Articles

An Herbal Cure for Peanut Allergy?

Peanut allergy is uncommon but devastating. Even a tiny trace of peanut can cause an anaphylactic reaction and death. That’s why labels specify “produced on shared equipment with nuts or peanuts” or “produced in a facility that also processes nuts.” There is no effective treatment: patients have to rely on avoiding peanuts and carrying emergency epinephrine injectors. Parents of peanut-allergic children live in fear that their child will be inadvertently exposed at school or at a friend’s house. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix it so they could eat peanuts with impunity?

There is a ray of hope. Studies are underway on a Chinese herbal medicine (FAHF-2) that shows promise. I generally shy away from Chinese herbal remedies, because they are marketed without adequate testing and the products are not quality controlled. The typical course of events is (1) a preliminary study or a history of use in China, (2) marketing in the U.S. with overblown claims.

This is different. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer!

Before I start into the meat of this post, I feel the need to emphasize, as strongly as I can, four things:

  1. I do not receive any funding from the telecommunications industry in general, or wireless phone companies in particular. None at all. In other words, I’m not in the pocket of “big mobile” any more than I am in the pocket of big pharma.
  2. I don’t own any stock in telecommunications companies, other than as parts of mutual funds in which my retirement funds are invested that purchase shares in many, many different companies, some of which may or may not be telecommunications companies. (I should probably go and look at the list.)
  3. None of my friends or family work for cell phone companies.
  4. I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I really don’t.

I say this because these are the most common accusations I hear whenever I venture into this particular topic area, and I thought I’d just clear that up right away in order (hopefully) to preempt any similar comments after this post. Indeed, one of the favorite retorts to anyone who criticizes fearmongering about cell phones is to try to insinuate that that person is only doing so because he or she is in the pocket of industry, and I’ve been at the receiving end of such claims. Unfortunately, I’m sure someone will probably show his or her lack of reading comprehension and post one of those very criticisms of me. It’s almost inevitable. Even though posting such disclaimers never works against the “pharma shill” gambit when I write about vaccines or dubious cancer cures, nonetheless hope springs eternal.

Now that that obligatory unpleasantness is out of the way, let me move on to say that I’m very puzzled about something that happened last week.

I know that being puzzled isn’t particularly unusual for me. Indeed, I’m frequently puzzled about a great many things. I can’t figure out how, for example, anyone with the slightest bit of reason or critical thinking ability can believe that homeopathy is anything other than water treated with, in essence, magical spells accompanied by shaking or do anything other than laugh when informed what homeopathy really is and how it supposedly “works.” I can’t figure out how anyone can look at the mass of interlocking evidence from multiple different scientific specialties supporting evolution and reject still reject one of the most powerful scientific theories ever to spring from the human mind, deciding instead that creationism or its bastard offspring, “intelligent design” creationism is anything more than pure religion or rank religion-inspired pseudoscience. I can’t figure out why American Idol or Survivor is so amazingly popular.

And I can’t figure out why on earth the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center released this warning about cell phones last week:

PITTSBURGH July 24, 2008, 07:13 am ET · The head of a prominent cancer research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff Wednesday: Limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.

The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that don’t find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children.

“Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later,” Herberman said.

Dr. Herberman is a highly respected cancer center director whom I’ve in general thought well of, and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute is a highly respected cancer center. I know a few people there, and in the past I’ve worked closely with two surgeons who trained there. One in particular remains my collaborator, even though I’ve moved on from the institution where we were once partners.

That’s why I can’t help but wonder just what on earth Dr. Herberman was smoking when he decided to issue this warning, given my general respect for the University of Pittsburgh to the point where I once even tried to land a faculty position there. His announcement strikes me as being rash in the extreme, especially given that its text even admits outright that the published data at present do not appear to support a link between cell phone use and brain tumors. Consequently, I conclude that this is alarmism that, I suspect, even a prominent blogger known to be somewhat receptive to the claim that cell phones cause brain tumors (Revere) would have a hard time supporting, because it goes far beyond the published evidence and is based on “early unpublished data.” Scaring the nation based on “early unpublished data” that can’t be examined by the entire medical and scientific community is generally not a good idea. That’s why I’ve been asking over the last few days: Why on earth did Dr. Herberman do it?
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 3: Implausible Claims and Formal Ethics Statements

The Ethics of Implausible Medical Claims (IMC)

In Part 2 of this series* we learned from David Katz, MD, a key member of the Yale School of Medicine’s “integrative medicine” program, that he had been “pushed toward integrative medicine by the needs of [his] patients.” We also learned that Dr. Katz’s rationale for this decision justifies a wide range of quackery—both in principle and in fact. I had previously alluded to arguments like those of Dr. Katz in a comment on SBM several months ago:

…we must be true to medical ethics, no matter what else we do. If that means losing a few patients, so be it. Patients are free agents, and we can only do so much to influence them. To the extent that we don’t do that as well as we might (which is obviously true in some cases), we might do better. But our ethical obligation is to science and truth; it is not, as many modern physicians would have it and as much as we may lament sometimes losing patients to woo, to seducing patients to stick with us no matter what, if the “what” includes engaging in a charade about “integration” or “complementary therapies”…

Realizing that some might argue that physicians’ obligations to patients ought to trump their obligations to “science and truth,” I later revised that statement:

Several weeks ago I argued here that a physician’s primary ethical obligation is to science and truth. In retrospect I probably should have put it a slightly different way: a physician’s primary ethical obligation is the same as everyone else’s. It is to honesty and integrity. For physicians, however, that means being true to real medical knowledge, among other things, and real medical knowledge comes from science.

In spite of that revision, two readers whose opinions I respect challenged my assertion. Dr. Peter Moran’s worthy efforts to educate patients about the realities of “alternative” cancer treatments are considerable. Here on SBM he has repeatedly challenged us to explain how, when confronted with testimonials of “alternative” cures, we ought to respond without using “a high-handed, ‘we know best’ stance” and thus “appear to want to distance [ourselves] from the intimate concerns of [our] patients.” I was thinking mainly of him when I wrote the revision above, because on this key topic—how to respond ethically, but with compassion, to patients who want to believe in implausible treatments—I’ve come to think of Dr. Moran as the “conscience” of Science-Based Medicine. Those with cancer, he has reminded us, “are folk very like you and me who are simply grasping at any straw that might save or prolong their lives.” His take on why IMCs are appealing to those with less ominous problems is well-developed and agrees with my own, mostly. We part ways, however, when he concludes (also here and here) that ethical physicians might have good reasons—unlike Dr. Katz’s—to entertain benign, if implausible treatments:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Parody beats political analysis

When out of town this past week I was bereft of tantalizing subjects, with our 5 other bloggers covering so many topics so well. I was about to toss in an empty towel, when two news absurdities fell into my driveway in the pages of the SF Chronicle. One was this morning’s (7/23) report that one Dragan Dabic, an alternative medicine healer had been captured in Belgrade, Serbia. He was Radovan Karadzic, former Serbian Prime Minister and acknowledged immediate archtect of the 1990s massacres of Bosnia-Herzagovena Muslims. Like Saddam Hussein, he had been a fugitive for years, and was found in an unusual place in an unusual disguise. What more need be said about this former psychiatrist and presumed war crimes mass murderer changing occupations in midlife to alternative healing? Complete with full beard and pony tail, yet. Does this give some clue to some personality types that drift toward junk medicine? One could say the disguise was intentional and had nothing to do with personality. Perhaps. Perhaps. But the situation reinforces my theory that most “CAM”mers are at least intellectual psychopaths – renegades from reason. The picture of Karadzic brings to mind pictures of others with full beards and hidden finger salutes to reason and authority.

The second absurdity was in a recent cartoon subtitled, “The lies behind the truth and the truth behind those lies that lie behind that truth…” So reads the title explanation for Don Asmussen’s “Bad Reporter” comic in the SF Chronicle.

Asmussen parodies headlines by combining them absurdly with commentaries that “explain” the absurd headlines with even more absurd hypothetical events. In these days of absurd happenings, I find Asmussen the right stuff remedy for us perplexed realists who “…cannot believe this is happening.” My mental health now depends on Asmussen and nighttime doses of Phil Hendrie Show. Nothing like satire to put into perspective interest in “alternative medicine” and qualifications and characteristics of presidential candidates.

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Posted in: Nutrition, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Autism and Vaccines: Responding to Poling and Kirby

In response to my NeuroLogica blog post on Monday, David Kirby wrote a response in the Huffington Post and Dr. Jon Poling (father of Hannah Poling) wrote an open letter to me, placed in the comment section and posted at Age of Autism. It seems only polite that I respond to their kind attention.The primary focus of my original post (which I further developed yesterday) was that the media is focusing too much attention on what celebrities and politicians are saying about the controversy surrounding the discredited notion that vaccines are a significant cause of autism. Over the past year Jenny McCarthy (now joined by her boyfriend Jim Carrey) has become the major spokesperson for a movement that, at its core, is anti-vaccine and is dedicated to the scientific opinion that vaccines are toxic and cause autism. Recently actress Amanda Peet joined the fray, professing her belief that vaccines are safe, are not associated with autism, and that parents who do not vaccinate their children are “parasites” for depending on other parents who do. (She later apologized for that remark, calling it “divisive”.)

While I appreciate Amanda Peet’s support, I feel strongly that scientific questions should be handled by the scientific community. Celebrities are great when they support causes – but when they second guess the scientific community and decide to advocate for their own scientific conclusions, they are more likely to cause harm than good. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Can Psychosis be Prevented?

I recently read an article in Discover magazine entitled “Stop the Madness.” It was about a new treatment program that allegedly can prevent schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. I found it very disturbing.

The PIER (Portland Identification and Early Referral) program was founded by a psychiatrist, Dr. William McFarlane, in Portland, Maine. It has recently expanded to 4 other US sites and there are similar programs in several other countries. PIER is an effort to find and treat patients in the “early stages of deterioration towards psychosis,” so as to prevent the development of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. The program involves various psychosocial interventions and psychotropic drugs.

On the surface it sounds promising, but there is a dark side. I’m particularly concerned about the use of antipsychotic drugs in people who haven’t been diagnosed as psychotic. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Resistance is futile? Hell, no! (A call to arms)

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

Gonna stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down

From “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, 1989

This week, in a little bit of a departure, I have a minor bone to pick with our fearless leader and his podcast partner in crime Rebecca Watson (a.k.a. the Skepchick), who both managed to annoy me a bit the other day. (Don’t worry, Steve and Rebecca, I still love you guys…)

I’ll explain. You see, I had originally had a much different topic in mind for this week. Indeed, I even had my post mostly written by Saturday morning, when I had to take care of some mundane personal business, namely getting an oil change and some minor work done on my car. Since I need my car to commute to work and the maintenance needed was relatively minor, I decided to wait for the work to be done. As is my wont when sitting in waiting rooms with nothing much else to do, I decided to plug my earphones into my iPhone and catch up on some podcasts. Since the dealer also had free wifi, I brought my laptop along as well, the better to finish up my originally intended post.

The first thing I realized as I perused the list of unlistened-to podcasts was that I had fallen far behind in listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. To begin catching up, I decided to start with what was at the time the most recently available episode, specifically the July 9 podcast, figuring I could work my way back to through the earlier ones and thereby catch up with at least two episodes before my car was ready. In the second segment (beginning around 14:31 minutes into the podcast), Steve Novella and crew discussed a bit the recent news that the National Institute of Mental Health was trying to resurrect a dubious and highly unethical clinical trial proposed to test chelation therapy as a treatment for autism, referencing his excellent post on this very blog about why the trial is scientifically dubious (at best) and totally unethical. So far, so good.

Then the conversation veered into another area that I agree with, namely the utter uselessness of National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and how its main purpose is more proselytization for “alternative” and “complementary” medicine than actual rigorous scientific research, as I pointed out before in one of my earliest posts for SBM. As Steve pointed out that, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by NCCAM, not a single new medicine or treatment has been added to the armamentarium of modern medicine, nor, even more importantly, have CAM practitioners abandoned a single bit of unscientific medicine due to any of the negative studies. Indeed, their enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened in the least. This line of discussion led to the question of whether we, as skeptics and advocates of science- and evidence-based medicine need to rethink and refocus our efforts.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 2: the Tortured Logic of David Katz

In Part 1 of this series* I asserted that a physician’s primary ethical responsibility is to honesty and integrity, which in turn must be largely based on science and reason (I apologize if that sounded preachy; if there had been more time I might have couched it in more congenial terms). I mentioned the fallacious reasoning whereby proponents of implausible medical claims (IMC) point to real and imagined weaknesses of modern medicine to justify their own agenda. I offered, as a favorite example of such proponents, science-based medicine’s having not yet solved every health problem. This week I’ll show how this version of the tu quoque fallacy has led a prestigious medical school to advocate pseudoscience-based medicine.

Modern Medicine: a Brief, Fragile Commitment to Science

First, a few more words about the title of this series. Modern medicine is not science, even if it draws upon science for its knowledge: it is an applied science similar, in that sense, to engineering. Modern medicine is also not synonymous with the “medical profession,” if the term means the collection of all people with MD degrees. That is true for the obvious reason that medicine is more than people, but also because a small but loud minority of MDs rejects modern medicine and science.

Modern medicine has made an uneven commitment to science and reason. At its best, it has formally embraced them in the faculties and curricula of medical schools, in its codes of ethics, and in its contributions to knowledge, both basic and applied, over the past 150 years or so. As discussed last week, it is because of science and reason that modern medicine has made dramatic, revolutionary advances in a very short time. That is what distinguishes it from every other “healing tradition,” and why there is no legitimate competition. The only valid medicine in the modern world is science-based medicine—not “allopathic,” “Western,” “conventional,” “regular,” “integrative,” “complementary and alternative,” or any of the so-called “whole medical systems.” The pre-scientific (and, ironically, “post-modern”) designation of “schools” or “systems” of medicine, so stridently trumpeted by quacks, is an anachronism—even if it persists in archaic, governmental edicts.

Compared to the actual sciences, however, modern medicine’s commitment to science is fragile. Its recent confusion of error-prone clinical trials with science itself—the project called “evidence-based medicine”—has been a mixed blessing. Its growing tolerance of charlatans and crackpots, at times elevating them to celebrity status, would be unthinkable in physics or biology. Its dalliances with quackery, so depressingly recounted in recent posts here, here, here, and here, are why your SBM bloggers do what we do. Biologists, other scientists, and intellectuals in general have joined the battle against the pseudoscientific travesty known as “intelligent design.” Many physicians, however, even of the brainy, academic variety, act as though the equally pseudoscientific but more dangerous travesty known as “integrative medicine” is either a good thing or, at least, is a necessary addition to medical school curricula.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Chiropractic and Stroke: Evaluation of One Paper

Do not trust the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you or I were going to be hanged.”
~ Oliver Cromwell

In the blogosphere, the proponents of chiropractic often quote the following paper, with the abstract:

Risk of Vertebrobasilar Stroke and Chiropractic Care
Results of a Population-Based Case-Control and Case-Crossover Study
Spine. 2008 Feb 15;33(4 Suppl):S176-83.
by Cassidy JD, Boyle E, Côté P, He Y, Hogg-Johnson S, Silver FL, Bondy SJ.
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Why be different? Here is the abstract.

STUDY DESIGN: Population-based, case-control and case-crossover study. OBJECTIVE: To investigate associations between chiropractic visits and vertebrobasilar artery (VBA) stroke and to contrast this with primary care physician (PCP) visits and VBA stroke.
SUMMARY OF BACKGROUND DATA: Chiropractic care is popular for neck pain and headache, but may increase the risk for VBA dissection and stroke. Neck pain and headache are common symptoms of VBA dissection, which commonly precedes VBA stroke.
METHODS: Cases included eligible incident VBA strokes admitted to Ontario hospitals from April 1, 1993 to March 31, 2002. Four controls were age and gender matched to each case. Case and control exposures to chiropractors and PCPs were determined from health billing records in the year before the stroke date. In the case-crossover analysis, cases acted as their own controls.
RESULTS: There were 818 VBA strokes hospitalized in a population of more than 100 million person-years. In those aged <45 years, cases were about three times more likely to see a chiropractor or a PCP before their stroke than controls. Results were similar in the case control and case crossover analyses. There was no increased association between chiropractic visits and VBA stroke in those older than 45 years. Positive associations were found between PCP visits and VBA stroke in all age groups. Practitioner visits billed for headache and neck complaints were highly associated with subsequent VBA stroke.
CONCLUSION: VBA stroke is a very rare event in the population. The increased risks of VBA stroke associated with chiropractic and PCP visits is likely due to patients with headache and neck pain from VBA dissection seeking care before their stroke. We found no evidence of excess risk of VBA stroke associated chiropractic care compared to primary care.

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Posted in: Chiropractic

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A Guide for Confronting Patients

I sometimes lecture on science-based medicine to my colleagues and one of the most common questions I get is how to deal with a patient who expresses belief in unscientific treatments. The dilemma for the physician is that professionalism requires that we do not confront patients regarding their personal beliefs. We are there to inform and advise, not preach. And yet proper medical care is often hampered by unscientific beliefs on the part of patients.

David wrote previously about a case he reviewed in which a woman with a very treatable early stage of breast cancer opted for “alternative” treatment rather than the standard treatment, which carries a > 93% good outcome. As a result her cancer progressed horribly – but she clung to belief in CAM despite its obvious failure in her case. This story highlighted the fact that giving patients proper medical advice sometime requires confronting their false beliefs.

Unscientific and bizarre medical practices are in vogue and are increasingly infiltrating the medical system through a combination of misguided political correctness, stealth, and apathy. This is exacerbating the dilemma for science-based practitioners who are caught between the imperative to do the right thing in accordance with evidence-based guidelines and the default respect for the patient and the desire to maintain a therapeutic relationship.

In my experience, however, these two goals do not have to be mutually exclusive. An uncompromising but non-judgmental approach works very well.

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Posted in: Medical Ethics

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