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Does peer review need fixing?

One of the most important aspects of science is the publication of scientific results in peer-reviewed journals. This publication serves several purposes, the most important of which is to communicated experimental results to other scientists, allowing other scientists to replicate, build on, and in many cases find errors in the results. In the ideal situation, this communication results in the steady progress of science, as dubious results are discovered and sound results replicated and built upon. Of course, scientists being human and all, the actual process is far messier than that. In fact, it’s incredibly messy. Contrary to popular misconceptions about science, it doesn’t progress steadily and inevitably. Rather, it progresses in fits and starts, and most new scientific discoveries go through a varying period of uncertainty, with competing labs reporting conflicting results. To achieve consensus about a new theory can take relatively little time (for example, the less than a decade that it took for Marshall and Warren’s hypothesis that peptic ulcer disease is largely caused by H. pylori or the relatively rapid acceptance of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) to much longer periods of time.

One of the pillars of science has traditionally been the peer review system. In this system, scientists submit their results to journals for publication in the form of manuscripts. Editors send these manuscripts out to other scientists to review them and decide if the science is sound, if the methods appropriate, and if the conclusions are justified by the data presented. This step of the process is very important, because if editors don’t choose reviewers with the appropriate expertise, then serious errors in review may occur. Also, if editors choose reviewers with biases so strong that they can’t be fair, then science that challenges such reviewers’ biases may never see print in their journals. The same thing can occur to grant applications. In the NIH, for instance, the scientists running study sections must be even more careful in choosing scientists to be on their study sections and review grant applications, not to mention picking which scientists review which grants. Biases in reviewing papers are one thing; biases in reviewing grant applications can result in the denial of funding to worthy projects in favor of projects less worthy that happen to correspond to the biases of the reviewers.

I’ve discussed peer review from time to time, although perhaps not as often as I should. My view tends to be that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s invocation of a famous quote about democracy, peer review is the worst way to weed out bad science and promote good science, except for all the others that have been tried. One thing’s for sure, if there’s a sine qua non of an anti-science crank, it’s that he will attack peer review relentlessly, as HIV/AIDS denialist Dean Esmay did. Indeed, in the case of Medical Hypotheses, the lack of peer review let the cranks run free to the point where even Elsevier couldn’t ignore it any more. One thing’s for sure. Peer review may have a lot of defects and blindnesses, but lack of peer review is even worse. It’s no wonder why cranks of all stripes loved Medical Hypotheses.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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How to make a difference – Responsible vaccine advocacy

I lost a patient this season, an infant, to pertussis.  After falling ill he lived for nearly a month in the intensive care unit on a ventilator, three weeks of which was spent on a heart/lung bypass machine (ECMO) due to the extent of the damage to his lungs, but all our efforts were in vain.  The most aggressive and advanced care medicine has to offer couldn’t save his life; the only thing that could have saved him would have been to prevent him from contracting pertussis in the first place.

He was unvaccinated, but that was because of his age.  He was part of the population that is fully dependent on herd immunity for protection, and that is exquisitely prone to a life-threatening course once infected.  This is a topic we’ve covered ad nauseum, and I’m not inclined to go into greater depth in this post.  Suffice it to say his death is a failure at every level; we, both as medical professionals and as a society at large need to do a better job of protecting our children from preventable diseases. (more…)

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Medical Science and Public Opinion: The Avandia Story

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

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

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

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

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Pertussis Epidemic 2010

Bordetella pertussis is the bacterium that causes whooping cough – the main clinical feature of which is a severe lingering cough that can last for weeks or even months. Right now we are in the midst of an epidemic of pertussis cropping up in pockets throughout the US, most notable California. According to the CDC:

During January 1– June 30, 2010, a total of 1,337 cases were reported, a 418% increase from the 258 cases reported during the same period in 2009. All cases either met the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists definitions for confirmed or probable pertussis or had an acute cough illness and Bordetella pertussis–specific nucleic acid detected by polymerase chain reaction from nasopharyngeal specimens.

In addition, if the trends continue through the end of this year, which they are likely to do, this will be the highest incidence of pertussis in almost 50 years. These numbers are not in question, but there is some discussion about what, exactly, is causing it.

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Posted in: Vaccines

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Testosterone: Not an Anti-Aging Panacea

On the car radio, I have several times happened upon “infomercial” programs touting the benefits of testosterone replacement therapy for men, broadcast by doctors who specialize in prescribing the drugs. They have lots of wonderful stories about men who feel younger, happier, and more vigorous because of their macho remedies. It’s a tribute to the power of the placebo.

I have been reviewing John Brinkley’s goat gland scam for a presentation on medical frauds. In an era before the isolation of the hormone testosterone, Brinkley transplanted goat testes into human scrotums in an attempt to treat impotence and aging. We are more sophisticated today … but not much. Longevity clinics and individual practitioners are offering testosterone to men as a general pick-me-up and anti-aging treatment. Their practice is not supported by the scientific evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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Dr. Gorski to be speaking at the Chicago Skeptics on Saturday

The week is finally here! Believe it or not, I’m heading back to my old stomping grounds in the 1990s to appear as a guest of the Chicago Skeptics.

This Saturday, August 21, I’ll be giving a talk co-sponsored by Chicago Skeptics, Women Thinking Free Foundation, and the Center For Inquiry-Chicago at the Black Rock Pub & Kitchen. My talk will be on a topic near and dear to my heart (or a topic that fills me with alarm–the two are not mutually exclusive), mainly the infiltration of pseudoscience into medicine. I’ll be sure to touch on a number of issues, and you can be sure I’ll have something to say about the recent acupuncture review that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine and perhaps a bit about the sort of pseudoscience that’s being practiced at some of our largest and most respected cancer centers. Afterwards, you–yes, you!–can ask me about anything you want if you show up. Anything, including vaccines, skepticism, and even Bill Maher!

If you live in Chicago and want to harass me (not the way Age of Autism harasses me), head on over to the Chicago Skeptics event page and click on the link to RSVP!

ADDENDUM: Holy crap! Someone just informed me that Chicago Comic Con will be in Chicago the same weekend as me. Even worse, William Shatner will be there on Saturday, which is when I’m giving my talk. How on earth can I possibly compete with the Shat?

Posted in: Announcements, Medical Academia

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“Integrative” oncology: Trojan horse, quackademic medicine, or both?

One of the main topics that we’ve covered here on this blog over the last couple of years is the relatively rapid, seemingly relentless infiltration of pseudoscience into what should be bastions of science-based medicine (SBM), namely medical schools and academic medical centers promoted by academics who should, but apparently don’t, know better. From the very beginning, we’ve written numerous posts about this infiltration and how it has been facilitated by a variety of factors, including changes in the culture of medical academia and our own culture in general, not to mention a dedicated cadre of ideologues such as the Bravewell Collaboration, whose purpose is to blur the lines between science and pseudoscience and promote the “integration” of quackery into science-based medicine. Certainly promoters of what Dr. Robert W. Donnell termed “quackademic medicine” wouldn’t put it that way, but I would. Indeed, promoters of quackademic medicine scored a major victory last month, when a credulous piece of tripe about acupuncture passing as a review article managed to find its way into the New England Journal Medicine, a misstep that was promptly skewered by Mark Crislip, Steve Novella, and myself. It’s rare for more than two of us to write about the same topic, but it was earned by a mistake as dire as the editors of the NEJM allowing rank pseudoscience to sully its normally science-based pages.

Today, I want to riff a bit on one aspect of this phenomenon. As a cancer surgeon, I’ve dedicated myself to treating patients with cancer and then subspecialized even further, dedicating myself to the surgical treatment of breast cancer. Consequently, the interface of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) in the treatment of cancer both interests and appalls me. The reason for my horror at the application of CAM to cancer patients, as you might expect, is that cancer is a disease that is highly feared and can be highly deadly, depending upon the specific kind of cancer. Cancer patients deserve nothing less than the best science-based evidence that we have to offer, free of pseudoscience. Yet in even the most highly respected cancer centers, such as M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, there are departments or divisions of what is increasingly called “integrative oncology.” The claim behind “integrative oncology” is that it is “integrating the best of science-based and ‘alternative’ medicine,” but in reality all too often it is “integrating” quackery with science-based medicine. I have yet to hear an explanation of how “integrating” pseudoscience or nonscience into science-based oncology benefits cancer patients, but, then, that’s probably just the nasty old reductionist in me. Let’s find out.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Homeopathy, Naturopathy

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NEJM and Acupuncture: Even the best can publish nonsense.

I realize that the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) review of acupuncture has already been covered by Drs. Gorski and Novella. But my ego knows no bounds; so I thought I would add my two cents, especially since this review, more than any paper I have read, generates a deep sense on betrayal.

There was a time when I believed my betters. Then the Annals of Internal Medicine had their absolutely ghastly series on SCAMS, the publication of which was partly responsible for interest in the topic. Since that series of articles, I have doubt whenever I read an Annals article. When a previously respected journal panders completely to woo, they lose all respectability. Sure, the editors that were responsible for that travesty are long gone, but the taint remains. I tell my kids that once a trust has been violated, it is difficult to get it back. The Annals has permanently lost my trust, I am afraid.

But we will always have Paris. I mean the NEJM. The NEJM is the premier medical journal. Just because an article is published in the NEJM doesn’t mean it’s right; the results of clinical trials are always being superseded by new information. But the article has supposedly been rigorously peer reviewed. Its like Harvard and… Oops, Bad example. Harvard, as we have seen, has feet of clay, and so, evidently, does the The New England Journal of Medicine.

Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire, the editors of the NEJM have fallen into the depths of nonsense with this one.

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Posted in: Acupuncture

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Homeoprophylaxis: An idea whose time has come—and gone

One of the strengths of modern medical education is its emphasis on basic science.  Conversely, the basic weakness of so-called alternative medicine is its profound ignorance of science and its reliance on magical thinking.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the attempts of altmed cults to conduct and publish research.  From “quantum water memory” to “almost as good as placebo”, the altmed literature is filled with basic failures in the proper formulation and testing of hypotheses.

One of the finest examples of these failures was just published in the journal Homeopathy.  Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity of a journal devoted to magic, let’s see what they did here. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Venous Insufficiency in Multiple Sclerosis

There is an interesting controversy raging in the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) world that reflects many of the issues we discuss at science-based medicine. Dr. Paolo Zamboni, and Italian vascular surgeon, has now published a series of studies claiming that patients with clinically defined MS have various patterns of chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI). Further Dr. Zamboni believes CCSVI is a major cause of MS, not just a clinical side-consequence, and is exploring treatment with venous angioplasty or stenting.

The claims have captured the attention of MS patients, many of whom have a progressive course that is only partially treated by currently available medications. There are centers popping up, many abroad (such as India), providing the “liberation procedure” and anecdotes of miraculous cures and spreading over the internet. There is even a Facebook page dedicated to CCSVI, and you can read the anecdotes for yourself. Many profess dramatic improvement immediately following the procedure, which seems unlikely even if Zamboni’s hypothesis is correct.

Zamboni is also getting attention from neurologists and MS specialists, who remain skeptical because Zamboni’s claims run contrary to years of research and thousands of studies pointing to the current model of MS as an autoimmune disease.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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