There is something in molecular biology and genetics known as the “central dogma.” I must admit, I’ve always hated the use of the word “dogma” associated with science, but no less a luminary than Francis Crick first stated it in 1958, and it has been restated over the years in various ways. Perhaps my favorite version of the central dogma was succinctly stated by Marshall Nirenberg, who said, “DNA makes RNA makes protein,” which about sums up all of molecular biology in five words. Or at least it did until the last ten or twenty years, when we’ve been finding exceptions to this dogma.
I don’t want to dwell on the central dogma. As I’ve said, I loathe the use of the term “dogma” to describe anything in science, although a discussion of the central dogma and its exceptions might make for a decent post one day. What brought the central dogma to mind is a series of articles I saw recently in ONCOLOGY: Perspectives on Best Practices that let me to ponder the question: What is the “central dogma” of “alternative medicine”? I realize that alt-med is an unwieldy gmish of ideas that range from the semi-plausible but unproven to the completely ridiculous (i.e., homeopathy or reiki), but after reading these articles and thinking about it, I do believe that there is in actuality a “central dogma” of alternative medicine. I also believe that it is entirely appropriate to call it a “dogma” in this situation, because it is far more a matter of faith than it is of science. Moreover, the more that quackademic medicine infiltrates academic medicine, the more this “central dogma” has infiltrated academic medicine with it. Indeed, as you will see, when this central dogma is questioned, even by someone sympathetic to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM; i.e., “complementing” medicine with quackery) or “integrative medicine” (i.e., the “integration” of pseudoscientific medicine with medicine).
There are certain topics in Science-Based Medicine (or, in this case, considering the difference between SBM and quackery) that keep recurring over and over. One of these, which is of particular interest to me because I am a cancer surgeon specializing in breast cancer, is the issue of alternative medicine use for cancer therapy. Yesterday, I posted a link to an interview that I did for Uprising Radio that aired on KPFK 90.7 Los Angeles. My original intent was to do a followup post about how that interview came about and to discuss the Gerson therapy, a particularly pernicious and persistent form of quackery. However, it occurred to me as I began to write the article that it would be better to wait a week. The reason is that part of how this interview came about involved three movies, one of which I’ve seen and reviewed before, two of which I have not. In other words, there appears to be a concerted effort to promote the Gerson therapy more than ever before, and it seems to be bearing fruit. In order to give you, our readers, the best discussion possible, I felt it was essential to watch the other two movies. So discussion of the Gerson protocol will have to wait a week or two.
In the meantime, there’s something else that’s been eating me. Whether it’s confirmation bias or something else, whenever something’s been bugging me it’s usually not long before I find a paper or online source to discuss it. In this case, it’s the issue of why scientific studies are reported so badly in the press. It’s a common theme, one that’s popped upon SBM time and time again. Why are medical and scientific studies reported so badly in the lay press? Some would argue that it has something to do with the decline of old-fashioned dead tree media. With content all moving online and newspapers, magazines, and other media are struggling to find a way to provide content (which Internet users have come to expect to be free online) and still make a profit. The result has been the decline of specialized journalists, such as science and medical writers. That’s too easy of an answer, though. As is usually the case, things are a bit more complicated. More importantly, we in academia need to take our share of the blame. A few months ago, Lisa Schwartz and colleagues (the same Lisa Schwartz who with Steven Woloshin at Dartmouth University co-authored an editorial criticizing the Susan G. Komen Foundation for having used an inappropriate measure in one of its ads) actually attempted to look at how much we as an academic community might be responsible for bad reporting of new scientific findings by examining the relationship between the quality of press releases issued by medical journals to describe research findings by their physicians and scientists and the subsequent media reports of those very same findings. The CliffsNotes version of their findings is that we have a problem in academia, and our hands are not entirely clean of the taint of misleading and exaggerated reporting. The version as reported by Schwartz et al in their article published in BMJ entitled Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study. It’s an article I can’t believe I missed when it came out earlier this year.
Every so often I get requests to be interviewed on the radio about skeptical topics. Now, why anyone would ever want to interview me, who knows? But they do, and when I can manage to accommodate reporters or interviewers, I do. Last week, I was interviewed on Uprising Radio, in which I discussed alternative medicine (particularly the Gerson therapy for cancer). My segment is around 10 or 15 minutes, and I invite SBM readers to take a listen. I’m afraid I might have been a bit “strident” in my dismissal of various bits of quackery for some. Whether I was too “strident” or not, the interview request came about in response to another radio personality on the same radio station shilling for the Gerson therapy, which reminds me. Perhaps I should revisit Max Gerson; for some reason there appears to be a flurry of promotion of that hoary old quackery. Stay tuned on Monday to see if that’s what I decide to blog about. 🙂
One issue that keeps coming up time and time again for me is the issue of screening for cancer. Because I’m primarily a breast cancer surgeon in my clinical life, that means mammography, although many of the same issues come up time and time again in discussions of using prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening for prostate cancer. Over time, my position regarding how to screen and when to screen has vacillated—er, um, evolved, yeah, that’s it—in response to new evidence, although the core, including my conclusion that women should definitely be screened beginning at age 50 and that it’s probably also a good idea to begin at age 40 but less frequently during that decade, has never changed. What does change is how strongly I feel about screening before 50.
My changes in emphasis and conclusions regarding screening mammography derive from my reading of the latest scientific and clinical evidence, but it’s more than just evidence that is in play here. Mammography, perhaps more than screening for any disease, is affected by more than just science. Policies regarding mammographic screening are also based on value judgments, politics, and awareness and advocacy campaigns going back decades. To some extent, this is true of many common diseases (i.e., that whether and how to screen for them are about more than just science), but in breast cancer arguably these issues are more intense. Add to that the seemingly eternal conflict between science and medicine communication, in which a simple message, repeated over and over, is required to get through, versus the messy science that tells us that the benefits of mammography are confounded by issues such as lead time and length bias that make it difficult indeed to tell if mammography—or any screening test for cancer, for that matter—saves lives and, if it does, how many. Part of the problem is that mammography tends to detect preferentially the very tumors that are less likely to be deadly, and it’s not surprising that periodically what I like to call the “mammography wars” heat up. This is not a new issue, but rather a controversy that flares up periodically. Usually this is a good thing.
And these wars just just heated up a little bit again late last week.
Dying of cancer can be a horrible way to go, but as a cancer specialist I sometimes forget that there are diseases that are equally, if not more, horrible. One that always comes to mind is amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a motor neuron disease whose clinical course is characterized by progressive weakness, muscle atrophy and spasticity, with ultimate progression to respiratory muscles leading to difficulty breathing and speaking (dysarthria) and to the muscles controlling swallowing. The rate of clinical course is variable, often beginning with muscle twitching in an arm or a leg or slurring of speech. Ultimately, however, ALS progresses to the loss of ability to move, speak, eat, or breathe. The most common cause of death is from respiratory failure, usually within three to five years after diagnosis, although there is the occasional outlier with a less malignant form of the disease with a slower course of progression who can live a long time, such as Steven Hawking.
In other words, ALS is a lot like cancer in some ways. It is a progressive, fatal disease that usually kills within a few years at most. On the other hand, it is different from cancer in that, at least for many cancers we actually do have effective treatments that prolong life, in some cases indefinitely. In contrast the most effective treatment we currently have for ALS is a drug (riluzole) that is not particularly effective—it prolongs life by months—and can be best described as better than nothing, but not by a whole lot. So it is not surprising that ALS patients, like cancer patients, become desperate and willing to try anything. This is completely understandable, but sometimes this desperation leads to activities that are far more likely to do harm than good. I was reminded of this when I came across a post in the antivaccine propaganda blog, Age of Autism, referring to an article in The Scientist entitled Medical Mavericks. The fortuitous posting of this story, which was apparently designed to try to show that it’s not as crazy as critics have said to be treating autistic children with “Miracle Mineral Solution” (MMS) (which is a bleach) given that the introduction explicitly mentioned Kerri Rivera and the patient described in the article used sodium chlorite to treat his ALS, provided me the opening to discuss a group whose existence and advocacy brings up a complex tangle of issues that boil down to questions of how far patient autonomy should be allowed to go. I’m referring to a company, PatientsLikeMe, which describes itself thusly:
“Targeted therapy.” It’s the holy grail of cancer research these days. If you listen to its most vocal proponents, it’s the path towards “personalized medicine” that improves survival with much lower toxicity. With the advent of the revolution in genomics that has transformed cancer research over the last decade, including the petabytes of sequence and gene expression data that pour out of universities and research institutes, the promise of one day being able to a patient’s tumor, determining the specific derangements in genome and gene expression that drive its uncontrolled proliferation, and finding drugs to target these abnormalities seems more tantalizingly close than ever. Indeed, it seems so close that even dubious practitioners, such as Stanislaw Burzynski, have jumped on the bandwagon, co-opting the terms used by real oncologists and real cancer researchers to sell “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” which in their hands are really no more than a parody of efforts to synthesize the enormous quantity of genomic data each patient’s tumor possesses and figure out how best to take advantage of it, a “personalized genomic therapy for dummies,” if you will.
That’s not to say that there aren’t roadblocks to realizing this vision. The problems to be overcome are substantial, and I’ve discussed them multiple times before. For example, just a couple of weeks ago I discussed an example of just what it takes to apply these new genomic techniques to an individual patient. The resources required are staggering, and, more problematic, there often aren’t any single “magic bullet” molecular pathways identified that can be targeted with existing drugs. The case I discussed was a fortunate man indeed in that such a pathway was identified, but most tumors are driven by many derangements in growth control, metabolism, migration, and the other hallmarks of malignancy described by Robert Weinberg. Worse, in many cases we don’t even have drugs that can attack many of the abnormalities that drive cancer progression. Then there’s the issue of tumor heterogeneity, which comes about because cancer is as good example of a disease as I can think of in which evolution due to natural selection results in incredible differences in the cancer cells in one part of the tumor compared to other parts of the tumor or in the tumor metastases. A “targeted” therapy that targets the genetic abnormalities in one part of the cancer might well fail to target the genetic abnormalities driving another part of the tumor.
These, and many other reasons, are why we haven’t “cured cancer” yet.
Earlier today, I gave you the blow-by-blow description of a debate that occurred on Thursday between Dr. Steve Novella and Dr. Julian Whitaker. After that debate, I got an opportunity to “discuss” one of Dr. Whitaker’s points, specifically a scientifically illiterate graph that he had constructed. Because Dave Patton was there doing photography of the event for Michael Shermer, I suggested that we do a picture, even though Dr. Whitaker was still on the podium. The picture came out…well, differently than I had expected. Looking at it again, though, I see that this is a perfect picture to have a little fun with, so I’m going to. Let’s have our SBM readers do something we haven’t done before on this blog. It’s a little thing called “Caption This.” In the comments, I’d like to see what sort of caption you think to be appropriate for this photo.
Have fun, and if I like any of them particularly well, I might add them to the picture and post them here and on Facebook.
Posted in: Humor, Vaccines
I’ve just returned from TAM, along with Steve Novella and Harriet Hall. While there, we joined up with Rachael Dunlop to do what has become a yearly feature of TAM, the Science-Based Medicine workshop, as well as a panel discussion on one of our favorite subjects, “integrative” medicine. Between it all, I did the usual TAM thing, meeting up with old friends, taking in some talks, and, of course, spending the evenings imbibing more alcohol than I probably should have so that I could look and feel my best for our morning sessions, particularly given my difficulty adapting to the time change. One thing I did was completely unexpected, something I learned about the night before our workshop when I happened to run into Evan Bernstein. He informed me of something that our fearless leader Steve Novella was going to do the next day right after our workshop. In a nutshell, Evan told me that Steve was going to debate an antivaccinationist. Evan didn’t know any details other than that Michael Shermer had arranged it and that Steve had been tapped at the last minute. Evan didn’t even know who the antivaccinationist was going to be or what the event was. Naturally, I was intrigued.
So, the next morning I asked Steve about it. I turns out that the event was FreedomFest, a right-wing/Libertarian confab that happened to be going on at the same time as TAM up the road a piece on the Strip at Bally’s. Steve didn’t know who the antivaccinationist was going to be either, which made me marvel at him. I don’t know that I’d have the confidence agree to walk into the lion’s den with less than a day’s notice not even knowing who my opponent is. Steve was more than happy to invite me along. Clearly, this was was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. So we met up with Michael Shermer, and it was from him that I learned that Steve’s opponent was to be Dr. Julian Whitaker.
My eyes lit up.
I was contemplating writing a post along the same lines as Harriet’s post about evolutionary medicine last week, but then on Sunday morning I saw an article that piqued my interest. Sorry, Harriet, my response, if I get to it, might have to wait until next week, although we could always discuss the usefulness (versus the lack thereof) of evolutionary medicine over a beer or two at The Amazing Meeting in a few days. In the meantime, this week’s topic will revisit a topic near and dear to my heart, a topic that I tend to view (sort of) in a similar way as Harriet views evolutionary medicine, namely personalized medicine or the “individualization” of treatments. It’s a topic I’ve written about at least twice before and that Brennen McKenzie wrote about just last week. In essence, we both pointed out that when it comes to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” treatments for various conditions and diseases, what CAM practitioners claim to be able to do with respect to “individualized care” is nonsense based on fantasy. Science-based medicine already provides individualized care, but it’s individualized care based on science and clinical trials, not tooth fairy science.
Serendipitously, this point was driven home over the weekend in an article by Gina Kolata in the New York Times entitled In Treatment for Leukemia, Glimpses of the Future. While the story is basically one long anecdote that shows what can be done when new genomic technologies are applied to cancer, it also shows why we are a very long way from the true “individualization” of cancer care. It also turns out that I’ve discussed the same basic story before, but here I’ll try to discuss it in a bit more detail.
I don’t know how I’ve missed this, given that it’s been in existence now for a month and a half, but I have. Regular readers (and even fairly recent readers, given that I write about this topic relatively frequently) know that I’m not a big fan of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). (Come to think of it, neither is anyone else writing for this blog.) Just search this blog for “NCCAM” if you don’t believe me. I’ve explained the reasons many times, but the CliffsNotes version is that NCCAM is an enormous waste of taxpayer money, dedicated as it is to the study of modalities that are at best highly implausible and at worst break well-established laws of physics (i.e., “energy healing”). I do concede that, since the latest NCCAM director (Dr. Josephine Briggs) took over, there has been a noticeable attempt to bring more scientific rigor to NCCAM, and to some extent Dr. Briggs has succeeded. At the very least she is a legitimate scientist with an impressive pre-NCCAM track record, and I do fear who will succeed her when she moves on or retires given that there is enormous pressure from the CAM community to appoint one of their own as director.
Unfortunately, as rigorous a scientist as Dr. Briggs was in her former life, since coming to NCCAM she has gradually been assimilated into the culture of the place. Indeed, although it is good that NCCAM has backed away from studying woo like homeopathy and distance healing, the co-optation of science-based modalities such as exercise, diet, and natural products pharmacology has continued apace. Worse, the recently released five year strategic plan for NCCAM admitted that the science funded by NCCAM in the past was crap and, in essence, promised to do some real science for a change. That’s why on occasion I’ve jokingly said that we should take off and nuke NCCAM from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. On the other hand, no doubt someone would think I seriously mean that we should nuke NCCAM. Of course, I’d never advocate that! NCCAM is located right smack dab in the middle of the NIH campus. The collateral damage would be unacceptable.
I keed. I keed. I’m not kidding, though, when I echo the questioning of why NCCAM still exists.