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Cancer research: Going for the bunt versus swinging for the fences

A couple of weeks ago, our resident skeptical medical student Tim Kreider wrote an excellent article about an op-ed in NEWSWEEK by science correspondent Sharon Begley, in which he pointed out many misconceptions she had regarding basic science versus translational research, journal impact factors, and how journals actually determine what they will publish. Basically, her thesis rested on little more than a few anecdotes by scientists who didn’t get funded or published in journals with as high an impact factor as they thought they deserved, with no data, science, or statistics to tell us whether the scientists featured in her article were in fact representative of the general situation. Begley’s article caught flak from others, including Mike the Mad Biologist and our very own Steve Novella. Naturally, as the resident cancer surgeon and researcher, I had thought of weighing in, but other issues interested me more at the time.

In retrospect, I rather regret it, given that this issue crops up time and time again. In essence, it’s a variant of the lament that pops up in the press periodically, when science journalists look at survival rates for various cancers and ask why, after nearly 40 years, we haven’t yet won the war on cancer. Because of his youth, Tim probably hasn’t seen this issue crop up before, but, trust me, every couple of years or so it does. Begley’s article and the NYT article strike me as simply “Why are we losing the war on cancer?” 2009 edition.

Now the New York Times has given me an excuse both to revisit Begley’s article and discuss yesterday’s front page article in the NYT Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe. Basically, they are variants of the same complaints I’ve heard time and time again. Now, don’t get me wrong. By no means am I saying that the current system that the NIH uses to determine which scientists get funded. Those who complain that the system is often too conservative have a point. The problem, all too often, however, is that the proposals for how to fix the problem are usually either never spelled out or rest on dubious assumptions about the nature of cancer research themselves.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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“Acupuncture Anesthesia”: a Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part IV)

The Cultural Revolution

After investigating ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ in the People’s Republic of China in 1973, John Bonica wrote:

From the guarded comments made by several anesthesiologists, I concluded that this disuse [of 'acupuncture anesthesia,' after its introduction in 1958 until the

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

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An Original: Richard de Mille, Carlos Castaneda, Literary Quackery

An Original: Richard De Mille, Carlos Castaneda, and Literary Quackery

I was away in Nature – with a real capital N,  and decided to insert an allegory this week instead of a medical subject. The genesis here was a sweeping of the mind and brushing away of cobwebs and detritus called worries and other preoccupations.  The application to this here blog is – methodology. The experience is one of discovery, and of loss, and of bearing the burden of inaction.   

 

Some thirty or more years ago a family member became enamored of a new book, The Teachings of don Juan by an unknown author, Carlos Castaneda. But mention the name now and one gets one of two responses: Who is that?  Or, Oh, he is that literary fraud.  But in the late 1960s – 1970s, two social movements had captured imaginations of youth, academics, and much of the intellectual world. They made fantasy seem plausible, and fraud seem believable – psychedelics and postmodernism.

Advocates of psychedelics, most of whom experienced drug-induced alterations,  promoted revolutionary psychological ideas such as drug-induced multiple realities.  The other, postmodernism, was and is the intellectual and philosophical movement originating in academia that similarly views of reality(ies) as possibly multiple.  (The relation, if any, to alternate universes and relativity theories in physics I have to leave to philosophers.) But the ‘60s and ‘70s were decades of several revolutions in social and personal thought – paradigm changes – that brought fairy tales, delusions, and irrationality onto realms of plausibility, from which we are still reeling, and trying to deal with. 
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Academia

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The death and rebirth of vitalism

One of the common themes in biology and medicine is the feeling that somehow there must be more. Creationist cults simply know that life must be more than matter, and mind-body dualists (which includes most alternative medicine advocates) are certain that humans are more than an “ugly bag of mostly water” (sorry for the geek reference). If you can stick with me here, I’ll explain to you a bit of the history surrounding this fallacy.

Most of us intuitively feel that we are both a body and a person. In every day life, it makes a certain operational sense to think of our “mind” as being something distinct. From a biological standpoint, however, this doesn’t work as well.

Biology was one of the last of the “natural philosophies” to become a science. It was clear to those who studied chemistry and physics that certain principles seemed to explain the natural world, but those who studied living things were mostly involved in description. Still, biology has become a science in its own right. According to Ernst Mayr, one of the greatest biologists of the last century, a number of events preceded biology being recognized as a legitimate science. One vital event was the recognition that all biological processes were constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry. Another important step was the rejection of two erroneous principles: vitalism, and teleology. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Chiropractic – A Brief Overview, Part I

When patients ask me if a chiropractor can help them with their problem, I often think to myself, “OK, do I give them the short answer or the long answer?” The difficulty is often in the fact that chiropractic is a diverse profession and it is difficult to even characterize what a “typical” chiropractor is likely to do. As a chiropractor once admitted to me – there are a great many things that happen under the umbrella of “chiropractic.”

In this article I will summarize some of the history and practice of chiropractic, highlighting what I consider to be many of the enduring problems with this profession.

History

Chiropractic was founded in 1895 by Daniel David Palmer, a grocer with an intense interest in metaphysics. Prior to his “discovery” of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer was a magnetic healer. He also had interests in phrenology (diagnosing disease based on the bumps of the skull) and spiritualism. Palmer reported to have discovered the principle of chiropractic when he allegedly cured a janitor of his deafness by manipulating his neck. The fact that the nerve which conveys sound information from the ears to the brain does not pass through the neck did not seem to bother Palmer, if he was even aware of this fact.

Palmer created the term “chiropractic,” which literally means “done by hand,” to refer to his new therapy. He argued that all disease is caused by subluxated bones, which 95% of the time are spinal bones, and which disrupt the flow of innate intelligence. He did not subject his ideas to any form of research, but rather went directly to treating patients and to teaching his principles to the first generation of chiropractors.
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Posted in: Chiropractic

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Tactless About TACT: Critiques Without Substance Should Be Abandoned

In May 2008, the article “Why the NIH Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) Should Be Abandoned” was published online in the Medscape Journal of Medicine. The authors included two of our own SBM bloggers, Kimball Atwood and Wallace Sampson, along with Elizabeth Woeckner and Robert Baratz. It showed that the existing evidence on treating heart disease with IV chelation did not justify further study, and that the TACT trial was questionable on several ethical points. Their ethical concerns were taken seriously enough that enrollment in the trial was put on hold pending an investigation. It has now been re-opened after a few band-aids were applied to the ethical concerns. The scientific concerns were never addressed.

I have seen many critiques of the Atwood study, and not a single one has offered any cogent criticism of its factual content or reasoning. Most of them could have been written by someone who had not bothered to read beyond the title. Their arguments can be boiled down to a few puerile points that can be further simplified to:

(1) I believe the testimonial evidence that chelation works.
(2) Atwood and his co-authors are bad guys.

Now Beth Clay has chimed in with an article entitled “Study of Chelation Therapy Should Not Be Abandoned.” I found it truly painful to read, but even the worst has some value as a bad example. Clay’s article could be used for a game of “Count the Errors.” I will point out some of them below. (more…)

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

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Cranks, quacks, and peer review

Last week, I wrote one of my characteristically logorrheic meandering posts about what turns a scientist into a crank or a doctor into a quack. In a sort of continuation of this line of thinking, this week I’ll turn my attention to one of the other most common characteristics of a crank, be he scientific crank (i.e., a creationist), a quack, or historical crank (i.e., Holocaust deniers), specifically how he views the peer review system.

Not suprisingly, one of the favorite targets of pseudoscientists is, in fact, the peer review system. Indeed, it’s a very safe thing to say that, almost without exception, cranks really, really, really don’t like the peer review system for scientific journals and grant review. After all, it’s the system through which scientists submit their manuscripts describing their scientific findings or their grant proposals to their peers, and their peers make a judgment whether manuscripts are scientifically meritorious enough to be published and grant applications scientifically compelling enough to be funded. Creationists hate peer review. HIV/AIDS denialists hate it. Anti-vaccine cranks like those at Age of Autism hate it. Indeed, as a friend of mine, Mark Hoofnagle pointed out a couple of years ago, pseudoscientists and cranks of all stripes hate it. There’s a reason for that, of course, namely that vigorous peer review is a major part of science that keeps pseudoscientists from attaining the respectability that science possesses and that they crave so.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Naturopathic Prescribing: The Dark Side Beckons

I am a terrible Oregon chauvinist.  I think there is no better place to live on the planet. Period.  Great natural beauty, not a lot of people, best beer ever and no pro football team. Oregon is both casual and tolerant.  It is safe to say that dressing up in the Pacific NW means tucking your t shirt into your jeans.  And the citizens of the NW, especially in the Portland metro area, are tolerant of  a diverse number of alternative life styles. What more could you want?

No good deed goes unpunished. The downside of toleration is the proliferation of alternative medicine.  Portland has  a school of chiropractic, a college of oriental medicine and  the country’s oldest school of naturopathy, established in 1956.  It is a year older than me. There are about 850 ND’s in Oregon.  To judge from the number of alternative practitioner offices around my hospital,  most of the graduates stay in Portland.

There are five health care systems in Portland.   Three of the five have hired naturopaths as part of their complementary medicine programs.   My system, as of yet, does not have a scam practitioner on staff, a fact of which I am most proud.  Yet,  I suppose it will come some day. However, if you wonder if a hospital practices evidence and science based medicine, see if they have a naturopath, a chiropractor or an acupuncturist on staff.  If they do, they may be interested in issues other than providing quality health care.

Oregon has had a Board of Naturopathic physicians since 1929 to oversee naturopathic practice.  There has been a long tradition of legislative oversight of naturopathy in Oregon, but they have been able, until recently, to only prescribe medications that are naturally derived.  None of that synthetic nonsense for naturopaths. Natural products only.  Until this month.

In Oregon, naturopaths are no longer limited to natural, herbal and homeopathic concoctions, they can also prescribe substances that actually work.  Recently House Bill 327  was passed by the Oregon legislature to expand the prescriptive privileges of naturopaths.  Drugs can now be added to the naturopathic  formulary just by asking.  The bill was passed by the Senate 22-7 and the House unanimously.  Bummer. If you live in Oregon and want to pester your representative on their profound stupidity, a list is at  http://gov.oregonlive.com/bill/SB327/. Send them a link to this post.

As a shill for big pharma and a tool of the medical-industrial complex, I suggest this may not be such a  good idea.  Naturopaths do not have the training, experience  or understanding of medicine to safely prescribe medications. Their understanding of disease and the various therapies taught at naturopathic schools are antithetical to what is required to safely and knowledgeably  prescribe modern medications.
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Posted in: Legal, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Barriers To Adoption of Science-Based Medicine

I have a confession to make – it’s not easy keeping up with the other “Joneses” on this blog. My colleagues do a terrific job with thoroughly referenced analyses of key issues in medicine – and I sometimes struggle to think of topics that they haven’t already covered in more depth than I can. So today I asked my friends on Twitter if they had any suggestions for this week’s post.

One Twitter respondent asked me for my “perspective on the biggest barriers to better funding and adoption of science- based medicine.” As I contemplated that question, an experience leapt immediately to mind…

I attended a recent press conference held at a major Washington, DC think tank. An all-star cast was assembled, including Senator Baucus and Peter Orszag, to discuss the subject of comparative effectiveness research (CER). The most memorable part of the conference, however, was when one of the CER policy “experts” took the podium and actually said this (I’m going to paraphrase slightly):

The problem with science is that it’s too narrow. We’d have a lot more information to go on if we got rid of the narrow inclusion criteria in clinical trials. The exclusivity is not an irreversible flaw in the method – we just need to open up trials to larger groups of people of all kinds of different backgrounds so we can get better information.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation

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FDA Zicam Warning

On June 16th the FDA issued a warning advising consumers not to use Zicam Nasal Gel or Nasal Swabs because of reports that it can damage the sense of smell, a condition called anosmia. This event highlights some problems with current regulations of health products.

There have been 130 cases reported to the FDA of decreased sense of smell following the use of one of these Zicam products – sometimes after a single use, sometimes after repeated use.  All of these cases were reported by patients or their doctors; none were reported by the company, Matrixx Initiatives. According to reports, the FDA has asked Matrixx to turn over 800 consumer complaints regarding to Zicam. There is a 2007 law that requires company to report such complaints to the FDA, although the FDA has not said whether Matrixx violated this law.

Anosmia is a serious medical condition. The senses of smell is one of those things we take for granted until it is gone. People who lack a sense of smell cannot tell if milk has gone sour or if their food is bad. They cannot smell smoke to warn of a fire, nor can they smell a gas leak. The FDA fears that some of the cases of anosmia associated with Zicam use may be permanent.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation

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