advocacy on the ACA in order to have health insurance plans sold through government exchanges cover modalities like naturopathy, chiropractic, and other so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine.” In related posts, I’ve examined the evidence with respect to the relationship between health insurance and mortality and whether attacks on Medicaid as not improving the health of patients insured by it have any validity. (Let’s just say they are oversimplifications and distortions.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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