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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 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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Revealed by the FDA: The results of the most recent inspection of the Burzynski Clinic

After posting the talks that Bob Blaskiewicz and I gave at TAM this year, I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve written about the topic of those talks, namely Stanislaw Burzynski, the Houston cancer doctor who inexplicably has been permitted to continue to administer an unproven cancer treatment to children with deadly brain cancers for nearly 37 years now. Beginning in 1977, when he left Baylor College of Medicine and opened up the Burzynski Clinic, Burzynski has administered a cancer therapy that he calls antineoplastons to patients. After nearly four decades and several dozen phase II clinical trials started, he has never published a completed phase II trial. The only evidence he’s published consists mainly of cell culture studies, case reports, and couple of preliminary reports of his phase II clinical trials. Of course, Burzynski’s lawyer, Richard Jaffe, even dismissively admitted that these clinical trials are designed solely to allow Burzynski to keep giving antineoplastons.

So Burzynski operated from the late 1990s until summer 2012, charging exorbitant “case management” fees to enroll patients in his clinical trials, working with a credulous filmmaker who wanted to make a movie about him—twice—and flouting regulations designed to protect human subjects involved in clinical trials. Meanwhile, he branched out to “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” which he promoted through Suzanne Somers; to AminoCare, which is basically antineoplastons sold as an antiaging nostrum (or, as Burzynski puts it, a “genetic solution to aging“); and to selling an orphan drug as a “prodrug” for antineoplastons.

So what happened in the summer of 2012? Apparently, there was a treatment-related death of a child, which led the FDA to issue a partial clinical hold on the Burzynski Clinic that prevented him from enrolling any new children on his clinical trials, although he could keep treating existing patients and enroll new adult patients. That partial clinical hold was extended to adults in January 2013, at which time the FDA arrived at the Burzynski Clinic to investigate. It was an event that was included at the tail end of Eric Merola’s second propaganda film about Stanislaw Burzynski and represented as, in essence, jackbooted fascists trying to keep the cure for cancer from The People. None of this stops credulous reporters from writing misleading articles with titles like Young mother with brain cancer given just a year to live BEATS the disease and gets married after having controversial treatment in the US, which is a story about Laura Hymas, a woman whose good fortune is most likely not due to Burzynski. Not long before that, there was another credulous article featuring another Burzynski patient, Hannah Bradley, as one of four patients treated for cancer with alternative therapies who are allegedly doing well. Again, Hannah Bradley’s good fortune is highly unlikely to be due to Burzynski’s nostrums.

All of this is why those of us who follow Burzynski have been waiting with the proverbial bated breath to find out what the FDA concluded. Just before the government shutdown the first shoe dropped, when the FDA released a warning letter to the Burzynski Research Institute (BRI). Then last week, the second shoe dropped, when the FDA released the original forms describing its findings regarding the inspection. The findings are, to put it mildly, damning in the extreme. In fact, now, more than ever, I wonder how on earth Burzynski has been allowed to continue to run clinical trials—or even practice—for so long. The findings include massive deficiencies in the Burzynski institutional review board (IRB), the committee responsible for making sure that regulations designed to protect human subjects in research are adhered to.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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The difference between science-based medicine and CAM

“Alternative medicine,” so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or, as it’s become fashionable to call it, “integrative medicine” is a set of medical practices that are far more based on belief than science. As Mark Crislip so pointedly reminded us last week, CAM is far more akin to religion than science-based medicine (SBM). However, as I’ve discussed more times than I can remember over the years, both here and at my not-so-super-secret-other blog, CAM practitioners and advocates, despite practicing what is in reality mostly pseudoscience-based medicine, crave the imprimatur that science can provide, the respect that science has. That is why, no matter how scientifically implausible the treatment, CAM practitioners try to tart it up with science. I say “tart it up” because they aren’t really providing a scientific basis for their favored quackery. In reality, what they are doing is choosing science-y words and using them as explanations without actually demonstrating that these words have anything to do with how their favored CAM works.

A more important fundamental difference between CAM and real medicine is that CAM practices are not rejected based on evidence. Basically, they never go away. Take homeopathy, for example. (Please!) It’s the ultimate chameleon. Even 160 years ago, it was obvious from a scientific point of view that homeopathy was nonsense and that diluting something doesn’t make it stronger. When it became undeniable that this was the case, through the power of actually knowing Avogadro’s number, homeopaths were undeterred. They concocted amazing explanations of how homeopathy “works” by claiming that water has “memory.” It supposedly “remembers” the substances with which it’s been in contact and transmits that “information” to the patient. No one’s ever been able to explain to me why transmitting the “information” from a supposed memory of water is better than the information from the real drug or substance itself, but that’s just my old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, scientific nature being old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, and scientific. Then, of course, there’s the term “quantum,” which has been so widely abused by Deepak Chopra, his acolytes, and the CAM community in general, while the new CAM buzzword these days to explain why quackery “works” is epigenetics. Basically, whenever a proponent of alternative medicine uses the word “epigenetics” or “quantum” to explain how an alternative medicine treatment “works,” what he really means is, “It’s magic.” This is a near-universal truth, and even the most superficial probing of such justifications will virtually always reveal magical thinking combined with an utter ignorance of the science of quantum mechanics or epigenetics.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Homeopathy, Medical Academia

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Do clinical trials work? It depends on what you mean by “work”

Introduction

(Skip to the next section if you want to miss the self-referential blather about TAM.)

As I write this, I’m winging my way home from TAM, crammed uncomfortably—very uncomfortably—in a window seat in steerage—I mean, coach). I had been thinking of just rerunning a post and having done with it, sleeping the flight away, to arrive tanned, rested, and ready to continue the battle against pseudoscience and quackery at home, but this seat is just too damned uncomfortable. So I might as well use the three and a half hours or so left on this flight to write something. If this post ends abruptly, it will be because I’ve run out of time and a flight attendant is telling me to shut down my computer in those cloyingly polite but simultaneously imperious voices that they all seem to have.

I had thought of simply recounting the adventures of the SBM crew who did make it out to TAM to give talks at workshops and the main stage and to be on panels, but that seems too easy. Even easier, I could simply post my slides online. But, no, how on earth can I reasonably expect Mark Crislip to post while he’s at TAM if I’m too frikkin’ lazy to follow suit? I’m supposed to lead by example, right, even if what comes out is nearly as riddled with spelling and grammar errors (not to mention the occasional incoherent sentence) as a Mark Crislip post? Example or not, lazy or not, I would be remiss if, before delving into the topic of today’s post, I didn’t praise my fellow SBM bloggers who were with me, namely Steve Novella, Harriet Hall, and Mark Crislip, for their excellent talks and insightful analysis. Ditto Bob Blaskiewicz, with whom I tag-teamed a talk on everybody’s favorite cancer “researcher” and doctor, Stanislaw Burzynski. It’ll be fun to see the reaction of Eric Merola and all the other Burzynski sycophants, toadies, and lackeys when Bob’s and my talks finally hit YouTube. Sadly, we’ll have to wait several weeks for that. (Hmmm. Maybe I will post those slides later this week.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials

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BBC Panorama investigates Stanislaw Burzynski

Last week, I reviewed a long-expected (and, to some extent, long-dreaded) documentary by Eric Merola, a filmmaker whose talent is inversely proportional to his yen for conspiracy, pseudoscience, and quackery. Through a quirk of fate that couldn’t have worked out better if I had planned it myself, a long-expected investigation of the Burzynski Clinic by the BBC aired on its venerable news program Panorama last Monday. It was entitled, appropriately enough, Cancer: Hope for Sale? Ever since learning that the BBC was working on this back in January or February, skeptics have been looking forward to it with a mixture of anticipation and dread, anticipation because we expected that the Panorama crew would “get it” (in the interests of full disclosure, I will mention that I was interviewed over the phone by a Panorama producer and exchanged e-mails to answer questions and suggestions), but a bit of dread because we feared the bane of all news reporting on issues of science and medicine: false balance.

So now that the report was finally aired, how was it? You can either watch it on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK) or on YouTube (if you’re not, assuming it’s still there):

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

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Stanislaw Burzynski: A deceptive propaganda movie versus an upcoming news report

Well, I’ve finally seen it, and it was even worse than I had feared.

After having heard of Eric Merola’s plan to make a sequel to his 2010 propaganda “documentary” about Stanislaw Burzynski, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business, which I labeled a bad movie, bad medicine, and bad PR, I’ve finally actually seen the finished product, such as it is. Of course, during the months between when Eric Merola first offered me an “opportunity” to appear in the sequel based on my intense criticism of Burzynski’s science, abuse of the clinical trials process, and human subjects research ethics during the last 18 months or so, there has been intense speculation about what this movie would contain, particularly given how Merola’s publicity campaign involved demonizing skeptics, now rechristened by Merola as “The Skeptics,” a shadowy cabal of people apparently dedicated (according to Merola) to protecting big pharma and making sure that patients with deadly cancers don’t have access to Burzynski’s magic peptides, presumably cackling all the way to the bank to cash those big pharma checks.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s antineoplastons versus patients

Prelude: Doin’ the Antineoplaston Boogaloo with Eric Merola and Stanislaw Burzynski

In December I noted that Eric Merola, the “film maker” (and, given the quality of his work, I do use that term loosely) who was responsible for a movie that was such blatant propaganda that it would make Leni Riefenstahl blush were she still alive (Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business, in case anyone’s interested), was planning on releasing another propaganda “documentary” about Stanislaw Burzynski later this year. Merola decided to call it Burzynski: Cancer Is Serious Business, Chapter 2 | A Modern Story. Wondering what it is with Merola and the multiple subtitles, I had been hoping he would call the Burzynski sequel something like Burzynski The Movie II: This Time It’s Peer-Reviewed (except that it’s still not, not really, and I can’t take credit for that joke, as much as I wish I could) or Burzynski The Movie II: Even Burzynskier Than The First, or Burzynski The Movie II: Burzynski Harder. Mercifully, I doubt even Merola would call the film Burzynski II: Antineoplaston Boogaloo. (If you don’t get this last joke because you are either not from the US or are too young to remember, check out the Urban Dictionary.)

In any case, Merola named the sequel what he named it, and we can all look forward to yet another propaganda film chock full of conspiracy theories in which the FDA, Texas Medical Board, National Cancer Institute, and, for all I know, the CIA, FBI, and NSA are all out to get Merola’s heroic “brave maverick doctor,” along with a website full of a “sourced transcript” to be used by Burzynski minions and shills everywhere to attack any skeptic who dares to speak out. The only good thing about it, if you can call it that, is that I’m guaranteed material for at least one juicy blog post, at least as long as I can find a copy of Burzysnki II online, as I was able to do with Burzynski I, thanks to Mike Adams at NaturalNews.com and other “alternative sites” that were allowed to show the whole movie for a week or so before folks like Joe Mercola were allowed to feature the complete film on their websites indefinitely.

Maybe Eric Merola will send me a DVD review copy when the movie is released. Or maybe not.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials

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It’s time for true transparency of clinical trials data

What makes a health professional science-based? We advocate for evaluations of treatments, and treatment decisions, based on the best research methods. We compile evidence based on fair trials that minimize the risks of bias. And, importantly, we consider this evidence in the context of the plausibility of the treatment. The fact is, it’s actually not that hard to get a positive result in a trial, especially when it’s sloppily done or biased.  And there are many ways to design a trial to demonstrate positive results in some subgroup, as Kimball Atwood pointed out earlier this week. And even when a trial is well done, there remains the risk of error simply due to chance alone. So to sort out true treatment effects, from fake effects, two key steps are helpful in reviewing the evidence.

1. Take prior probability into account when assessing data. While a detailed explanation of Bayes Theorem could take several posts, consider prior probability this way: Any test has flaws and limitations. Tests give probabilities based on the test method itself, not on what is being tested. Consequently, in order to evaluate the probability of “x” given a test result, we must incorporate the pre-test probability of “x”. Bayesian analysis uses any existing data, plus the data collected in the test, to give a prediction that factors in prior probabilities. It’s part of the reason why most published research findings are false.

2. Use systematic reviews to evaluate all the evidence. The best way to answer a specific clinical question is to collect all the potentially relevant information in a structured way, consider its quality, analyze it according to predetermined criteria, and then draw conclusions. A systematic review reduces the risk of cherry picking and author bias, compared to non-systematic data-collection or general literature reviews of evidence. A well-conducted systematic review will give us an answer based on the totality of evidence available, and is the best possible answer for a given question.

These two steps are critically important, and so have been discussed repeatedly by the contributors to this blog. What is obvious, but perhaps not as well understood, is how our reviews can still be significantly flawed, despite best efforts. In order for our evaluation to accurately consider prior probability, and to be systematic, we need all the evidence. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible if clinical trials remains unpublished or are otherwise inaccessible. There is good evidence to show that negative studies are less likely to be published than positive studies. Sometimes called the “file drawer” effect, it’s not solely the fault of investigators, as journals seeking positive results may decline to publish negative studies. But unless these studies are found, systematic reviews are more likely to miss negative data, which means there’s the risk of bias in favor of an intervention. How bad is the problem? We really have no complete way to know, for any particular clinical question, just how much is missing or buried. This is a problem that has confounded researchers and authors of systematic reviews for decades. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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News flash! Doctors aren’t all compliant pharma drones!

There’s an oft-quoted saying that’s become a bit of a cliché among skeptics that goes something like this: There are two kinds of medicine: medicine that’s been proven scientifically to work, and medicine that hasn’t. This is then often followed up with a rhetorical question and its answer: What do call “alternative medicine” that’s been proven to work? Medicine. Of course, being the kind of guy that I am, I have to make it a bit more complicated than that while driving home in essence the same message. In my hands, the way this argument goes is that the whole concept of “alternative” medicine is a false dichotomy. There is no such thing. In reality, there are three kinds of medicine: Medicine that has been shown to efficacious and safe (i.e., shown to work); medicine that has not yet been shown to work (i.e., that is unproven); and medicine that has been shown not to work (i.e., that is disproven). So-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM or, its newer, shinier name, “integrative medicine”) consists almost completely of the latter two categories.

Part of the reason why this saying and its variants have become so commonplace among those of us who support science-based medicine is that they strike at a common truth about medicine, both science-based and “alternative.” That common truth is what we here at SBM have been arguing since the very inception of this blog, namely that there must be one science-based standard of evidence for all treatments, be they “alternative” or the latest creation of big pharma. That point informs everything I write here and everything my blogging parters in crime write about too. What that means is a single, clear set of standards for evaluating medical evidence, in which clinical evidence is coupled to basic science and scientific plausibility. Indeed, one of our main complaints against CAM and its supporters has been how they invoke a double standard, in which they expect their therapies to be accepted as “working” on the basis of a much lower standard of evidence. Indeed, when they see high quality clinical trials demonstrating that, for example, acupuncture doesn’t work, they will frequently advocate the use of “pragmatic” trials, lower quality trials of “real world effectiveness” that do not adequately control for placebo effects. It’s putting the cart before the horse.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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