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Of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy, Bayes, the NIH, and Human Studies Ethics

An experiment is ethical or not at its inception; it does not become ethical post hoc—ends do not justify means.
~ Henry K. Beecher

tact

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Josephine Briggs, the Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), posted a short essay on the NCCAM Research Blog touting the results of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) (italics added):

The authors found that those receiving the active treatment clearly fared better than those receiving placebo. The accompanying editorial in the AHJ reminds readers about the value of equipoise and the need to “test our beliefs against evidence.”

Most physicians did not expect benefit from chelation treatment for cardiovascular disease. I readily admit, initially, I also did not expect we would find evidence that these treatments reduce heart attack, strokes, or death. So, the evidence of benefit coming from analyses of the TACT trial has been a surprise to many of us. The subgroup analyses are suggesting sizable benefit for diabetic patients—and also, importantly, no benefit for the non-diabetic patient. Clearly subgroup analyses, even if prespecified, do not give us the final answer. But it is also clear that more research is needed to test these important findings.

And TACT findings are indeed a reminder of the importance of retaining equipoise [sic], seeking further research aimed at replicating the findings, and neither accepting nor rejecting findings based on personal biases. The scientific process is designed to weed out our preconceived notions and replace them with evidence.

Dr. Briggs concluded:

So, TACT is a reminder—an open mind is at the center of the scientific method.

Dr. Briggs’s title was “Bayes’ Rule and Being Ready To Change Our Minds”, a reference to a recent editorial that had accompanied one of the TACT papers. That editorial, by Dr. Sanjay Kaul, a physician and statistician from UCLA, begins with this quotation:

Preconceived notions are the locks on the door to wisdom.
~ Merry Browne

Here is the relevant passage from Dr. Kaul’s editorial (italics added):

Sixth, it has been argued that the trial was unethical because there was no compelling clinical or preclinical evidence that chelation therapy has significant efficacy against atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, and given that chelation therapy can cause harm, the risk was not minimal. A Bayesian analysis would not look kindly on the results because of the low prior probability of treatment effect (the so-called implausibility argument).6 This is an uncharitable (and unwarranted) interpretation of the data because previous systematic reviews concluded, “insufficient evidence to decide on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of chelation therapy in improving clinical outcomes among people with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” It is axiomatic that absence of evidence of efficacy is not the same as evidence of the absence of efficacy.

From a Bayesian perspective, the strength of evidence is often summarized using a Bayes factor, which is a measure of how well 2 competing hypotheses (the null and the alternate) predict the data. The Bayes factor and the corresponding strength of evidence for the primary end point result in TACT overall, and diabetic cohorts are shown in Table 1. The p-value of 0.035 for TACT overall cohort translates into a Bayes factor of 0.108, which means the evidence supports the null hypothesis ≈1/9th as strongly as it does the alternative. This reduces the null probability from 50% pretrial (justified by suspension of one’s belief in treatment effect) to 10% post-trial. Although this does not represent strong evidence against the null, it does reduce the level of skepticism surrounding chelation therapy. In the diabetic cohort, the nominal p-value of 0.0002 translates into a Bayes factor of 0.002 (1/500), which reduces the extremely skeptical prior null probability of 95% to 4% post- trial, indicating very strong evidence against the null.

In concluding, Dr. Kaul states:

Finally, TACT highlights the double standard when it comes to accepting inconvenient results not aligned with our preconceived notions on so-called dubious quack cures such as chelation…

Closed minds?

Dr. Kaul’s reference “6” above is to a lengthy article that we published in 2008 titled “Why the NIH Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy Should Be Abandoned”. So, it seems, both Drs. Briggs and Kaul were chastising us for our biased, preconceived beliefs about so-called dubious quack cures. Our minds were, apparently, not open. Let’s examine this contention. (more…)

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What’s in a name?: NCCAM tries to polish a turd

turdpolish

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on its tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig.

You can paint a turd red, but it’s still a turd.

There’s a colloquial phrase commonly used to describe an effort to sell or promote something that is so inherently awful or at least so flawed as to be unsalvageable without either a radical rethinking or such a major overhaul that it would be impractical or impossible to do: Polishing a turd. In this, advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) have been very successful. Mark Crislip, in his usual inimitable fashion, just reminded us why CAM is a turd that needs polishing. Unfortunately, on Friday, I learned that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine unveiled a proposal to help it be more efficient in polishing the turd that is CAM through the clever use of language, and it wants your feedback. There were lots of other things that happened over the last few days that tempted me to write about them that will likely have to appear over at my not-so-secret other blog, but this one caught my attention and held it, given that it goes to the very heart of the deceptive use of language that is at the heart of giving CAM the appearance of legitimacy. In this specific case, NCCAM wants a new name. Dr. Briggs wants to rename NCCAM the National Center for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health (NCRCI). (I have no idea why the abbreviation of the proposed new center name isn’t NCRCIH.) Here’s Dr. Briggs explaining the rationale for the proposal and urging feedback by June 6 at http://nccam.nih.gov/about/offices/od/comments. I urge you to watch the whole video, or at least read the transcript:

Thus does Dr. Briggs propose polishing the turd that is NCCAM.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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The return of the revenge of high dose vitamin C for cancer

Somehow, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore—except that we are, as you will soon see.

Because I’m the resident cancer specialist on this blog, it usually falls on me to discuss the various bits of science, pseudoscience, and quackery that come up around the vast collection of diseases known collectively as “cancer.” I don’t mind, any more than my esteemed colleague Dr. Crislip minds discussing infectious diseases and, of course, vaccines, the most effective tool there is to prevent said infectious diseases. In any case, there are certain things that can happen during a week leading up to my Monday posting slot on SBM that are the equivalent of the Bat Signal. Call them the Cancer Signal, if you will. One of these happened last week, thus displacing that post I’ve been meaning to write on a particular topic once again. At this rate, I might just have to find a way to write an extra bonus post. But not this week.

In any case, this week’s Cancer Signal consisted of a series of articles and news reports with titles like:

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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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The result of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT): As underwhelming as expected

Chelation therapy.

It’s one of the most common quackeries out there, used by a wide variety of practitioners for a wide variety of ailments blamed on “heavy metal toxicity.” Chelation therapy, which involves using chemicals that can bind to the metal ions and allow them to be excreted by the kidneys, is actually standard therapy for certain types of acute heavy metal poisoning, such as iron overload due to transfusion, aluminum overload due to hemodialysis, copper toxicity due to Wilson’s disease, acute heavy metal toxicity, and a handful of other indications.

My personal interest in chelation therapy developed out of its use by unscrupulous practitioners who blamed autism on the mercury-containing thimerosal preservative that used to be in many childhood vaccines until 2001 but has since all but disappeared from such vaccines except for one vaccine (the flu vaccine, for which a thimerosal-free alternative is available) and in trace amounts in some other vaccines. Mercury became a convenient bogeyman to add to the list of “toxins” antivaccinationists hype in vaccines. In fact, my very first post after I introduced myself on this very blog discussed the idea that mercury in vaccines was a significant cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders, and I’ve periodically written about such things ever since, in particular the bad science of Mark and David Geier, whose idea that chemical castration of children with Lupron “works” against “mercury-induced” autism is based on a chemically ridiculous idea that somehow testosterone binds mercury and makes it harder to chelate. Unfortunately, this particular autism quackery has real consequences and has been responsible for the death of a child.

Chelation isn’t just for autism, however. Despite many practitioners advertising it for autism, cancer (often with dubious studies that I might have to take a look at), Alzheimer’s disease (which Hugh Fudenberg has blamed on the flu vaccine, a claim parroted by Bill Maher, of course!), and just about every ailment under the sun, it’s easy to forget that the original use for chelation therapy promoted by “alternative medicine” practitioners was for cardiovascular disease. When it is used for coronary artery disease or autism, on a strictly stoichiometric and pharmacological basis, it is extremely implausible. Moreover, it is not without potential complications, including renal damage and cardiac arrhythmias due to sudden drops in calcium levels. Such arrhythmias can and have led to death in children, and in adults complications such as renal failure and death.
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“Obama Promises $156 Million to Alzheimer’s…But where will the money come from?” That’s easy: the NCCAM!

The quoted language above is part of the headline of this story in today’s The Scientist:

Citing the rising tide of Americans with Alzheimer’s—projections suggest 10 million people will be afflicted by 2050—the Obama administration and top National Institutes of Health officials are taking action. On February 7, they announced that they will add an additional $80 million to the 2013 NIH budget for the Alzheimer’s research program.

The problem is that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch:

However, Richard Hodes, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, told Nature that the 2013 dollars still have to be approved by Congress in the next budget and, if not, existing programs may need to be cut. And this year’s $50 million is likely to bump other projects, perhaps at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. “If there’s a finite budget anywhere, once there’s more of something, there is less of something else,” he said.

Often such budget compromises are difficult, because there is no ready way to choose between two or more competing recipients of taxpayers’ money, each of which might be comparably worthy. Thus it is with a great sense of relief that in this case, we in the biomedical community can assure President Obama that no such dilemma exists. This is one of those occasional decisions that requires no hair-pulling whatsoever. The obvious solution is to defund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which, at about $130 million/yr, would solve the problem of funding Alzheimer’s research and take the heat off other worthy programs such as those mentioned by Richard Hodes.

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Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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NIH Director Francis Collins doesn’t understand the problem with CAM

As the sole cancer surgeon among our stable of Science-Based Medicine (SBM) bloggers, I’m probably the most irritated at the infiltration of pseudoscience into academia (or, as we sometimes like to call it, quackademic medicine) in the realm of cancer. Part of the reason, of course, is that cancer is so common and that the consequences of adding pseudoscience to cancer therapy are among the most devastating. Witness, for instance, the use of Gonzalez therapy to treat pancreatic cancer, a form of quackery that harms patients and resulted in incredibly unethical and disastrous clinical trial of Gonzalez quackery versus chemotherapy whose results were entirely predictable, given the lack of prior plausibility of the treatment: Gonzalez protocol patients did worse, with no evidence that the therapy impacted the natural history of the disease and the Gonzalez patients scoring lower on quality of life measures. Or look at what happens when patients with breast cancer choose quackery over science-based therapy.

I realize that “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, what quackademics like to call it now, “integrative medicine” (IM) is meant to refer to “integrating” alternative therapies into SBM or “complementing” SBM with a touch of the ol’ woo, but I could never manage to understand how “integrating” quackery with SBM would do anything but weaken the scientific foundation of medicine. Moreover, weakening those foundations would have more consequences than just “humanizing” medicine; weaker scientific standards would allow not just ancient quackery like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) into academia, but it would also provide an opening for drug and device companies to promote their wares under less rigorous requirements for evidence. There’s also perhaps a touch of personal embarrassment involved. After all, oncology and cancer surgery tend to be specialties that are the most steeped in science. If I had to rank specialties for how science-based they are, I’d certainly put oncology near the top, which is why I tend to come down so hard on “integrative oncology” and, even worse, “naturopathic oncology.”

Consequently, I was doubly disturbed several months ago when I learned that the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, had agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Eight International Society for Integrative Oncology Conference in Cleveland, OH. I say “doubly” disturbed because it disturbed me that Francis Collins would agree to speak at such a function and, perhaps even more, because the host institution was Case Western Reserve University, the institution where I both completed my surgery residency and my PhD in Physiology and Biophysics. Sadly, it now appears that my old stomping grounds at University Hospitals has been thoroughly infiltrated with quackademic medicine, as evidenced by this clinical trial of reiki for psoriasis that’s making the rounds of news services and the offering of acupuncture, reiki, and even reflexology at various UH facilities through the University Hospitals Connor Integrative Medicine Network. Let me tell you, there was none of this pseudoscience going on when I finished my residency there in 1996. Seeing it there now provokes a reaction in me not unlike Sylvester Junior’s reaction when his father Sylvester embarrasses him, particularly when I noted that the director of the CWRU Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Stanton L. Gerson, was to give one of the keynote talks, entitled, “The Future of Integrative Oncology.” (Hint for those of you not familiar with classic Looney Tunes cartoons: A paper bag is involved.) I guess that by expressing my extreme disappointment and embarrassment that the institution where I learned to become a surgeon has during the last 15 years gone woo, I’ve probably just killed any opportunity I might have to work at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center ever again. Oh, well, add it to the list, along with Beth Israel and my alma mater the University of Michigan.)

Back when I first learned about it, I thought about blogging the meeting, but without much concrete to go on, given the copious other SBM-related topics to blog about, all I could do was to write a critical open letter to Dr. Collins about his decision to accept the offer to be the keynote speaker at the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO). Then yesterday I saw popping up in my e-mail a notice from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), along with a link to a story in its publication The ASCO Post entitled NIH Director Calls for Rigorous Evaluation of Integrative Medicine to Provide Evidence of Efficacy.

Et tu, Dr. Collins?
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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

A Loose End

In the last post I wondered if Ted Kaptchuk, when he wrote the article titled “Effect of interpretive bias on clinical research,” had understood this implication of Bayes’s Theorem: that interpretations of most scientific investigations are exercises in inverse probability, and thus cannot logically be done without consideration of knowledge external to the investigation in question. I argued that if Kaptchuk had

…understood the point when he wrote his treatise, he was dishonest in not explaining it and in not citing at least one pertinent article, such as Steven Goodman’s (which I’m willing to bet he had read). If he didn’t understand the point he should have withheld his paper.

In researching more of Kaptchuk’s opinions I’ve discovered that he had certainly read Goodman’s article, but that he either didn’t understand it or preferred to obscure its implications in deference to his ongoing project in belittling scientific knowledge. In a letter to the editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2001, Kaptchuk opined that even if “more trials of distant healing with increased methodologic rigor” were positive, it still would not “be persuasive for the medical community”:

The situation resembles the predicament with homeopathy trials, another seemingly implausible intervention, where the evidence of multiple positive randomized, controlled trials will not convince the medical community of its validity. Additional positive trials of distant healing are only likely to further expose the fact that the underpinning of modern medicine is an unstable balance between British empiricism (in the tradition of Hume) and continental rationalism (in the tradition of Kant).

…It seems that the decision concerning acceptance of evidence (either in medicine or religion) ultimately reflects the beliefs of the person that exist before all arguments and observation. [Kaptchuk cites the second of the two Goodman articles that I referred to above, discussed here]

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.2: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (cont. again)

“Strong Medicine”: Ted Kaptchuk and the Powerful Placebo

At the beginning of the first edition of The Web that has no Weaver, published in 1983, author Ted Kaptchuk portended his eventual academic interest in the placebo:

A story is told in China about a peasant who had worked as a maintenance man in a newly established Western missionary hospital. When he retired to his remote home village, he took with him some hypodermic needles and lots of antibiotics. He put up a shingle, and whenever someone came to him with a fever, he injected the patient with the wonder drugs. A remarkable percentage of these people got well, despite the fact that this practitioner of Western medicine knew next to nothing about what he was doing. In the West today, much of what passes for Chinese medicine is not very different from the so-called Western medicine practiced by this Chinese peasant. Out of a complex medical system, only the bare essentials of acupuncture technique have reached the West. Patients often get well from such treatment because acupuncture, like Western antibiotics, is strong medicine.

Other than to wonder if Kaptchuk had watched too many cowboy ‘n’ Native American movies as a kid, when I first read that passage I barely blinked. Although the Chinese peasant may have occasionally treated someone infected with a bacterium susceptible to his antibiotic, most people will get well no matter what you do, because most illnesses are self-limited. Most people feel better even sooner if they think that someone with special expertise is taking care of them. If you want to call those phenomena the “placebo effect,” in the colloquial sense of the term, fine. That, I supposed, was what Kaptchuk meant by “strong medicine.”

Turns out I was mistaken. Let’s briefly follow Kaptchuk’s career path after 1983. In the 2000 edition of The Web, he wrote:

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.1: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (cont.)

Rave Reviews

In 1983, Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the recent “albuterol vs. placebo” article, and soon to become the long-time Second-in-Command of the Harvard Medical School “CAM” program, published The Web that Has No Weaver:

The book received rave reviews:

A major advance toward the synthesis of Western and Eastern theory. It will stimulate all practitioners to expand their understanding of the causes and treatment of disease.

–Paul Epstein, MD, Harvard Medical School

A lucid and penetrating exposition of the theory and practice of Chinese medicine. While the book’s rich detail makes it of great use to practicing healers, it is in its entirety very simply written, enjoyable reading for the layman…it brings a demystifying balance…Instructive, profound, and important!

Professor Martin Schwartz, University of California, Berkeley

…demystifies Oriental medicine in a remarkably rational analysis…

—Science Digest, Nov. 1982

…an encyclopedia of how to tell from the Eastern perspective ‘what is wrong.’

Larry Dossey

Dr. Kaptchuk has become a lyricist for the art of healing…

—Houston Chronicle

Although the book is explicitly detailed, it is readable and does not require previous knowledge of Chinese thought…

—Library Journal

The 2nd edition was published in 2000, to more acclaim:

…opens the great door of understanding to the profoundness of Chinese medicine.

—People’s Daily, Beijing, China

…weaves a picture…that is eminently understandable from a Westerner’s point of view…adds a valuable analysis of the current scientific understanding of how the therapies work and their effectiveness.

Brian Berman

Ted Kaptchuk’s book was inspirational in the development of my acupuncture practice and gave me a deep understanding of traditional Chinese medicine…

Dr. George T. Lewith

…a gift for all who share an interest in deep understanding of healing. This new edition is essential reading…

Michael Lerner, President, Commonweal

Even Edzard Ernst, still in his foggy period, called the 2nd edition “a brilliant synthesis of traditional and scientific knowledge…compulsory reading…”

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine

Background

This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word ”doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.

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