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On the “individualization” of treatments in “alternative medicine,” revisited

As I contemplated what I’d like to write about for the first post of 2012, I happened to come across a post by former regular and now occasional SBM contributor Peter Lipson entitled Another crack at medical cranks. In it, Dr. Lipson discusses one characteristic that allows medical cranks and quacks to attract patients, namely the ability to make patients feel wanted, cared for, and, often, happy. As I (and several of us at SBM) have said before, it’s not necessary to invoke magic, quackery, or pseudoscience in order to show empathy to patients and provide them with the “human touch” that forges a strong therapeutic relationship between physician and patient and maximizes placebo effects without deception. In the old days, this used to be called “bedside manner,” but in these days of capitation and crappy third party payor reimbursement it’s very difficult for physicians to take the time necessary to listen to patients and thereby build the bonds of trust and mutual respect that can augment the treatments that are prescribed. Unfortunately, because of this the quacks have been all too eager to leap into the breach.

One aspect of this tendency of medical cranks is to claim that they somehow “individualize” their treatment to the patient, as Peter points out:

There are a number of so-called holistic doctors in town who claim to practice “individualized” medicine. What this really means isn’t clear. My colleagues and I certainly individualize the treatment plans for all of our patients, using data gleaned from decades of scientific studies of large groups of patients. What “individualized” care seems to mean in this other context is “stuff I made up to make that patient feel more unique and special.”

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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials

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Ringing in 2012 with…antivaccine propaganda?

Here we go again.

In fact, I think I’m starting to see a pattern here among antivaccine organizations. You might remember that in November 2010, the antivaccine group SafeMinds bought ad space in AMC Theaters over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, one of the heaviest moviegoing time periods of the year. This use of pre-movie time to promote antivaccine propaganda resulted in a campaign by skeptics to try to persuade AMC to see the error of its ways, a campaign that was successful.

Then, a few months later, the the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, arguably the woman who started the most recent incarnation of that hoary old anti-science movement back in the 1980s, Barbara Loe Fisher, decided to start advertising the antivaccine message she promotes through her group, the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) using the JumboTron in Times Square. Unfortunately, despite protests from the American Academy of Pediatrics, promoters of science-based medicine, and skeptics, the ads apparently aired for the full buy.

Then, a few months later (just last month, in fact), somehow the NVIC managed to dupe Delta Airlines, through its video provider In-Flight Media into airing a more subtle “public service announcement” whose antivaccine message was cleverly muted so that it wasn’t so obvious, except to those of us who knew the NVIC (and, of course, the buzzwords used by the antivaccine movement) that its message was antivaccine. Of course, it also didn’t help that the PSA urged viewers to go to the NVIC website, which, as I’ve described many times before, is a font of misinformation, pseudoscience, and antivaccine propaganda. (Just type “NVIC” into this blog’s search box to see.) At least Fisher’s response of crying “repression” in response to the AAP’s complaint to Delta Air Lines was good for a chuckle or two. Unfortunately, the NVIC advertorials aired through the entire buy. Meanwhile, this fall a major dump of antivaccine propaganda was circulating around the country in various film festivals in the form of an antivaccine propaganda movie called The Greater Good, whose manipulativeness and misinformation would make a North Korean propagandists planning state media coverage of Kim Jong-il‘s funeral blush.

Now, it would appear, the NVIC wants to close out 2011 and ring in 2012 with a new round of antivaccine propaganda, this time revisiting Times Square at the heart of the New Years Eve celebration, an effort it’s trumpeting through a press release entitled National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) Educates One Million Plus in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Here, Barbara, I’ll fix that for you. It should read “National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) Mis-Educates One Million Plus in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”

There, that’s better.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Shilling for traditional Chinese medicine: Nature leaves its readers a lump of coal before Christmas

I’ve subscribed to Nature for many years now, even though I don’t always read it. Nature is one of the oldest and most respected scientific journals around. It’s been around since 1869 and is said to be the world’s most cited journal. What makes Nature unusual these days is that it’s one of the last of the remaining general science journals and one of the two that still publish original peer-reviewed research in a wide variety of scientific fields. Astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, biology, Nature publishes it all. The only other journal of its type that I can think of is Science, which also has a similar high impact factor. In any case, getting published in Nature is a big deal, one that can make a career. Believe it or not, I actually have a Nature publication. True, it’s from the 1990s, and, true, I’m only the fourth author, but it is a Nature publication. Ever since then, I keep telling myself that, one of these days, I’ll manage to find a way to be published again in Nature, although I realize that it’s looking increasingly unlikely that that will happen. Such is the power and cachet of Nature. It’s a name that has provided prestige to some of its spinoff journals, such as Nature Medicine, although of late Nature appears to have diluted the brand name beyond belief.

Nature sells out

All of the above is why I’m very, very disappointed in Nature for having dropped a huge lump of coal into the stockings of supporters of science-based medicine a mere three days before Christmas. Maybe its editors thought that it wouldn’t be noticed right before the holiday season. I don’t know. I do know that I noticed. Basically, Nature sold out to a Japanese pharmaceutical company, which, along with a research institute, bought a supplement in Nature that is in essence an advertorial for its point of view. Don’t believe me? Check out this acknowledgment of the sponsors published in the advertorial:
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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The compassion gambit

I’ve spent the last three weeks writing about a “brave maverick doctor” by the name of Stanislaw Burzynski who claims that he can cure cancers that regular oncologists cannot. He uses a combination of what he calls “antineoplastons” (which, it turns out, are more or less than the active metabolites of an orphan drug known as sodium phenylbutyrate) plus a very expensive cocktail of chemotherapy and targeted agents chosen in a haphazard fashion and thrown together with little rhyme or reason. This week, I had planned to move on. However, I felt that I had to mention the Burzynski saga because it provides me with the most appropriate segue to a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, possibly since this blog began. In fact, it’s about as perfect a framework as I can think of upon which to drape the points I want to make in this post.

What I will discuss is perhaps the most effective, devastating attack that proponents of quackery, woo, and nonsense aim at supporters of science-based medicine (SBM). As far as that is the case, it is not effective because it’s fact-based, evidence-based, or science-based. Far from it. Rather, it’s effective because it appeals to the emotions and very effectively demonizes SBM proponents to the point where they often have a hard time standing their ground when it is used. Sometimes, it preemptively prevents them from even speaking up in the first place. It’s a little tactic that I like to call the “compassion gambit,” which means trying to discredit critics of “alternative” medicine by painting them as cold, unfeeling, uncaring, arrogant monsters who want to hurt or kill children (and probably get a big smile on their faces when they torture puppies, to boot).
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, antineoplastons, and the selling of an orphan drug as a cancer cure

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time (and, characteristically, verbiage) analyzing the phenomenon known as Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his “cancer cure” known as antineoplastons. In part I of this series, Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R., I used the legal threats against bloggers criticizing the credulous promotion by the British press of fundraising campaigns to send children with terminal cancer to the Burzynski Clinic and the promotion of the medical propaganda movie Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business to review the movie’s claims and look into Burzynski’s claims for antineoplastons. Not surprisingly, I found the evidence for extravagant claims for their anticancer effects unconvincing. In part II, Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?, I looked into Dr. Burzynski’s recent efforts to “diversify his portfolio, in which he has apparently decided to ride the new wave of genomic medicine to claim he can do “personalized, gene-targeted cancer therapy.” I concluded that he does appear to do that, only very badly, in essence “making it up as he goes along.”

In this third and final part, I want to come back to antineoplastons, because it has been pointed out to me that there is an aspect of this story that has received little attention. One reader in particular has helped enormously in my education about this aspect of the Burzynski saga. I wish I could credit this person by name, but, for reasons I fully understand, I can’t. However, this person’s input was essential, and I’ve even appropriated (with permission, of course) a little bit of text here and there from our e-mail exchanges to “integrate” into this post. Putting this together with information in my previous posts, I think we can come to some conclusions about what it is that Dr. Burzynski is really doing.

Burzynski and an orphan drug

In the first part of this series, I pointed out that back in the 1970s Dr. Burzynski claimed to have discovered cancer-fighting substances in human urine, which he dubbed “antineoplastons,” claiming that patients with cancer had lower levels of these substances in their blood and urine. However, I was pretty vague about just what these substances were, other than to point out that they were modified amino acids and that since 1980 Dr. Burzynski has been synthesizing them in a chemistry lab rather than isolating them from urine as he had done up until then. This vagueness came simply from my interest in moving straight to looking at Burzynski’s claims rather than what these substances were. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake. The reason is that understanding what two of Burzynski’s antineoplastons are is critical to understanding what he is doing with them and why he might occasionally appear to be observing an antitumor response.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Legal, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?

Last week, I wrote a magnum opus of a movie review of a movie about a physician and “researcher” named Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, founder of the Burzynski Clinic and Burzynski Research Institute in Houston. I refer you to my original post for details, but in brief Dr. Burzynski claimed in the 1970s to have made a major breakthrough in cancer therapy through his discovery of anticancer substances in the urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons,” which turned out to be mainly modified amino acids and peptides. Since the late 1970s, when he founded his clinic, Dr. Burzynski has been using antineoplastons to treat cancer. Over the last 25 years or so, he has opened a large number of phase I and phase II clinical trials with little or nothing to show for it in terms of convincing evidence of efficacy. Worse, as has been noted in a number of places, high doses of antineoplastons as sodium salts are required, doses so high that severe hypernatremia is a concern.

Although antineoplastons are the dubious cancer therapy upon which Dr. Burzynski built his fame, they aren’t the only thing he does. Despite the promotion of the Burzynski Clinic as using “nontoxic” therapies that “aren’t chemotherapy” by “natural medicine” cranks such as Joe Mercola and Mike Adams, Dr. Burzynski’s dirty little secrets, at least as far as the “alternative medicine” crowd goes, are that (1) despite all of the attempts of Dr. Burzynski and supporters to portray them otherwise antineoplastons are chemotherapy and (2) Dr. Burzynski uses a lot of conventional chemotherapy. In fact, from my perspective, it appears to me as though over the last few years Dr. Burzynski has pivoted. No longer are antineoplastons the center of attention at his clinic. Rather, these days, he appears to be selling something that he calls “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy.” In fact, it’s right there in the first bullet point on his clinic’s webpage, underlined, even! Antineoplastons aren’t even listed until the third bullet point.

But what is “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” according to Dr. Burzynski? Here is how it is described:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R.

And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

Cleric from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I’ve always wondered about the power of the number three. When it comes to quackery propaganda movies, certainly three seems to be the magic number. For example, The Greater Good, an anti-vaccine propaganda film, features three anecdotes, three children allegedly suffering from vaccine injury, and it interspersed its interviews with experts, both real (such as Dr. Paul Offit) and phony (such as Barbara Loe Fisher) with vignettes from these children’s stories interspersed between them in a highly biased manner. I have to wonder whether these cliches are taught in film school, given that they seem to be so common. Such were the thoughts running through my brain as I watched the latest medical propaganda film by writer/producer Eric Merola that’s floating around the blogosphere and the film circuit, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business. In this movie, there are three testimonials, and, if anything, they are far more manipulative than even the testimonials featured in The Greater Good, because each of them are of the type that portrays doctors as sending a patient home to die; that is, until a “brave maverick doctor,” one Stanislaw R. Burzynski, MD, PhD, comes to the rescue with his unconventional and unproven therapy. The only difference is that this film counts testimonials up to the number three in the beginning as “proof” that Burzynski can cure cancer before lobbing the Holy Hand Grenade of Burzynski towards its foes in the hopes that, being naughty in the filmmaker’s sight, the FDA and Texas Medical Board will snuff it. Or, as a caption says right at very the beginning of the movie:

This is the story of a medical doctor and PhD biochemist who has discovered the genetic mechanism that can cure most human cancers. The opening 30 minutes of this film is designed to thoroughly establish this fact — so the viewer can fully appreciate the events that follow it.

It turns out that the grenade is a dud.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Woo-omics

Every so often, I come across studies that leave me scratching my head. Sometimes, these studies are legitimate scientific studies that have huge flaws or come from an assumption that is very off-base. Other times, they involve what Harriet Hall has termed “tooth fairy science,” wherein the tools of science are used to study a phenomenon that is fantastical, whose very existence hasn’t been demonstrated. Many such studies, not surprisingly, are studies of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM). Modalities like reiki (which is faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Christian beliefs) and homeopathy (which is, when you boil it down to its essence, sympathetic magic) fall into the category of therapeutic modalities that are based on fantasy but are studied as with the latest tools of science, producing no end to confusing noise. This “tooth fairy science” has, over the last few years, reached its epitome in the application of the latest genomics technology to, in essence, magic, and I’ve recently come across an incredible example of just such a thing. But, first, let’s take a step back to what is going on in medical science now before I introduce a concept that I’ve dubbed “woo-omics.”

A prelude to woo-omics: Genomics, proteomics, everywhere an “omics”

One of the most difficult problems in science-based medicine is how to do a better job identifying which patients will respond to which treatments. Clinical trials, by their very design, have to look at average responses in populations. In essence, a treatment is compared to either placebo or standard-of-care, a choice mainly driven by ethics and whether effective treatments exist for the condition being studied. It is then determined using statistics whether a significant difference exists between the two groups. The difficulty, as any clinician knows, is applying the results of clinical trials to individual patients. In any population, there is, after all, a range of responses to any drug or treatment, and it would be desirable to be able to predict which patients will fall at the end of the bell-shaped curve where the treatment is most effective and which will fall at the end of the curve where the treatment works poorly or not at all.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Reporting back on my Grand Rounds experience at FSU

Last Thursday, I had the distinct privilege and honor to be invited to speak at Grand Rounds at the Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee. Ray Bellamy, who is on the faculty there and is also the husband of our very own Jann Bellamy (who is herself is the founder of the Campaign for Science-based Health Care), invited me down to give a talk on “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM). Although I’ve spoken to skeptics’ groups, such as local groups or even to workshops at The Amazing Meeting, and to medical students’ groups, this represented the first time I had been invited to speak in front of a large group of medical professionals, not all of whom necessarily agreed with our viewpoint here at SBM. So it was with some trepidation that last Wednesday I braved the trip to Tallahassee, with the unfortunately requisite connection in Atlanta that necessitated my practically running from one end of that massive airport to the other in order to make my connection to the little puddle jumper of a jet that took me to Tallahassee. Whether or not my talk was a success or not, readers can judge for themselves, as it’s been posted online on the FSU Grand Rounds page. (Just scroll down to November 10 and then hit the link. Unfortunately, it appears that you’ll need Microsoft Silverlight to get the video to work.) I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but I encourage you to do so and tell me how good (or bad) I was and why. I want to get better, and I won’t rest until I’m as good at communicating medicine as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Wiseman, for instance, is at communicating science.
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Posted in: Medical Academia

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Defining what a “physician” is

The very concepts of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM), the former of which “complements” science-based medicine with quackery and the latter of which “integrates” pseudoscience-based with science-based medicine are all about slapping a veneer of scientific legitimacy onto something that has failed to achieve such legitimacy through actual basic, translational, and clinical science. The reason I start out by saying this is to emphasize that CAM/IM is all about using language to persuade that pseudoscience is actually science-based. It’s far more about marketing than accurately communicating concepts. In CAM, everything is “holistic,” and doctors “care for the whole patient,” while “Western medicine” is “reductionistic” and “allopathic.” At the very heart of this language is a false dichotomy: That you must either embrace pseudoscience or that you somehow can’t provide care as compassionate and caring as what the quacks supposedly provide, nor are you able to provide for the emotional needs of your patients. There are two false dichotomies, actually, in that there is also the not-so-subtle implication in CAM that you can’t be truly “holistic” without—you guessed it—embracing the pseudoscience that is at the heart of many CAM/IM modalities.

This use and abuse of language for propagandistic purposes in CAM/IM is not limited to just these examples. In fact, the misuse of language infuses the whole enterprise of CAM/IM to the point that its adherents, not content with being mere “practitioners,” are trying to claim the very title of “physician” for themselves. I learned this from John Weeks, the main force behind the Integrator Blog, a blog dedicated to issues of CAM and IM. He’s the one who first let me know about Andrew Weil’s attempt to put together a board certification in IM. In particular, his reporting on the reaction of CAM/IM practitioners, both physicians and non-physicians, to this initiative by Andrew Weil was most illuminating to me. What was most telling was how further propagandistic use of the language focused on “dominance” by MDs, which in this case struck me as actually being closer to the truth than the usual CAM-speak is. In any case, Dr. Weil’s initiative does indeed appear to be more about taking control of CAM for physicians, his high-minded language about “establishing standards” notwithstanding.

This time around, Weeks has provided me with an education about how alternative/CAM/integrative practitioners now covet the title of “physician”. In the process, he also uses and abuses language in the same way that Andrew Weil and CAM/IM advocates do. This time around, it’s all about co-opting the title of “physician” for non-physician CAM practitioners. It’s bad enough to me when actual physicians are seduced by the pseudoscience of CAM, but this effort appears to be an intentional strategy designed to confuse the public by proclaiming as physicians practitioners who lack the essential skills to be a physician, such as acupuncturists, chiropractors, homeopaths, and naturopaths.
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Posted in: Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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