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Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction

If you believe everything you read on the internet, then is seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.

Hopefully, you don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and you don’t get your science news from e-mail SPAM, where the above scenario is a common theme. While there are many manifestations of this type of urban legend, I am speaking specifically about aspartame – an artificial sweetener used since the early 1980s. The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.

I am frequently asked my opinion about the safety of aspartame. Nutritionists often council to avoid the sweetener, citing unverified claims that it is unsafe. I was recently sent a chain letter warning that aspartame causes MS (which of course can be cured by simply avoiding aspartame), and Snopes informs me that this particular letter first appeared in 1998.

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Posted in: Public Health

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Brain Balance

A member of Quackwatch’s Healthfraud discussion list recently reported from a health fair:

One booth was a bit of a mystery for me: Brain Balance. “Is your child struggling with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, or other related disorders?” A quick glance at their website makes it seem that they may be legitimate.

No, a quick glance at their website makes it seem that they are not legitimate, and a more detailed examination confirms that initial impression. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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The final nail in the mercury-autism hypothesis?

PROLOGUE: BAD LUCK AND BAD TIMING

Two and a half years ago, very early in the history of this blog, I wrote one of my usual logorrheic (although I prefer the word “comprehensive”) posts entitled Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis. In that post, I characterized the scientifically discredited notion that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in several childhood vaccines was the cause of the “autism epidemic” as “one of the most pernicious medical myths of recent years.” And so it is. I like to characterize the notion that thimerosal-containing vaccines (TCVs) cause autism as the American version of the British myth, popularized by Andrew Wakefield and a sensationalistic British press, that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism and “autistic enterocolitis.”

Both notions were based on confusing correlation with causation, aided and abetted by some truly bad science, and both notions have been painfully difficult to dislodge. Indeed, in the case of Wakefield, only now that Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice in the U.K. by its General Medical Council, leading to The Lancet finally doing what it should have done six years ago and retracting Wakefield’s 1998 study that sparked the MMR frenzy in the U.K. and arguably kickstarted the modern anti-vaccine movement, do I sense that journalists are finally “getting” that science does not support the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Andrew Wakefield may be trying to fight back with his book Callous Disregard after his disgrace was complete, basking in the glow of admiration of die-hard anti-vaccine groups, but, for now, at least, Wakefield and his MMR fear mongering are yesterday’s news, and that’s a very good thing indeed–at least for as long as it lasts.

Perhaps it is the fall of Andy Wakefield that has led to an apparent resurgence of the concept that mercury in TCVs somehow causes autism, after having faded into the background after the CDC and AAP recommended that thimerosal be removed from all childhood vaccines in 1999 and the last TCV having expired towards the end of 2001. After all, if the hypothesis that TCVs cause autism had been correct, we should have expected to see a marked decrease in the incidence of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) within about 5 years of 2002, given that the vast majority of cases of ASDs are diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 5. We have not, and, even though its adherents have kept moving the goalposts back regarding the date that we should start to see a leveling off and drop in the incidence of ASDs, starting with 2005, then 2007, and now, apparently, 2011 (which is only less than four months away, by the way), even Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine organization originally founded by J.B. Handley and his wife, namely Generation Rescue, began demphasizing mercury in 2007, after having stated flatly on its website that autism is a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning” for so long. Since then, “too many, too soon” has been the favored propaganda talking point.

Of course, not every crank is ready to abandon the myth that TCVs cause autism. Indeed, tomorrow two mercury militia “heavy hitters” and bloggers for the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted, will be releasing a book entitled Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Manmade Epidemic. In anticipation, four weeks ago I actually e-mailed the publicist to send me a review copy of Age of Autism. I have yet to receive the book. I wonder why. Be that as it may, it amuses me that the official release of the release of the not-so-dynamic duo of the mercury militia’s book actually will one day after a study that is arguably the last nail in the coffin of the very dead hypothesis that TCVs cause autism was released. Either the great pharma conspiracy is far more conniving and effective than even J.B. Handley thinks, or Blaxill and Olmsted’s luck is just that bad. As I anticipate the conspiracy mongering posts about this bad timing aside, let’s just take a look at this last coffin nail, which is a study by Price et al that was released today in the journal Pediatrics entitled Prenatal and Infant Exposure to Thimerosal From Vaccines and Immunoglobulins and Risk of Autism.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Lots of Speculation

Humans love to find patterns in the world. Sometimes patterns exist, sometimes they are imaginary. Sometimes you can see a pattern that may be interesting and ignore its significance. As a resident I used to say that anyone who smokes three packs of cigarettes a day has to be schizophrenic, it was meant more as a joke, when, in fact, it was later discovered that tobacco helps ameliorate the symptoms of schizophrenia. I need to pay more attention.

Part of my job is to look for patterns as a key to the patients diagnosis. Diseases and pathogens tend to (more or less) cause reproducible signs and symptoms and looking for that pattern is often the most helpful clue towards finding the diagnosis. Of course things are never as easy as one would like, as you have to consider whether you are seeing common manifestations of a common disease, uncommon manifestations of a common disease, common manifestations of a uncommon disease and, the hardest, uncommon manifestations of an uncommon disease. When I have a complex or uncertain cause, I explicitly run through that, and other, litanies so I do not miss a unusual diagnosis.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) has, at least to my way of thinking, two patterns. I see the occasional CFS patient in clinic and, I hope, pay attention to their disease patterns. I keep in mind I may be seeing a pattern that does not exist, but looking for disease patterns is what doctors are trained to do.

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Posted in: Basic Science, Science and Medicine

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Your disease, your fault

Earlier this week, my colleague Dr. Gorski explored a common theme in alternative medicine: the idea that all disease is preventable.  This implies that all disease has a discrete cause and that individual behavior can mitigate this cause.

If biology worked this way, my job as an internist would be very different.   Many people would love to believe that life is this predictable, and that they have that much control over their health, but they don’t.  Most disease represents the interaction of environment and genetics, and you can’t change your genes (with a few exceptions, of course).

It’s natural to want to be able to exert an impossible level of control over your health, but when unscrupulous charlatans (redundant redundancy alert!) play on these beliefs and fears, they can cause, rather than prevent problems.

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Posted in: 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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Write for Oprah? Wrong for Me

From January through June of 2010 I wrote a column entitled “The Health Inspector” in O, The Oprah Magazine. Now, apparently, I have been fired; although they have not had the common courtesy to tell me so. The whole thing has been a bizarre, frustrating experience. 

It started last fall, when I got an e-mail from Tyler Graham. He introduced himself as the new health editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, saying he had only been on the job for 2 weeks. He had read my work in Skeptic magazine and wanted me to write a column for O. I thought long and hard before accepting. I told Mr. Graham my opinion of Oprah and of her chosen medical expert Dr. Oz and why I was hesitant to associate my name with theirs, and he seemed to understand. Oprah has been widely criticized recently, even in the pages of Newsweek, for endorsing pseudoscientific and non-scientific health advice on her TV show.   As for Dr. Oz, while he mostly gives good medical advice, he has appalling lapses into non-science-based practices like Reiki, and he has even invited energy healers into his OR to assist in open-heart surgery cases by waving their hands over the patients. I foolishly assumed Mr.Graham was trying to improve Oprah’s image by introducing more science and skepticism to the magazine.  I decided to accept, for three reasons:

  1. It was a chance to get my name and a mention of the Science-Based Medicine blog before a large readership (O’s circulation is nearly 3 million).
  2. I could make sure that at least my one little corner of the magazine was scientifically rigorous.
  3. They were going to pay me. Not much, and I didn’t need the money, but you must understand that I had never before been paid a single penny for writing anything. My writing has been entirely pro bono. The idea of my writing finally being recognized as having monetary value was seductive.

 The skeptical community was delighted to learn that the SkepDoc had infiltrated Oprahdom. One young man tweeted, “Dude, Hell just froze over!” I’m afraid the celebration was premature.  (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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“Complex, multi-component therapy” can be studied well

This August was a tough month for SBM bloggers reading The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Just one week after a review of acupuncture for back pain—in which the authors recommended referring patients to traditionally trained acupuncturists despite data showing that traditional needling does not outperform a blinded sham control (click here here here for the trifecta takedown)— NEJM featured an original article about a study of Tai Chi for fibromyalgia. As critiqued by Dr. Gorski, the control intervention for the Tai Chi study was arguably inappropriate: the test and control groups experienced different intensities of exercise, for different durations of time, led by different instructors with different levels of enthusiasm. The special pleading and the weak design were not of themselves surprising, only their presence in such an august journal.

A group of editorial authors in that same NEJM issue preemptively address the SBM critics by describing Tai Chi as a “complex, multi-component therapy” and thereby implying that an appropriate sham cannot easily be designed. I agree that studying Tai Chi must be trickier than matching drugs to sugar pills. But “complex, multi-component” interventions can indeed be studied in a way that leads to convincing conclusions, as illustrated in the August 25, 2010 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). A team of Boston psychologists studied a complex, multi-component intervention for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and reported their findings in “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy vs Relaxation With Educational Support for Medication-Treated Adults With ADHD and Persistent Symptoms: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” The abstract: (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials

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Mike Adams on Dr. Mehmet Oz’s colon polyps: “Spontaneous” disease?

Given that it’s a holiday and I debated whether or not I even wanted to post anything today, I think I’ll keep things light and uncharacteristically brief today. After all, not every post can be like last week’s epic on Avastin or the week before’s epic on peer review. That’s a lot of work, and it is a holiday, after all. Besides, sometimes a perverse mood overtakes me, and I feel the need to go slumming.

Bring on Mike Adams.

Mike Adams, as regular readers may know, runs the website NaturalNews.com from deep in the jungles of Ecuador. His website is a one-stop shop, a repository if you will, of virtually every quackery known to humankind, all slathered with a heaping, helping of unrelenting hostility to science-based medicine and science in general. True, Mike Adams is not as big as, say, Joe Mercola, whose website, as far as I can tell, appears to draw more traffic than NaturalNews.com, but what Adams lacks in fame he makes up for in sheer crazy. If you don’t believe me, check out his latest hip-hop video Vaccine Zombie:

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Personally, if I had anything to do with the Michael Jackson estate, I’d be suing for copyright infringement. Still, grudgingly, I have to admit that the animation is pretty good, although when Mike Adams raps, “‘Cause livin’ without a brain ain’t half bad,” I don’t think he realizes that he is apparently living proof of that. In fact, so full of crazy is Mike Adams, that there has even been disagreement among SBM bloggers over whether we should lower ourselves to deal with some of his loonier stuff. Guess which side I took?

The reason I argue that, even at the risk of wrestling the proverbial pig in mud, we should not shy away from taking on some of Mike Adams’ lunacy from time to time is because he illustrates certain aspects of the mindset that allows unscientific so-called “alternative” medicine to remain popular. Sometimes, articles on Adams’ website bring up the question of whether Adams really believes the utter nonsense he lays down or whether he is simply a scammer, much like Kevin Trudeau is a scammer, and doesn’t believe a word of it but has such contempt for his followers that he thinks nothing of lying to them to sell them whatever nostrums he’s hawking on his website. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. I hope.

On Friday, Adams decided to attack “America’s doctor” and a promoter of woo whom we have from time to time taken on here at SBM, Dr. Mehmet Oz because, of all things, Dr. Oz apparently underwent colonoscopy and was found to have a precancerous polyp. That this might have happened to him is not at all surprising given that Dr. Oz recently turned 50 and current guidelines recommend commencing screening by colonoscopy at age 50. Indeed, I’m only a couple of years from needing to submit to the same screening myself. In any case, Adams decided to write one of his patented screeds, entitled, Dr. Oz colon polyps raises question of “spontaneous disease” without cause. In it, he inadvertently reveals a lot about alt-med thinking, making it worth a brief discussion.

Adams starts out:
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud

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Yes, drug companies do pay attention to herbal medicine

I’m only a monthly contributor here but between being a SBM reader and having my own blogs, I often grow weary of the blind criticism that researchers and drug companies couldn’t care less about traditional folk medicines as drug products. My laboratory spends every single day working on natural product extracts in the search for compounds that may have selective effectiveness against cancer. So, this is a bit of a sore spot for me.

Two papers this week from Cancer Prevention Research on the potential anticancer effects of a diabetes drug (Nathan Seppa story here) remind me to tell the story of a Middle Ages European herbal medicine used to treat polyuria that gave rise to one of the most widely prescribed drugs in the world, metformin (Glucophage in the US). Metformin, known chemically as a biguanide, dimethylguanide to be precise, traces its roots to the plant Galega officinalis. Known as goat’s rue, French lilac, or professor weed, this plant was shown to be a rich source of guanidine and a less toxic compound later called galegin or galegine (isoamyline guanidine).

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, History, Pharmaceuticals

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