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The ROCA Screening Test for Ovarian Cancer: Not Ready for Prime Time

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is relatively rare but deadly. The lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is 1.5% compared to 12% for breast cancer, but it is the 5th most common cause of cancer death for women. Since the ovaries are hidden deep in the pelvis and the symptoms of ovarian cancer are non-specific, the cancer is often advanced by the time it is diagnosed and survival rates are low. Early detection by screening would be expected to improve outcomes. Two screening methods have been proposed: the cancer antigen CA-125 blood test, and pelvic ultrasound. The Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial (PLCO) found that screening with CA-125 and ultrasound did not reduce ovarian cancer mortality. The USPSTF recommends against screening for ovarian cancer because it does not reduce mortality and carries important potential harms from false positives and unnecessary surgeries.

Ovarian cancer screening is being re-considered in the light of a recent study, the UKCTOCS trial, published in The Lancet in December 2015. On the basis of that study, a test called ROCA is being offered directly to the public for $295. It’s important to understand what the study actually found, and why experts have questioned the wisdom of offering this test to the public at this time. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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The Blood Cleaner: Invented by Ray Jardine

Imaginary germs awaiting imaginary electrocution by Ray Jardine's Blood Cleaner device.

Imaginary germs awaiting imaginary electrocution by Ray Jardine’s Blood Cleaner device.

I recently heard about a man who was planning a hike in a tick-infested area and thought he could avoid Lyme disease by using Ray Jardine’s Blood Cleaner. Ray Jardine is a well-known mountaineer, rock climber, long-distance hiker, and outdoor adventurer. A lightweight hiking enthusiast, he has branched out into selling lightweight equipment like backpack kits, tarps, and insulated hats. Most of his products are reasonable, but one is not: the Blood Cleaner. It is a micro electronic device that allegedly kills or disables pathogens in a person’s bloodstream. It is worn on the wrist in a pocket on a wristband that has another pocket holding a 9-volt battery. He and his wife make the devices themselves at home and sell them for $78.95. It could not possibly work as claimed. It is as useless as Hulda Clark’s infamous zappers.

How Ray’s Blood Cleaner supposedly works

It sends pulsed micro-currents through the skin and into the blood vessels. The micro-currents are claimed to electrocute the germs in the bloodstream, killing bacteria, protozoa, and fungi, and disabling viruses, without harming the white blood cells. It is supposed to clean germs out of the blood just as taking a shower cleans germs off of the skin. It comes with two probes, one for cleaning the bloodstream and another for making nano-silver in a glass of water to kill pathogens in the upper GI tract. Nano-silver (a form of colloidal silver) may kill germs in vitro, but it is useless and potentially harmful when ingested by humans. Colloidal silver has been known to turn people as blue as a Smurf. (more…)

Posted in: Lyme, Medical devices

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The Primo Vascular System: The N-rays of Acupuncture?

Is this a PVS structure or something else?

Is this a PVS structure or something else?

Acupuncture meridians and acupoints are imaginary until proven otherwise. Anatomists have never been able to detect them by microscopy or autopsy, and they are not mentioned in anatomy textbooks. For decades, acupuncturists have been trying to prove that their pre-scientific belief system is grounded in scientific reality. Now they are telling us that acupuncture meridians and acupoints have been discovered in the form of the Primo vascular system (PVS). A typical website trumpets “Science Finally Proves Meridians Exist.”

The available information is confusing.

Primo vessels were supposedly missed by anatomists because they are so small. They are reported to only be visible by electron microscopy, yet researchers have used dye to show them under a regular microscope. There has been speculation about their involvement in cancer metastasis: one paper provides images of a putative PVS cancer metastasis thread afloat in a lymph duct.  PVS vessels are said to be too tiny to study by the usual methods of science, but some researchers say they have somehow learned that they are characterized by high resistance and low capacitance. They are allegedly studded with electrically charged nodes that attract nutrients, oxygen, and regulatory hormones. They allegedly transmit energy to organs and integrate the features of the cardiovascular, nervous, immune, and hormonal systems and serve as the physical substrate for acupuncture points and meridians. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science

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Therapeutic Touch Pseudoscience: The Tooth Fairy Strikes Again

When tested, therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners failed to detect the human energy field they thought they could feel. Experimental setup from Rosa et al., from JAMA, 1998, 279 (13)

When tested, therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners failed to detect the human energy field they thought they could feel. Experimental setup from Rosa et al., from JAMA, 1998, 279 (13)

A study out of Iran titled “Therapeutic touch for nausea in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy: Composing a treatment” was recently published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. It is a great example of the Tooth Fairy science that permeates much of the research in complementary and alternative medicine. In Tooth Fairy science, researchers attempt to study a phenomenon without first determining whether it exists.

What is therapeutic touch?

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a type of energy medicine; practitioners claim to be able to:

  1. sense a patient’s “human energy field” with their hands,
  2. manipulate the energy field by moving their hands near (but not touching) a patient’s skin surface, and
  3. thereby improve the patient’s health.

TT was the delusional invention of a nurse and a theosophist, and it has no scientific basis. Scientists can detect and measure minute energies down to the subatomic level, but they have never detected a “human energy field.” And when TT practitioners were tested on their ability to detect such a field, they failed miserably.

Therapeutic touch is pure vitalism, the belief in a soul or animating force,” writes Paul Ingraham, “exactly like the Force in Star Wars, and just as fanciful. Auras and life energy do not exist and cannot be felt, let alone manipulated therapeutically.”

Despite the combination of extreme implausibility and a total lack of evidence, TT is taught to nurses in many otherwise reputable institutions, and there are more than 90,000 practitioners worldwide. There is even a Therapeutic Touch International Association that claims TT is evidence-based. It is not.

TT practitioners believe they are helping patients. That belief is reinforced by seeing patients improve due to the natural course of illness, suggestion, and the “placebo” or nonspecific contextual effects of the provider/patient encounter. They allow confirmation bias to overcome scientific reality, and they do poorly-conceived research seeking further confirmation. Since the studies are designed to show that TT works rather than to ask if it works, they find evidence that is convincing to believers but not to the scientific community as a whole. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine

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Uncertainty in Medicine

snowball
Medicine is an uncertain business. It is an applied science, applying the results of basic science knowledge and clinical studies to patients who are individuals with differing heredity, environment, and history. It is commonly assumed that modern science-based doctors know what they are doing, but quite often they don’t know for certain. Different doctors interpret the same evidence differently; there is uncertainty about how valid the studies’ conclusions are and there is still considerable uncertainty and disagreement about things like guidelines for screening mammography and statin prescriptions.

Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven Hatch, MD, is a book about uncertainty in medicine. The title refers to the difficulty of interpreting a mammogram, trying to pick out the shadows that signify cancer from a veritable blizzard of similar shadows. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Hormone Replacement Therapy for Menopausal Symptoms: Setting the Record Straight

HRT
Whether you call them hot flashes or “power surges,” the symptoms of menopause can be very distressing. They were routinely treated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) until the Women’s Health Initiative study in 2002 persuaded many patients and doctors to abandon that treatment. The results of that study were misunderstood by some and questioned by others, and there continues to be confusion about what the evidence shows and how menopausal symptoms should be treated. We have learned much more about this subject since 2002. HRT is still the most effective treatment and can be used safely under the new treatment guidelines.

The history of hormone replacement therapy

In the second half of the 20th century, there was much enthusiasm about estrogen. Mimicking the estrogen levels of a young woman was seen as a way to remain young and healthy. Doctors recognized that there were risks, but they seemed minor. There were studies showing that HRT protected women from the increased risk of heart disease after menopause. Few if any doctors prescribed it solely to prevent heart disease, but cardiovascular protection and osteoporosis prevention were seen as added benefits that served to tip the balance towards a decision to prescribe it for menopausal symptoms.

Then the Women’s Health Initiative study (WHI) dropped a bomb. It found that HRT didn’t protect women from cardiovascular disease after all. It showed that HRT did more harm than good. The number of prescriptions dropped by as much as 80%. Many women turned to alternative treatments that had not been studied anywhere near as extensively as HRT. (more…)

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology, Pharmaceuticals

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The “Incoherent Mess” That Is Homeopathy: Old and New Insights

jongh-paper-1stpage
Back in 1943 a Dutch physician, David Karel de Jongh, wrote a PhD dissertation on homeopathy. It was based on his experience working in a homeopathic hospital and on all the published information he could find, and was highly critical of homeopathy. It was an impressive opus, with over 200,000 words. It is way too long for the average reader to wade through; and since it is in Dutch, few of us could read it even if we wanted to. Jan Willem Nienhuys, secretary of the Dutch skeptics’ organization Skepsis, has done us a great favor by summarizing its contents and updating it with information about recent developments. He has kindly had his summary translated into English and published in full on the Skepsis website. He comments “Basically Dr. de Jongh’s conclusions were that homeopathy is an incoherent mess.”

We all should know by now how monumentally silly homeopathy is (“delusions about dilutions”). I had investigated the subject and knew enough about it to have written about it repeatedly, but there is much more that I didn’t know. Nienhuys’ article is full of surprising facts and fascinating details. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy

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Sharks Get Cancer, Mole Rats Don’t: Clues to Understanding Cancer

sharks
We think of cancer as caused by mutations. Mutations are necessary, but not sufficient, to cause cancer. New research indicates that it’s the body’s response to mutant cells that determines whether cancer will develop. James S. Welsh, MD, a radiation oncologist and researcher, has written a book on the immunology of cancer, Sharks Get Cancer, Mole Rats Don’t: How Animals Could Hold the Key to Unlocking Cancer Immunity in Humans. In it, he pieces together clues from animals, pregnancy, Ebola virus, infections, organ transplantation, parasites, and human cancer patients, weaving a web of insights that point to a better understanding of cancer biology and treatment.

Sharks do get cancer

Shark with cancer

Shark with cancer

The first book claiming that sharks don’t get cancer came out in 1992. It persuaded so many people to take shark cartilage that the world market exceeded $30 million and shark populations decreased by as much as 80%. Sharks do get cancer, as you can see in this picture.

Ironically, sharks can even get cancer of the cartilage! And of course shark cartilage supplements don’t prevent cancer in humans. Welsh explains how that myth got started. It was magical thinking based on extrapolation from a legitimate scientific study on angiogenesis where tumor growth in lab animals was suppressed by placing rabbit cartilage next to the tumors.
(more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer

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Is the Annual Physical Unnecessary?

Quality

I was approached by The Wall Street Journal to write an article for their Big Issues in Health Care debate series. The subject was “Is the annual physical unnecessary?” I was to take the “yes” side and an internist was to take the “no” side. I wrote the following article. The editor wrote me a couple of times with questions. The internist pointed out the value of preventive medicine, developing a personalized healthcare plan, and developing a meaningful doctor-patient relationship. I said I wholeheartedly agreed, but I thought those goals could be accomplished just as well (arguably even better) with a periodic health maintenance interview or consultation. I pointed out that the traditional “physical” exam with stethoscope, routine lab tests, etc. provides no further advantages and can be counterproductive, with false positive or harmless findings leading to unnecessary worry, further testing, and expense. I said there was nothing magical about the interval of a year. I don’t know what the optimum interval would be; that could be studied. I suspect it would vary with the patient’s age, medical conditions, risk factors, and other considerations, and might be left up to the judgment of patient and doctor deciding together.

Finally I got an e-mail with apologies, saying they had decided not to continue with the debate because the internist and I agreed on too many important details. While I understand that stirring up a fight is good for selling newspapers, I think it’s a much better thing when people on two sides of a debate reach an agreement. It reassures me that they are converging on the truth. So I thought it would be worthwhile to publish my article here on SBM. (more…)

Posted in: Commentary, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Questioning the Evidence for Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding_baby
Six years ago I wrote about the evidence for breastfeeding. I questioned an article that claimed 900 babies’ lives could be saved every year in the US if 90% of mothers breastfed for at least 6 months. I didn’t think that was true, but I did think the evidence supported the claim that breastfeeding was clearly better for babies. Now I’m not so sure we can trust that evidence.

A new study reevaluated the evidence from previous studies and found that the studies hadn’t adequately ruled out significant confounders. There are social, cultural and economic factors that contribute to the choice to breastfeed, factors that may have skewed the results of those studies to favor breastfeeding. The new study tried to correct for these issues.

Results from standard multiple regression models suggest that children aged 4 to 14 who were breast- as opposed to bottle-fed did significantly better on 10 of the 11 outcomes studied. Once we restrict analyses to siblings and incorporate within-family fixed effects, estimates of the association between breastfeeding and all but one indicator of child health and wellbeing dramatically decrease and fail to maintain statistical significance. Our results suggest that much of the beneficial long-term effects typically attributed to breastfeeding, per se, may primarily be due to selection pressures into infant feeding practices along key demographic characteristics such as race and socioeconomic status.

(more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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