“Why do you bother blogging?” asked a colleague. “You take hours of your personal time to write, and you do it for free. You’re not even getting any citations for all that work.” I admit I found the questions a bit surprising. True, you won’t find SBM posts abstracted in PubMed. But I’m writing for an entirely different audience. I blog for the same reason that I became a pharmacist: To help people use medicines more effectively. Practicing as a pharmacist is one way to do that. In that setting, you’re helping one patient at a time. And seeing how your advice and support can enhance someone’s care is tremendously gratifying. I see blogging as another form of pharmacy practice, hopefully with similar effects. Yes I do get regular hate mail, and the occasional legal threat, but there’s also gratitude for a post that resonated with someone, or helped them make better decisions about their health. When Google searches don’t give answers, I get questions – too many to answer. Today’s post is based on a request for help from someone seeking advice on natural supplements to treat ringing in their ears. They have tinnitus, and they’re frustrated at the limits of what their physician (and medicine) can do. They sent me an advertisement for a supplement called Ear Tone, a natural health product which is advertised (and approved) to provide tinnitus relief. Can natural supplements do what conventional medicine cannot? (more…)
Even more interesting to me than the question of whether or not acupuncture is effective for any particular symptom is the meta-question of how acupuncture proponents have managed to promote a treatment with systematically terrible scientific data. A new study provides a fresh example of this, which I will discuss below.
I think the behavior of acupuncturists reflects the fact that there are subcultures within science, where each community has its own standards, culture, and typical practices. You see this reflected in how they conduct their research and support their claims. Chiropractors, for example, have what is in my opinion a very unscientific culture. Their treatments are not science-based; science is an afterthought cherry-picked to support what is ultimately their philosophy.
The culture of acupuncture
The world of acupuncture has its own culture as well. Within this world there are special, very permissive rules of science that allow acupuncture to work for almost anything. One trend is to look for anything that happens locally in the skin when you stick a needle into it and then declare that a “mechanism for acupuncture.” The rules of the acupuncture culture also allow for a shifting definition of what acupuncture actually is, allowing the definition to conform to whatever the evidence shows. It’s a neat and subtle trick that allows acupuncture proponents to completely subvert the purpose of science.
The “Hubbard protocol” is Scientology’s religion-based, pseudoscientific “detoxification” treatment used in its Narconon program to treat drug addiction. It was dreamed up by a science fiction writer with no medical training. Now it is being studied as a treatment for veterans suffering from Gulf War illness. Our limited public money for research is being wasted on a study with no scientific merit. Whether or not you consider this a church/state conflict, the study is clearly ill-advised.
The study: $600K worth of sweat
A description of the study is available online in the government’s clinical trials registry. The DOD funded this study to the tune of $633,677. The subjects are veterans with Gulf War illness characterized by persistent memory and concentration problems, headaches, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain. The illness has not been well defined, and its cause has not been determined; but the researchers are working on the assumption that toxins are the cause and that the treatment will relieve symptoms by removing toxins from the body.
The control group will get only “usual care.” The experimental group will get:
A four to six week regimen consisting of daily, supervised, mild-moderate exercise as tolerated for 20 minutes, supervised, intermittent Finnish saunas (at about 140’F) sauna time with breaks and showers, gradually increased as tolerated to approximately 4 hours, dietary supplements including immediate release niacin in gradually increasing doses from 100 mg to a maximum of 5000 mg per day, salt and water, other vitamins, minerals and oils per Hubbard protocol.
Here we go again with the whole “CDC Whistleblower” thing, this time with a book about the recorded conversations between Brian J. Hooker and William Thompson. Well, not the whole conversations, of course. If they were to release the whole conversations, we might get the truth, and the truth always gets in the way of the antivax crowd. Instead, we get an edited transcript of the conversations between those two in which, according to them and the book’s editors and authors, there is some sort of massive cover-up at all levels of science, government, and public health. What’s the cover-up? As usual, vaccines are evil and whatnot.
I’m not going to review the whole book for you because Dr. Gorski has already done so, and Dorit Reiss has discussed the legal aspects of what is discussed in the book. You can go read his review and/or Prof. Reiss’ analysis and then come back, or stay here and read what I have to say about the failed attempts at epidemiology from both BS Hooker and Thompson.
Let’s start by reviewing BS Hooker’s credentials. He is a bioengineer and chemical engineer, not an epidemiologist, despite what the author of the book wants you to believe:
With the publication of Kevin Barry’s Vaccine Whistleblower: Exposing Autism Research Fraud at the CDC, any claims of credibility for the CDC’s science has collapsed. Barry built his book upon four legally taped conversations between CDC senior vaccine safety scientist Dr. William Thompson and Simpson College professor and epidemiologist, Dr. Brian Hooker.
Later in the book, in the transcript of one of the conversations between BS Hooker and Thompson, BS gets a list of things he needs to do to earn an “honorary” degree in epidemiology. Among those things was to look at some of the earlier studies that Thompson had coauthored. And BS did. He would go on to write a flawed paper that I critiqued here and ended up being retracted, as I told you about here. That paper alone should tell you everything you need to know about BS Hooker’s epidemiological understanding, but the transcripts given to us by his camp in the form of the book really reveal his ignorance.
So let’s go through the calls we have transcripts for and pick at the epidemiological and biostatistical missteps that Thompson suggests for BS Hooker. (more…)
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I don’t review books that often. The reason is simple. My posts for this blog sometimes take as much as a several hours to write (particularly my more “epic” ones that surpass 5,000 words), and I usually don’t have the time to add several more hours to the task by reading an entire book. Also, by the time I’ve read a book I might want to review, weeks—or even months—have often passed, and a review is no longer of much interest to our readers anyway. Fortunately, Harriet does an admirable job of reviewing books for us.
Today, I’m making an exception for a book hot off the presses. The main reason is curiosity, because the book is about a topic that I’ve blogged about three times here and several times more for my not-so-super-secret other blog, and I really wanted to find out more about what was going on. I didn’t expect to find out what really happened, because I knew from the beginning that the book, Vaccine Whistleblower: Exposing Research Fraud at the CDC by an antivaccine lawyer named Kevin Barry, would be highly biased. However, as I found out a few weeks ago, the book promised four complete transcripts of telephone conversations between the “CDC whistleblower,” a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) psychologist named William W. Thompson who has been a co-investigator on important CDC studies since the late 1990s.
Given my rather public skepticism about the particulars of Thompson’s story, I was quite surprised when my request to Barry’s publicist for a review copy of Vaccine Whistleblower was enthusiastically answered in the affirmative, thus giving me time to read the e-book before it was released. I also sent a copy of the book to a law professor familiar with the saga, Dorit Reiss, to write a legal perspective (also being published on SBM today) which is why I will say little about this aspect of the book in my discussion. In addition, René Najera has examined the book from a statisticians’ standpoint.
This post addresses some legal issues raised in the Vaccine Whistleblower book. The first part explains whistleblower protections and how Dr. Thompson’s allegations fit into them. The second part addresses Dr. Thompson’s suggestion of an independent research agency. The third part explains why the book’s claim that school mandates violate international human rights is incorrect.
A note on the book: Chapters 1 is an executive summary of Chapters 2-5, the interview transcripts; Chapters 6-12 are the author Kevin Barry’s thoughts on what should be done. (Note that Dr. Gorski has also discussed this book from the perspective of the science.)
Prologue: to set the scene
The “Vaccine Whistleblower Book” has four transcripts of telephone conversations between William Thompson and Brian Hooker, recorded between May 1, 2014 and July 28, 2014.
Hooker has elsewhere stated that these conversations were only four of over thirty conversations between Thompson and Hooker. Hooker asserts these conversations began in November, 2013, and that Thompson initiated the conversations. It is not clear if these four recorded conversations were the only ones during that time frame, or what was discussed in the non-recorded conversations.
William Thompson was a co-author on a number of vaccine-safety studies published by the CDC. The most salient one for this discussion is (hereinafter DeStefano 2004):
DeStefano F, Bhasin TK, Thompson WW, Yeargin-Allsopp M, Boyle C. Age at first measles-mumps-rubella vaccination in children with autism and school-matched control subjects: a population-based study in metropolitan Atlanta. Pediatrics. 2004 Feb;113(2):259-66. PMID 14754936
It is not clear why Thompson became concerned enough to reach out in 2013 about a paper that had been published almost a decade previously.
I’ve written more times than I can remember about the phenomenon of overdiagnosis and the phenomenon that is linked at the hip with it, overtreatment. Overdiagnosis is a problem that arises when large populations of asymptomatic, apparently healthy people are screened for a disease or a condition, the idea being that catching the disease at an earlier stage in its progression will allow for more successful treatment. Two prominent examples include—of course—screening for breast cancer with mammography and screening for prostate cancer with prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing, and I’ve written about the problem of overdiagnosis with each of them on many occasions. Basically, overdiagnosis occurs when the screening test picks up what we call “preclinical” disease (i.e., disease that hasn’t become symptomatic) that, if left untreated, would never become symptomatic or endanger the health or life of the patient). Although intuitively, it seems to the lay public (and, truth be told, most doctors) that detecting cancer earlier must be inherently better, it turns out that it’s way more complicated than you think. There is a price to be paid for early diagnosis in the form of overtreatment of disease that doesn’t need treatment and for disease that is destined to threaten the life of the patient earlier treatment doesn’t always result in better outcomes. Also, whenever you screen for a condition in asymptomatic people, you will always—always—find much more of it, and the significance of those added diagnoses is not always clear, as a new study in JAMA Oncology shows.
DCIS and mammography: Some background
Before I get to the meat of the study, from my perspective, nowhere is the problem of overdiagnosis and overtreatment in cancer screening as pronounced than in the condition known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS is commonly referred to as “stage 0″ breast cancer and is characterized by milk duct cells that appear malignant but remain confined to the milk ducts. In other words, they haven’t invaded the tissue surrounding the ducts. In general, DCIS is treated similarly to breast cancer, with surgical excision, either by mastectomy or breast-conserving surgery, followed by radiation therapy if breast conserving surgery is used. Then, depending on its hormone receptor status, adjuvant treatment consists of blocking estrogen for five years. The rationale for this treatment is the view of DCIS as being a precursor to fully invasive breast cancer and that treating the DCIS will prevent the development of breast cancer. Over the last couple of decades, however, it has become clear that not all DCIS is created equal. Much of it will never progress to breast cancer in the lifetime of the woman (particularly if the woman is older, which means less time for fully malignant transformation to occur). Evidence suggesting this includes studies showing an increase in DCIS incidence by 16-fold since the 1970s, when mammography started to be introduced on a large scale, with little change in the incidence of invasive cancer. Today, 20-25% of mammography-detected breast cancer diagnoses are DCIS; forty years ago, DCIS was an uncommon diagnosis, except associated with an invasive cancer.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
– As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII
This summer my wife and I have been transitioning somewhere between stage 5 and 6. My eldest left Tuesday for law school in Boston and my youngest leaves for college next week in LA. So we will soon be empty nesters. As part of the change we have been making a point of going out, to dinners, bars, concerts and theater. (more…)
The Integrative Addiction Conference 2015 (“A New Era in Natural Treatment”) starts tomorrow in Myrtle Beach, SC. Medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, naturopaths and other health care providers will hear lectures on such subjects as “IV Therapies and Addiction Solutions,” given by Kenneth Proefrock, a naturopath whose Arizona Stem Cell Center specializes in autologous stem cell transplants derived from adipose tissue. Proefrock, who was disciplined for using prolotherapy in the cervical spine without proper credentialing in 2008, claims that stem cells treatments are an “incredibly versatile therapy” and uses them for variety of conditions, such as MS and viral diseases. At the same time, he admits that they are not FDA approved and he is not claiming they are effective for anything (and he’s right), which leads one to wonder why he employs them.
Proefrock also offers a typical naturopathic mish-mash of services, from oncology to urology to “naturopathic endocrinology,” and claims he specializes in treating influenza, high blood pressure and kidney stones, as well as addiction. In other words, he doesn’t seem to be the sort of expert you’d find speaking at a science-based conference on addiction medicine.
You’ll find similarly troubling bios of some of the other speakers, as well as dubious treatments for addiction, on the conference website. Here, for example, are speaker Giordano’s and Eidelman’s websites.
Dalal Akoury, MD, is the “Title Sponsor” of the conference and appears to be running the show. Although she is listed by the S.C. Board of Medicine as board certified in pediatrics, she is the founder of the “Integrative Addiction Institute” and runs the “AwareMed Health and Wellness Resource Center” in Myrtle Beach. Like the Arizona Stem Cell Center, it offers a range of treatments that defy categorization as any particular specialty: addiction recovery, “adrenal fatigue” treatment, stem cells, “anti-aging,” weight loss, “functional medicine” and “integrative cancer care“. Yet, only Akoury and one licensed practical nurse are on the staff of the Center. Again, it is questionable whether she is has sufficient qualifications in addiction medicine to run a conference on the subject. (more…)
Science functions best when it is free from any bias or conflict of interest. All those engaged in the process should value what is actually true more than anything else. Unfortunately, there are many sources of bias in science.
Researchers may want their pet theory to be supported. Journal editors want to publish research that will have a high impact. And of course, corporations would prefer that the results of scientific research favor their products and services. A recent round of editorials accuses the Coca-Cola company of trying to put its thumb on the scale of science in order to deflect attention away from sugary drinks as a source of obesity and overweight. What are they doing and what does the science actually say?
According to The New York Times:
The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.