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Parkinson’s Disease: A Detective Story

brainstorms
I didn’t intend to review Jon Palfreman’s book Brain Storms: The Race to Unlock the Mysteries of Parkinson’s Disease, but after reading it I decided it was too good not to share. Palfreman is an award-winning science journalist who has Parkinson’s himself. He has done a bang-up job of describing Parkinson’s disease, its impact on patients, and how science is working to understand and treat it.

The disease

Parkinson first described the disease in 1817. It is characterized by shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement, and difficulty with walking. There is a decrease in dopamine in the basal ganglia in the brain. One million Americans have Parkinson’s disease. The incidence increases with age; by age 80 one in fifty people are affected.

Some very strange phenomena have been observed. Parkinson’s disease is less common among smokers and coffee drinkers. When a patient becomes frozen and unable to take the next step, if you draw a line on the floor they will step over the line and walk on. Patients who can’t walk can run, ride a bike, or ice-skate. Some patients appear to have strong responses to placebos, with reversal of symptoms for long periods. Exposure to vibration seems to decrease symptoms; in the late 1800s patients were treated with vibrating chairs until controlled studies showed they didn’t work. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease Speculcation

Enlarged_c_elegans

I knew humans could resemble worms, but this?

My wife and I are entering an age where our aches and pains are becoming a major ongoing topic of conversations. The pain of raising kids has transitioned into the pains of growing older. These aches and pains are, in the scheme of things, minor and intermittent.

At work I get to see real suffering and it keeps my own in perspective. And there are a lot of people who feel awful, some for obvious reasons such as cancer or AIDS and some from ailments that are more enigmatic, such as systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID), the illness formerly known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

In the context of SBM, SEID is a gateway disease into the world of pseudo-medicine.

A syndrome with no known cause and few effective therapies at best, those who suffer from the process are easy pickings for SCAM practitioners. When you feel like crap month and month with no improvement or even an explanation for your suffering, you keep looking until you find an answer. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Chronic Fatigue

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The Cancer Moonshot: Hype versus reality

Joe Biden promotes the Cancer Moonshot initiative.

Joe Biden promotes the Cancer Moonshot initiative.

The Cancer Moonshot. It’s a topic that I’ve been meaning to address ever since President Barack Obama announced it in his State of the Union address this year and tasked Vice President Joe Biden to head up the initiative. Biden, you’ll recall, lost his son to a brain tumor . Yet here it is, nearly eight months later, and somehow I still haven’t gotten around to it. The goal of the initiative is to “eliminate cancer as we know it,” and to that end, with $195 million invested immediately in new cancer activities at the National Institutes of Health and $755 million proposed for FY 2017. My first thought at the time was that that wasn’t nearly enough money to achieve the ambitious goals set out by the President. That has now become particularly clear now that the National Cancer Institute has released the report from the initiative’s blue ribbon panel suggesting ten ways to speed up progress against cancer.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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3-Bromopyruvate: The latest cancer cure “they” don’t want you to know about

3-BP: A "safe" and "nontoxic" cancer cure targeting the Warburg effect that quite possibly killed three cancer patients in Germany.

3-BP: A “safe” and “nontoxic” cancer cure targeting the Warburg effect that quite possibly killed three cancer patients in Germany.

I’ve not infrequently written about various dubious and outright quack clinics in different parts of the word with—shall we say?—somewhat less rigorous laws and regulations than the US. Most commonly, given the proximity to the US, the clinics that have drawn my attention are located in Mexico, most commonly right across the border from San Diego in Tijuana for easy access by American patients. Sometimes, in the case of dubious stem cell clinics, they are located in countries like China, Argentina, or Kazakhstan. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of quack clinics right here in the US (particularly for stem cell treatments), but, by and large, the clinics doing the truly dangerous stuff tend to be less common in the US.

There is, however, another country where alternative medicine clinics, particularly for cancer, are common and thriving, specifically Germany. I first learned of these clinics when the story of Farrah Fawcett’s battle with anal cancer hit the news nine years ago. Ultimately, she died of her disease at age 62, but before she did she sought treatment at a clinic in Germany, which administered alternative treatments as well as radioactive seed implants, the latter of which, despite sounding nice and “conventional,” were not standard-of-care for recurrent anal cancer. What this led me to learn is that German alternative cancer clinics tend to use both alternative medicine and experimental “conventional” medicine that has not yet been shown to be safe and effective in clinical trials.

I thought of Farrah Fawcett when news about a German cancer clinic hit the news again beginning more than a week ago, when two patients from the Netherlands and one from Belgium died shortly after having undergone treatment at the Biological Cancer Centre, run by alternative practitioner Klaus Ross in the town of Brüggen, Germany. Two others were hospitalized with life-threatening conditions. I didn’t blog about them at the time because the only reports I could find were those sent to me by readers, and they were in German or Dutch. They also didn’t have a lot of detail. Both reported that on July 25, a 43-year-old Dutch woman went to the Biological Cancer Center in Brüggen-Bracht for treatment of breast cancer and that she unexpectedly died on July 30 of unknown causes. The Dutch report stated that the death occurred under mysterious circumstances and that there were two other deaths, that of a Belgian woman the week before, and a Dutch man.

Elsewhere, Irish newspaper TheJournal.ie reports:

Dutch police, who are supporting the inquiry, appealed for information from other patients, as newspapers reported the clinic had been using an experimental transfusion.

Concern was first raised when a 43-year-old Dutch woman with breast cancer complained of headaches and became confused after being treated at the clinic on 25 July.

She later lost the ability to speak, and died on July 30 although the “cause of her death remains unclear,” the German prosecutors said in a statement earlier this week.

Later, it was learned that the identities of the suspected victims were Joke Van der Kolk, age 43; Leentje Callens, age 55; and Peter van Ouwendorp, age 55.

Unfortunately, the early reports were fairly basic, without much detail, and only a couple with any names. Fortunately, now there is an article in Science that reports more. It turns out that the suspected cause of death is an experimental cancer drug known as 3-bromopyruvate (3-BP) that has not yet been approved for use in humans. So what happened?
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud

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Deconstructing the Conspiracy of Deliberate Poisoning of US Municipal Water

Mass spectrometer

It takes more than a mass spectrometer, more than even a mass spectrometer and an ISO certification, to make you a scientist. Honesty helps too!

Heavy metals here, there, everywhere…

One of the key narratives among the supporters and practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), particularly those with a conspiratorial world-view, is the claim that vast portions of the US general populous is being deliberately poisoned by certain corporations, special-interest groups, invested individuals, and the US government. Some of these supporters and practitioners go as far as to claim that this conspiracy is global in scope and not restricted solely to the USA. Among the supposed vectors of this poisoning is the claim of elevated and/or toxic levels of heavy-metals in such items as foods, vaccines, as well as municipal drinking water supplies; I will address the latter in this article.

One prolific web-based publication supporting this narrative is Natural News. Many of its writers, including its editor-in-chief Mr. Mike Adams (The Health Ranger), have added outspoken support to these claims of…someone…deliberately poisoning the drinking water. A brief search on Google using the appropriate keywords produces a large number of hits, with many of these hits being found on the Natural News website, and many have heavy-metal “detoxing” as a central theme. Titles of these Natural News articles include: (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Public Health

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Acupuncture and Endorphins: Not all that Impressive

Acupuncture needling

Pictured: A great way to get a staph infection, not a great way to get an endorphin rush.  Try jogging.  Or heroin.*

I was reading, and deconstructing, a particularly awful bit of advice for acupuncture by Consumer Reports. It was the same old same old, but it was the source that made it particularly awful. I expect more from Consumer Reports than the uncritical regurgitation of the standard mythical acupuncture narrative. The report included the quote

One possible reason for the benefits of acupuncture: Studies show that it causes us to release feel-good hormones, called endorphins, that suppress pain.

I have never bothered to go back and see what the original literature was to support endorphins as a potential mechanism for a beneficial effect of acupuncture on pain.

That endorphins are released as a result of a noxious stimulus didn’t surprise me; that is what endorphins are for. And endorphins are unlikely to be the mechanism for all the other diseases for which the WHO suggests acupuncture benefits.

To my surprise, my brief search that day came up with very little information on the endorphins and acupuncture.

What I wanted to know was the evidence behind the universal meme that acupuncture releases feel-good hormones. If Consumer Reports says it is so, it must be true, right? So I plugged ‘acupuncture endorphin’ into PubMed and went to work. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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The Gene: An Intimate History

A superb writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee's books are easier to read than his name is to spell

A superb writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s books are easier to read than his name is to spell

Six years ago I reviewed Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It was hands-down one of the best books I have ever read on a medical topic. Now he’s done it again. His new book is titled The Gene: An Intimate History.

Mukherjee is a superb writer. Much of what I said about his first book applies equally to his second, so I will quote myself:

It is a unique combination of insightful history, cutting edge science reporting, and vivid stories about the individuals involved: the scientists, the activists, the doctors, and the patients. It is also the story of science itself: how the scientific method works…

Beautifully written and informative

Reads like a detective story with an exciting plot.

He links this second book to his first by pointing out that cancer is an ultimate perversion of genetics, and that studying cancer means also studying its obverse: normalcy. He gives the subject a human face by interspersing anecdotes from his own family’s struggles with mental illness and its connection to inherited genes. He sets out to tell the story of the birth, growth, and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the gene. He says it is one of three destabilizing ideas that have transformed science: the concept that irreducible units underlie matter (the atom), digitized information (the byte or bit), and biological information (the gene). He explains how the consequences of these ideas have transformed our thinking, our language, our culture, politics, and society. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, History, 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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Is there a reproducibility “crisis” in biomedical science? No, but there is a reproducibility problem

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.

Journal of Irreproducible ResultsMost scientists I know get a chuckle out of the Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR), a humor journal that often parodies scientific papers. Back in the day, we used to chuckle at articles like “Any Eye for an Eye for an Arm and a Leg: Applied Dysfunctional Measurement” and “A Double Blind Efficacy Trial of Placebos, Extra Strength Placebos and Generic Placebos.” Unfortunately, these days, reporting on science is giving the impression that the JIR is a little too close to the truth, at least when it comes to reproduciblity, so much so that the issue even has its own name and Wikipedia entry: Replication (or reproducibility) crisis. It’s a topic I had been meaning to write about again for a while. Fortunately, A recent survey published in Nature under the somewhat clickbaity title “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility” finally prodded me to look into this question again. Before I get to the survey itself, though, I can’t help but do my usual pontificating to provide a bit of background.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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“Integrative” medicine versus “alternative” medicine

“Integrative” medicine versus “alternative” medicine

I’ve written a lot about the language issue with respect to alternative medicine. As I like to put it (at least in shortened form), first there was quackery. Quacks did not like that name at all, and thus was born alternative medicine. And the quacks did think it good—for a while. There was a problem, however. “Alternative” medicine implied (correctly, of course) that what was being discussed was not real medicine, and the quacks could not abide that. Thus was born “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM).

And the quacks thought this very good indeed.

Unfortunately, it was not long before the problem with the term CAM became apparent. It had the word “complementary” in it. The implication of that word, of course, is that what they were doing was still somehow not real medicine. It was complementary to real medicine, the icing on the cake, if you will. Real medicine could do without it, and having that implication in the very name that their evolving specialty had taken on was offensive to the quacks.

So they changed it.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Science and the Media

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