Archive for Clinical Trials

The Center for Inquiry weighs in on the FDA’s mishandling of Stanislaw Burzynski’s clinical trials

We interrupt our usually scheduled post for an important announcement. OK, we do nothing of the sort. Scott Gavura’s post will go live a little later this morning. In the meantime, here’s a public service announcement about a frequent topic of mine, Stanislaw Burzynski, that I’d like you to read.

As you recall, last week, the FDA inexplicably decided to lift the partial clinical hold on Stanislaw Burzynski’s bogus clinical trials of antineoplastons, which he’s used since the 1990s as a pretext to charge huge sums of money for “case management fees” to patients for a treatment whose efficacy he has never demonstrated. Yesterday, the Center for Inquiry laid in, and has sent a letter to legislators:

“We are frankly stunned to hear that the clinical hold against Dr. Burzynski has been lifted,” writes CFI in its letter. For decades, Dr. Burzynski and the Houston-based Burzynski Research Institute have been trafficking in unproven and scientifically baseless cancer treatments based on compounds known as antineoplastons, derived from human urine, which Burzynski claims — without evidence — can target and destroy cancer cells. He has taken advantage of desperate patients who are at their most vulnerable, and willing to pay any price.

After the death of a six-year-old patient in 2012, the FDA placed a hold on Burzynski’s trials with children, followed by a hold on trials with adults in 2013, prohibiting him from taking on new patients on whom he could experiment and from whom he could extract more money.

Over several decades, his clinic has proven it is unable to properly protect patient rights, adhere to basic ethical or scientific protocols, or even maintain correct patient records. It has also shown it is willing to exploit desperate cancer patients and their families, milking them out of enormous sums of money. But it has yet to show even a shred of evidence that its cancer treatments have any positive effect whatsoever.

“We struggle to see why the FDA continues to enable this deceptive, antiscientific, and unethical medical adventurism and profiteering, even for patients who are terminally ill,” writes CFI. “Given the behavior of Dr. Burzynski and the Burzynski Research Institute over the course of nearly three decades of failed research and trials, and in the face of a complete lack of scientific evidence demonstrating the efficacy of their expensive and dangerous antineoplaston treatment, we find the FDA’s decision perplexing and profoundly disturbing.”

The full text of the letter can be found here.

If only groups like the American Cancer Society would write similar letters. Cancer patients have been taken advantage of for nearly four decades, and Burzynski has made a mockery of the clinical trial process for nearly 20 years. It’s gone on way too long.

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Beware The P-Value

Part of the mission of SBM is to continually prod discussion and examination of the relationship between science and medicine, with special attention on those beliefs and movements within medicine that we feel run counter to science and good medical practice. Chief among them is so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) – although proponents are constantly tweaking the branding, for convenience I will simply refer to it as CAM.

Within academia I have found that CAM is promoted largely below the radar, with the deliberate absence of public debate and discussion. I have been told this directly, and that the reason is to avoid controversy. This stance assumes that CAM is a good thing and that any controversy would be unjustified, perhaps the result of bigotry rather than reason. It’s sad to see how successful this campaign has been, even among my fellow academics and scientists who should know better.

The reality is that CAM is fatally flawed in both philosophy and practice, and the claims of CAM proponents wither under direct light. I take some small solace in the observation that CAM is starting to be the victim of its own success – growing awareness of CAM is shedding some inevitable light on what it actually is. Further, because CAM proponents are constantly trying to bend and even break the rules of science, this forces a close examination of what those rules should actually be, how they work, and their strengths and weaknesses.


Posted in: Clinical Trials

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Stanislaw Burzynski’s propaganda victory on antineoplastons: The FDA really caves

It’s been a while since I wrote a substantive post for this blog about the Houston cancer doctor and Polish expat Stanislaw Burzynski who claims to have a fantastic treatment for cancer that blows away conventional treatment for cancers that are currently incurable. The time has come—and not for good reasons. The last time was primarily just a post announcing my article about Burzynski being published in Skeptical Inquirer. When last we saw Stanislaw Burzynski on this blog, it was a post that I hated to write, in which I noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had caved to patient and legislator pressure and allowed compassionate use exemptions (otherwise known as single patient INDs) to continue. The catch? Cynically, the FDA put a condition on its decision, specifically that no doctor associated with Burzynski nor Burzynski himself could administer the antineoplastons. This set off a mad scramble among Burzynski patients wanting ANPs to find a doctor willing to do all the paperwork and deal with Burzynski to administer ANPs. The family of one patient, McKenzie Lowe, managed to succeed.

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost three years since I first started taking an interest in Burzynski. Three long years, but that’s less than one-twelfth the time that Burzynski has been actually been administering an unproven cancer treatment known as antineoplastons (ANPs), a drug that has not been FDA-approved, to patients, which he began doing in 1977. Yes, back when Burzynski got started administering ANPs to patients, I was just entering high school, the Internet as we know it did not exist yet (just a much smaller precursor), and disco ruled the music charts. It’s even harder for me to believe, given the way that Burzynski abuses clinical trial ethics and science, that I hadn’t paid much attention to him much earlier in my blogging career. After all, I’m a cancer surgeon, and here’s been this guy treating patients with advanced brain cancers using peptides that, according to Burzynski, do so much better against what are now incurable tumors than standard of care while charging huge sums of money to patients on “clinical trials.” It might be a cliché to quote the Dead this way, but what a long, strange trip it’s been. Because there has been a major development in this saga whose context you need to know to understand, I’m going to do a brief recap. Long-time regulars, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs, as they just try to bring people up to date and include a lot of links for background, or, if you haven’t already, read this summary of Burzynski’s history published earlier this year in Skeptical Inquirer. Newbies, listen up. Read the next two paragraphs. You need to know this to understand why I’m so unhappy. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Did Facebook and PNAS violate human research protections in an unethical experiment?



I daresay that I’m like a lot of you in that I spend a fair bit of time on Facebook. This blog has a Facebook page (which, by the way, you should head on over and Like immediately). I have a Facebook page, several of our bloggers, such as Harriet Hall, Steve Novella, Mark Crislip, Scott Gavura, Paul Ingraham, Jann Bellamy, Kimball Atwood, John Snyder, and Clay Jones, have Facebook pages. It’s a ubiquitous part of life, and arguably part of the reason for our large increase in traffic over the last year. There are many great things about Facebook, although there are a fair number of issues as well, mostly having to do with privacy and a tendency to use automated scripts that can be easily abused by cranks like antivaccine activists to silence skeptics refuting their pseudoscience. Also, of course, every Facebook user has to realize that Facebook makes most of its money through targeted advertising directed at its users; so the more its users reveal the better it is for Facebook, which can more precisely target advertising.

Whatever good and bad things about Facebook there are, however, there’s one thing that I never expected the company to be engaging in, and that’s unethical human subjects research, but if stories and blog posts appearing over the weekend are to be believed, that’s exactly what it did, and, worse, it’s not very good research. The study, entitled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks“, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), and its corresponding (and first) author is Adam D. I. Kramer, who is listed as being part of the Core Data Science Team at Facebook. Co-authors include Jamie E. Guillory at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California, San Francisco and Jeffrey T. Hancock from the Departments of Communication and Information Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Computers & Internet, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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Acupuncture for Macular Degeneration: Why I Reject the Evidence

This post is dedicated to two people who are frequent commenters on SBM, Stephen S. Rodrigues and Peter Moran. Rodrigues is an MD/acupuncturist who tries to persuade us that acupuncture is effective. Moran is a retired surgeon who objects to insulting language and thinks more can be accomplished by trying to better understand why people turn to CAM and by explaining the facts and reasons politely and dispassionately. He has claimed that he “could probably help [Rodrigues] understand better why his views are not having much impact.”

I recently wrote about supplements for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). There is evidence that the supplement mixture tested in the AREDS trial slows the progression of moderate to advanced disease. That is based on a good scientific study, although the study has not been replicated and there is reason to interpret its results with caution. Dr. Rodrigues commented with a link to a website advertising the Santa Fe acupuncture protocol, saying that he uses the method in his office and it helps some of his patients with AMD. The website claims that the Santa Fe acupuncture protocol will reverse vision loss from macular degeneration in 4 days or your money back. That is a bold claim. I will try to explain, as politely as possible, why I reject the claim, and why the evidence for it is unacceptable. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Ophthalmology

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Macular Degeneration and AREDS 2 Supplements

What AMD does to vision

What AMD does to vision

Four years ago I wrote about the premature marketing of a diet supplement for macular degeneration before the results of a trial to test it were available. Now that we know the results of that trial, a follow-up post is in order.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of blindness. The incidence increases with age; it affects 10% of people by age 66-74 and 30% of people by age 75-85. There are known risk factors including genetics and smoking, but there is no effective prevention. There are multiple diet supplement products on the market that are advertised as “supporting eye health.” Some are based on evidence from randomized, controlled studies; but the advertising hype goes beyond the evidence and tends to mislead consumers. There is evidence that supplementation may slow the progression of moderate to severe AMD, but there is no evidence that supplements are effective in milder disease or for preventing AMD from developing in the first place. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements

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Of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy, Bayes, the NIH, and Human Studies Ethics

An experiment is ethical or not at its inception; it does not become ethical post hoc—ends do not justify means.
~ Henry K. Beecher


A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Josephine Briggs, the Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), posted a short essay on the NCCAM Research Blog touting the results of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) (italics added):

The authors found that those receiving the active treatment clearly fared better than those receiving placebo. The accompanying editorial in the AHJ reminds readers about the value of equipoise and the need to “test our beliefs against evidence.”

Most physicians did not expect benefit from chelation treatment for cardiovascular disease. I readily admit, initially, I also did not expect we would find evidence that these treatments reduce heart attack, strokes, or death. So, the evidence of benefit coming from analyses of the TACT trial has been a surprise to many of us. The subgroup analyses are suggesting sizable benefit for diabetic patients—and also, importantly, no benefit for the non-diabetic patient. Clearly subgroup analyses, even if prespecified, do not give us the final answer. But it is also clear that more research is needed to test these important findings.

And TACT findings are indeed a reminder of the importance of retaining equipoise [sic], seeking further research aimed at replicating the findings, and neither accepting nor rejecting findings based on personal biases. The scientific process is designed to weed out our preconceived notions and replace them with evidence.

Dr. Briggs concluded:

So, TACT is a reminder—an open mind is at the center of the scientific method.

Dr. Briggs’s title was “Bayes’ Rule and Being Ready To Change Our Minds”, a reference to a recent editorial that had accompanied one of the TACT papers. That editorial, by Dr. Sanjay Kaul, a physician and statistician from UCLA, begins with this quotation:

Preconceived notions are the locks on the door to wisdom.
~ Merry Browne

Here is the relevant passage from Dr. Kaul’s editorial (italics added):

Sixth, it has been argued that the trial was unethical because there was no compelling clinical or preclinical evidence that chelation therapy has significant efficacy against atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, and given that chelation therapy can cause harm, the risk was not minimal. A Bayesian analysis would not look kindly on the results because of the low prior probability of treatment effect (the so-called implausibility argument).6 This is an uncharitable (and unwarranted) interpretation of the data because previous systematic reviews concluded, “insufficient evidence to decide on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of chelation therapy in improving clinical outcomes among people with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” It is axiomatic that absence of evidence of efficacy is not the same as evidence of the absence of efficacy.

From a Bayesian perspective, the strength of evidence is often summarized using a Bayes factor, which is a measure of how well 2 competing hypotheses (the null and the alternate) predict the data. The Bayes factor and the corresponding strength of evidence for the primary end point result in TACT overall, and diabetic cohorts are shown in Table 1. The p-value of 0.035 for TACT overall cohort translates into a Bayes factor of 0.108, which means the evidence supports the null hypothesis ≈1/9th as strongly as it does the alternative. This reduces the null probability from 50% pretrial (justified by suspension of one’s belief in treatment effect) to 10% post-trial. Although this does not represent strong evidence against the null, it does reduce the level of skepticism surrounding chelation therapy. In the diabetic cohort, the nominal p-value of 0.0002 translates into a Bayes factor of 0.002 (1/500), which reduces the extremely skeptical prior null probability of 95% to 4% post- trial, indicating very strong evidence against the null.

In concluding, Dr. Kaul states:

Finally, TACT highlights the double standard when it comes to accepting inconvenient results not aligned with our preconceived notions on so-called dubious quack cures such as chelation…

Closed minds?

Dr. Kaul’s reference “6” above is to a lengthy article that we published in 2008 titled “Why the NIH Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy Should Be Abandoned”. So, it seems, both Drs. Briggs and Kaul were chastising us for our biased, preconceived beliefs about so-called dubious quack cures. Our minds were, apparently, not open. Let’s examine this contention. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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In which Dr. Gorski is taken to task by an eminent radiologist for his posts on mammography


Introduction: An unexpected e-mail arrives

One of the consequences of the growing traffic and prominence of this blog over the last few years is that people who would otherwise have probably ignored what I or my partners in blogging write now sometimes actually take notice. Nearly a decade ago, long before I joined this blog as a founding blogger, if I wrote a post criticizing something that a prominent academic said, it was highly unlikely that that person would even become aware of it, much less bother to respond to whatever my criticism was. I was, quite simply, beneath their notice, sometimes happily, sometimes unhappily.

It appears that those days might be over. Last week Dr. Daniel Kopans, a prominent Harvard radiologist and well-known long-time defender of screening mammography, sent me a rather unhappy e-mail complaining about my “attack” on him on this blog, a charge that he repeated in a subsequent e-mail. Before I publish his initial e-mail verbatim (with his permission), I would like to point out that, while it’s true that I did criticize some of Dr. Kopans’ statements rather harshly in my post about the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS), even characterizing one statement as a “howler,” I would hardly characterize what I wrote as an “attack.” That to me tends to imply a personal attack. Using Dr. Kopans’ apparent definition, what he has said and written about investigators like those running the CNBSS, as documented in my post, about H. Gilbert Welch, who published a large study in 2012 estimating the extent of overdiagnosis due to mammography, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the group that in 2009 suggested changing guidelines for routine screening mammography in asymptomatic women to begin at age 50 instead of age 40, would appear to also qualify as “attacks.”

Be that as it may, I also wondered why Dr. Kopans hadn’t noticed my CNBSS post until more than three months after it had originally appeared. Then, the day after I received Dr. Kopans’ e-mail, my Google Alert on mammography popped up an article in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Kopans entitled “Mammograms Save Lives: Criticism of breast-cancer screenings is more about rationing than rationality.” That’s when I guessed that someone probably had either posted or e-mailed Dr. Kopans a link to my previous post in response to that article. Given the confluence of events, I think it’s a perfect time to discuss both Dr. Kopans’ e-mail and his article, because they cover many of the same issues. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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What’s in a name?: NCCAM tries to polish a turd


What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on its tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig.

You can paint a turd red, but it’s still a turd.

There’s a colloquial phrase commonly used to describe an effort to sell or promote something that is so inherently awful or at least so flawed as to be unsalvageable without either a radical rethinking or such a major overhaul that it would be impractical or impossible to do: Polishing a turd. In this, advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) have been very successful. Mark Crislip, in his usual inimitable fashion, just reminded us why CAM is a turd that needs polishing. Unfortunately, on Friday, I learned that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine unveiled a proposal to help it be more efficient in polishing the turd that is CAM through the clever use of language, and it wants your feedback. There were lots of other things that happened over the last few days that tempted me to write about them that will likely have to appear over at my not-so-secret other blog, but this one caught my attention and held it, given that it goes to the very heart of the deceptive use of language that is at the heart of giving CAM the appearance of legitimacy. In this specific case, NCCAM wants a new name. Dr. Briggs wants to rename NCCAM the National Center for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health (NCRCI). (I have no idea why the abbreviation of the proposed new center name isn’t NCRCIH.) Here’s Dr. Briggs explaining the rationale for the proposal and urging feedback by June 6 at I urge you to watch the whole video, or at least read the transcript:

Thus does Dr. Briggs propose polishing the turd that is NCCAM.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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More Dialogs

There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking. JAMA

Just just because there are flaws in aircraft design that doesn’t mean flying carpets exist. Ben Goldacre

Wiser heads than I have commented on “Invitation to a Dialogue: Alternative Therapies” in The New York Times. So why add my two cents? Partly because The New York Times wanted brief responses and I don’t do brief. Partly because I write for me; nothing focuses the mind like putting electrons to LCD, except, perhaps, a hanging. Partly we do need a dialog, just not of the kind suggested by the writer. And partly, life has been so busy of late I needed a topic that required no research. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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