Part IV of this blog ended by observing that the NIH-funded trial of the “Gonzalez regimen” for cancer of the pancreas,† to have begun in March, 1999, was in trouble almost as soon as it started. As originally designed, it was to have been a randomized, controlled trial comparing gemcitabine, the standard chemotherapy, to the “Gonzalez regimen” of pancreatic enzymes, “supplements,” twice-daily coffee enemas, and other purported methods of “detoxification.” By June, 1999, according to Dr. John Chabot, the Columbia University surgeon acting as Principal Investigator (PI) of the trial, only 3 of the first 50 potential subjects had agreed to be randomized, and none of the three met the eligibility criteria. By January, 2000 it had become clear that the trial would not accrue a sufficient number of subjects if it remained randomized, because almost all of the potential subjects were intent on being in the “nutritional,” ie, the Gonzalez arm.
Trouble with Randomizing
The investigators at Columbia therefore decided to change the protocol to a “single-armed, non-randomized case-cohort study where patients will only be enrolled in what was the nutritional arm.” Paradoxically, PI John Chabot had recently explained, at the 1999 Comprehensive Cancer Care Conference of James Gordon’s Center for Mind-Body Medicine, why this would not be a scientifically sound design:
The cornerstone of science-based medicine is, of course, scientific research. The integrity and quality of biomedical research is therefore of critical importance and to be thoughtfully and jealously guarded, if we care about maintaining an optimal standard of care. There are many threats and hazards to the institutions of medical research – mostly ideological. One that has not been discussed much on this blog but has been in the news recently is that of conflict of interest. Upon close examination this is a more complex issue than it may at first appear.
The most recent controversy over conflicts of interest were sparked by an article published in JAMA in which the authors allege that published studies that downplayed the risks of Vioxx (A Cox-2 inhibitor marketed as a pain killer that was removed from the market for increased cardiac risk) were in fact ghost-written by employees of Merck, the manufacturer of Vioxx. The names of two academic researchers were then attached to the studies to give them legitimacy. If true this is a damning episode, and no one would reasonably disagree with the contention that companies writing research on their own products represents an unacceptable conflict of interest. For the record, both Merk and the one surviving academic deny the accusations completely.
A Review; then Back to the Gonzalez Regimen†
Part I of this blog introduced the topic of the “Gonzalez regimen” for treating cancer: “Intensive Pancreatic Proteolytic Enzyme Therapy With Ancillary Nutritional Support” and “detoxification” with twice daily coffee enemas, daily “skin brushing,” “a complete liver flush and a clean sweep and purge on a rotating basis each month,” and more. The topic was occasioned by the federal Office for Human Research Protections having recently cited Columbia University, for the second time, for violations of human subject protections in its NIH-funded trial of Gonzalez’s method as a treatment for cancer of the pancreas.
Part I discussed the implausible and bizarre regimen and cited Gonzalez’s troubles with malpractice suits and with the New York medical board during the 1990s. It ended by wondering what could have induced the NIH to give a $1.5 million grant to Columbia University to study the method.
Parts II and III began to answer that question, tracing some of the key events and individuals from the Laetrile wars in the 1970s to the NCI-funded trial of Laetrile reported in 1982, to the “immuno-augmentative therapy” (IAT) battles of the mid-’80s, to the Report on “Unconventional Cancer Treatments” by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1990, which in turn led to the NCI adopting its “Best Case Series Program” in 1991.
The end of Part III hinted that the conspiracy mongering that had greeted every attempt by the government to explain its positions on implausible cancer treatments, from Laetrile to the OTA report, ultimately led to the creation of the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at the NIH, also in 1991. There is plenty of evidence for that, both from the conspiracy mongers themselves and from more level-headed observers. Each time the government acted—to fund a trial of Laetrile, to solicit the OTA report and propose a study of IAT, to establish the NCI “Best Case Series” program, and to establish the OAM—it was not because of scientific or medical considerations, but because of political pressure. More on that from time to time, but now back to Dr. Gonzalez.
This is a slight departure from the usual fare of pseudoscience, but a matter that should concern us because of the vulnerability this matter confers on medicine – the borderline practices of major medical centers. The article can be viewed here.
Several days ago the San Francisco Chronicle printed a second article about the plight of a 37 year old woman (EP) with an inflammatory breast cancer who was denied insurance coverage for an expensive treatment, high-dose chemotherapy with autologous bone marrow (or stem cell) transplant or infusion (HDCT/BMT or SDI.) The institution is the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The problem is that although the treatment is effective, it is no moreso than moderate dose HDCT without the marrow or stem cell infusion, and also is more expensive and has significant morbidity.
Inflammatory breast cancer is a highly aggressive form that is usually regarded as “advanced” when diagnosed, that is, spread beyond the breast and regional lymph nodes. One cannot tell from the article whether EP’s cancer spread is documented or implied. But because of the poor prognosis and presumed incurability in either case, options are limited. In the 1980s -90s, HDCT/BMT was thought to be a promising method on the basis of studies that showed a prolonged disease-free and overall survival compared to results of prior studies using more conservative treatment. The problem then was that the studies were uncontrolled.
Measuring placebo effects (often misleadingly referred to as the placebo effect – singular) is a part of standard clinical trial design, because they need to be distinguished from the physiological effects of the treatment under study. Rarely, however, are placebo effects the actual target being measured, but such is the case with a new study published in the most recent edition of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) – Components of placebo effect: randomised controlled trial in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. (Here is a summary if you cannot access the article directly.)
Dr. Ted Kaptchuk et.al. studied the response to various placebo treatments in 262 adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The three groups were designed to address three major categories of placebo effects: 1) response to the process of being assessed and observed, 2) response to being given a placebo treatment, and 3) response to the patient-practitioner relationship. These types of placebo effects were represented by three treatment arms: 1) observation alone, 2) placebo acupuncture, 3) placebo acupuncture plus an “augmented” practitioner-patient relationship – with added “warmth, attention, and confidence.”
Laetrile and the Politics of NIH-Sponsored trials of “Alternative Cancer Treatments”
Part I of this blog ended by asking how, in light of the implausible and arduous nature of the “Gonzalez regimen” for cancer of the pancreas, and the unconvincing “best case series,” the NIH could ever have decided to fund a trial of it.† This entry will begin to answer that question. In so doing it may seem to veer from the original subject, but hold on to your seats: what you’ll find here is a piece of the treasure map that leads to the Mother Lode of Fool’s Gold that is government-sponsored “CAM” research.
All historical accounts of the encroachment of implausible claims into the research agenda of the NIH must begin with Laetrile. By that is meant all implausible claims, not merely those having to do with cancer. Elsewhere we have traced the history of “chelation therapy” for coronary artery disease, and have shown that its origins as a political movement, eventually leading to an unethical, $30 million, 2000 subject NIH trial, were intimately associated with people and organizations advocating Laetrile—the most lucrative health fraud ever perpetrated in the United States. In that essay we offer evidence that the creation of the NCCAM itself was at least partly attributable to the history of Laetrile and its advocates. Several good histories or partial histories of the Laetrile debacle are available online, including here, here, here, here, here, and here. The best,¹ but one that does not seem to be available online, is by the recently deceased dean of historians of American quackery, James Harvey Young. (more…)
Blogger’s note: This blog, which is rough going in places, will be presented in either 2 or 3 parts (I won’t know which until next week). I’ll post a part each week until it is complete, but due to overwhelming popular demand I promise to maintain the every-other-week posting of the far more amusing Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo/2.
On Feb. 25, 2008, the federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) cited Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) for violating Title 45, Part 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations: Protection of Human Subjects (45CFR§46). The violations involved Columbia’s administration of the NIH-sponsored trial of the bizarre “Gonzalez Regimen” for treating cancer of the pancreas.† The OHRP’s determination letter to Steven Shea, MD, the Director of the Division of General Medicine and Senior Vice-Dean at CUMC, cited ethical problems of a serious kind:
We determine that the informed consent for the 40 of 62 subjects referenced by CUMC was not documented prior to the start of research activities, nor was the requirement for documentation waived by the CUMC IRB for subjects in this study.
It was the second time that the OHRP had cited Columbia for its dubious management of the “Gonzalez” trial. The first occurred in Dec. 2002, after investigators had determined that the trial’s consent form “did not list the risk of death from coffee enemas.” The OHRP listed several other violations at that time, but “redacted” them from the letter that it made available to the public. (more…)
One of the greatest challenges in medicine can sometimes be to convince patients that the results of scientific and medical research apply to them, or, at the very least, to explain how such results apply. One of the reasons that medicine based not on science or evidence fluorishes is because it can be so hard to explain to patients why a particular intervention is viewed as effective. My co-blogger Steve Novella wrote about some of the fallibilities of human perception that lead to perceiving correlations and treatment effectiveness where there are none. R. Robert Bausell wrote about the same thing in his recent book Snake Oil Science. While it is undoubtedly true that people tend to pay more attention to anecdotes than to studies and statistics, there is also another reason why doctors often have problems convincing patients of the value of health interventions, and that’s the difference in perception and how we value different kinds of evidence.
A couple of years ago, I came across an article that explains this gulf between how those of us trying to practice science- and evidence-based medicine perceive the world and how most human beings not trained in medicine or science perceive it. The article, which was published in 2006 in the New York Times and written by Dr. Abigail Zuker, proposed one reason why this might be, beginning with a discussion with her mother in which she tries to convince her of the benefit of exercise, even in the elderly, a concept that her mother would have none of and dismissed contemptuously:
“Studies,” she says, dripping scorn. “Don’t give me studies. Look at Tee. Look at all the exercise she did. She never stopped exercising. Look what happened to her.”
End of discussion. Tee, her old friend and contemporary, took physical fitness seriously, and wound up bedbound in a nursing home, felled by osteoporosis and strokes, while my mother, who has not broken a sweat in the last 60 years, still totters around on ever-thinning pins. So much for exercise. So much for studies. So much for modern clinical medicine, based on the randomized allocation of treatment and placebo. All that beautiful science, stymied by the single, incontrovertible, inescapable image of Tee, the one who exercised but grew hunched and crippled anyway.
A recent meta-analysis of the most commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs raises some very important questions for science-based medicine. The study: Initial Severity and Antidepressant Benefits: A Meta-Analysis of Data Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration, was conducted by Irving Kirsch and colleagues, who reviewed clinical trials of six antidepressants (fluoxetine, venlafaxine, nefazodone, paroxetine, sertraline, and citalopram). They looked at all studies submitted to the FDA prior to approval, whether published or unpublished. They found:
Drug–placebo differences in antidepressant efficacy increase as a function of baseline severity, but are relatively small even for severely depressed patients. The relationship between initial severity and antidepressant efficacy is attributable to decreased responsiveness to placebo among very severely depressed patients, rather than to increased responsiveness to medication.
The press has largely reported this study as showing that “antidepressants don’t work” but the full story is more complex. This analysis certainly has important implications for how we should view the body of evidence for these antidepressants. It also illuminates the possible role of publication bias in the body of scientific literature – something that has far ranging implications for science-based medicine.
RCT Plausibility Scale
After a few intro paragraphs, I want to present a scale of probability to estimate a value of a “prior” to plug into the formula for obtaining a Bayes Factor. The scale can help to estimate a value, but will still rely on an estimate, the non-quantitative element in Bayesian simulations. However, the checklist may at least provide some objective bases on which to hang a value, and that value would actually make a semi-quantitative statement of its own. Although that value would retain some subjective quality, it would at least be backed by known quantities and laws of nature.
Begging your patience again, I became aware of this problem in 1999 when asked to moderate an online (BioMednet.com) debate on “CAM” among 4 physicians. My role soon morphed into participant-debater when I could not get all to agree on what I thought was obvious common ground to proceed with the discussion – that 1) concepts that violate scientific laws do not have to be subjected to clinical trial (RCT) and that trial results had to be interpreted in light of previous knowledge; and 2) clinical trials could not constitute adequate evidence in the absence of plausibility because their results were too varied and inconsistent. The matter was p-recipitated by systematic reviews (SRs) showing efficacy of acupuncture in back pain. I was truly surprised when one of the participants (Dr. Edzard Ernst) assured me that indeed, RCTs were now the gold standard for efficacy. The debate went downhill from there.