Has one physician uncovered the secret to Olympic Gold medals? And is that secret as simple as undiagnosed low thyroid function? That’s the question posed in a recent Wall Street Journal column entitled U.S. Track’s Unconventional Physician. Like the story that Steven Novella described yesterday, this narrative describes the medical practice of Dr. Jeffrey S. Brown, who sees thyroid illness where others see normal thyroid function. He has his critics, but his high-profile athlete patients have won a collective 15 Olympic gold medals. Case closed & Q.E.D.? Not quite. The WSJ actually does a pretty good job questioning the validity of Brown’s claims, which are far removed from the current medical consensus:
In athletic circles, Brown is a medical hero. He’s a paid medical consultant to Nike. The most renowned running coach at Nike, Alberto Salazar, calls Brown the best sports endocrinologist in the world. And athletes in growing numbers are coming to share Brown’s belief that heavy training can suppress the body’s production of the thyroid hormone, leaving them too exhausted to perform at peak. On the wall of the medical office of Jeffrey S. Brown is a photograph of Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist. Lewis is one of several former or current patients of Brown’s who have climbed the Olympic podium, including Galen Rupp, who won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the London Olympics. “The patients I’ve treated have won 15 Olympic gold medals,” said Brown. Among endocrinologists, Brown stands almost alone in believing that endurance athletics can induce early onset of a hormonal imbalance called hypothyroidism, the condition with which he diagnosed Lewis and Rupp. Brown said he knows of no other endocrinologists treating athletes for hypothyroidism, a fatigue-causing condition that typically strikes women middle-aged or older. Several endocrinology leaders had never heard of hypothyroidism striking young athletes.
Now when I read “unconventional” and “stands alone” my skeptical alarm starts ringing. There is no shortage of debate about thyroid disease, ranging from the utter nonsense offered by “alternative health” practitioners to valid scientific discussions about the thresholds where normal function is considered abnormal and subject to treatment. Brown is an endocrinologist, however, and he’s treating elite athletes who are pushing their physical conditioning far beyond that seen by most medical doctors and almost all endocrinologists. So what’s the basis of the concern? The WSJ story goes on to discuss two different issues: What the proper threshold is for thyroid disease, and whether thyroid replacement is performance enhancing. Let’s take each of these in turn. I’ve covered thyroid diseases and its related pseudoscience before, and a summary of the standard approach is necessary before we look at the some of the broader questions that have emerged from the story. All I know about these patients is what the WSJ is describing, so for the sake of brevity I’m going to focus on the types of cases that Dr. Brown appears to be identifying and ignore other causes of thyroid disease, which would require different treatment approaches.
A recent article in the LA times tells of a husband’s quest to find a treatment for his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. This is a narrative that journalists know and love—the brave patient or loved-one who won’t accept the nihilism of the medical establishment, who finds a maverick doctor willing to buck the system.
The article itself at least was not gushing, it tended toward a neutral tone, but such articles do tend to instill in the public a very counterproductive attitude toward science and medicine. I would have preferred an exposé of a dubious clinic exploiting desperate patients by peddling false hope. That is a narrative in which journalists rarely engage.
The story revolves around Dr. Edward Tobinick and his practice of perispinal etanercept (Enbrel) for a long and apparently growing list of conditions. Enbrel is an FDA-approved drug for the treatment of severe rheumatoid arthritis. It works by inhibiting tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which is a group of cytokines that are part of the immune system and cause cell death. Enbrel, therefore, can be a powerful anti-inflammatory drug. Tobinick is using Enbrel for many off-label indications, one of which is Alzheimer’s disease (the focus of the LA Times story).
Stem cells are magical.
At least, if you listen to what docs and “practitioners” who run stem cell clinics in various parts of the world, usually where regulation is lax and money from First World clientele is much sought after, that’s what you could easily come to believe. Unfortunately, it’s not just Third World countries in which “stem cell clinics” have proliferated. For instance, they are not nearly uncommon enough in Europe. The example that is most troubling right now is Italy, and the reason is that there is currently a law being considered that would greatly weaken the regulation of stem cell therapies, so much so that on Friday I saw something that’s fairly rare: a major scientific journal published a pointed editorial about this new law. Specifically EMBO Journal published a commentary by an international group of scientists warning about the path that the government of Italy is considering entitled Regulation of stem cell therapies under attack in Europe: for whom the bell tolls.
Stem cell quackery is a very popular form of quackery these days because, well, stem cells are so magical-seeming. You can now find stem cell treatments offered for autism (one of which, offered at a clinic in Costa Rica, I’ve discussed before and involves injecting “stem cells” into the cerebrospinal fluid of autistic children for a cool $15,000). Kent Heckenlively, the man who took his daughter to the aforementioned Costa Rica clinic for this treatment, is not alone in subjecting his autistic child to such unproven uses of stem cells. Just a couple of months ago, a broadcast journalist in the Philippines named Karen Davila took her autistic son to the Villa Medica Clinic in Germany, which offers variants of stem cell therapy. One is known as “fresh cell therapy” and involves harvesting cells from lamb fetuses and injecting them into the patient. The other is called fat stem cell repair therapy, which is claimed to involve harvesting fat from the patient’s abdomen or thigh and then isolating “stem cells” from them to be injected back into the patient’s body.
Now that the XMRV myth has been put to rest, patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) are no longer jumping the gun to demand anti-retroviral treatments. But they are jumping the gun in new ways, based on very preliminary data coming out of Norway.
A correspondent in Norway wrote to tell me patients from Norway with myalgic encephalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are travelling to the US to have Dr. Andreas Kogelnik in San Francisco treat them with IV infusions of rituximab, apparently to no avail. A course of treatment costs over $6000, not to speak of travel and other expenses. (more…)
“One of the most important discoveries I believe we’ve made that will help you burn fat – green coffee bean extract” – Dr. Oz, September 10, 2012, Episode “The Fat Burner that Works”
Dr. Mehmet Oz may be biggest purveyor of health pseudoscience on television today. How he came to earn this title is a bit baffling, if you look at his history. Oz is a bona fide heart surgeon, (still operating 100 times per year), an academic, and a research scientist, with 300+ or 400+ (depending on the source) publications to his name. It’s an impressive CV, even before the television fame. He gained widespread recognition as the resident “health expert” on Oprah, and went on to launch his own show in 2009. Today “The Dr. Oz Show” is a worldwide hit, with distribution in 118 countries, a massive pulpit from which he offers daily health advice to over 3 million viewers in the USA alone. For proof of his power to motivate, just look at the “Transformation Nation Million Dollar You” program he launched in 2011, enrolling an amazing 1.25 million participants. Regrettably, what Oz chooses to do with this platform is often disappointing. While he can offer some sensible, pragmatic health advice, his show’s content seems more focused on TV ratings than medical accuracy, and it’s a regular venue for questionable health advice (his own, or provided by guests) and poorly substantiated “quick fixes” for health issues. (And I won’t even touch Oz’s guests like psychic mediums.) One need only look at the number of times the term “miracle” is used on the show as a marker of the undeserved hyperbole. Just this week, Julia Belluz and Stephen J Hoffman, writing in Slate, itemized some of the dubious advice that Oz has offered on his show, with a reality check against what the scientific evidence says. It’s not pretty. (more…)
We can’t stress often enough that anecdotes are not reliable evidence; but on the other hand, patient stories can serve a valuable purpose in medical education. Hearing how a disease affected an individual patient is more powerful than reading a list of symptoms in a textbook and is far more likely to fix the disease in the student’s memory. When I think of Parkinson’s disease, the first thing that comes to mind is my first patient with Parkinson’s and how he responded to levodopa; and the first thing that may come to many people’s minds is Michael J. Fox. Of course, we must realize that they may not be typical examples; but putting a face to a diagnosis serves as a memory aid and a hook to hang the rest of our knowledge on.
In his new book, The Power of Patient Stories: Learning Moments in Medicine, Paul F. Griner, MD relates more than 50 stories that distill the wisdom he has developed over a 58-year career of practicing medicine and teaching young doctors. He describes them as “stories that provided a learning moment for me.” It’s interesting to see how much medicine has changed over his professional lifetime and yet how cases from the 50s and 60s are still highly relevant. Ethical dilemmas and lessons about medical practice come alive under his pen. Each story is followed by incisive questions and exercises that engage the reader and challenge him to think about the issues. (more…)
The ill-advised, NIH-sponsored Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) is finally over. 839 human subjects were randomized to receive Na2EDTA infusions; 869 were randomized to receive placebo infusions. The results were announced at this weekend’s American Heart Association meeting in Los Angeles. In summary, the TACT authors report a slight advantage for chelation over placebo in the “primary composite endpoint,” a combination of five separate outcomes: death, myocardial infarction, stroke, coronary revascularization, and hospitalization for angina:
Although that result may seem intriguing, it becomes less so when the data are examined more carefully. First, it barely achieved the pre-ordained level of statistical significance, which was P=.036. Second, none of the individual components of the composite endpoint achieved statistical significance, and most of the absolute difference was in coronary revascularization–which is puzzling:
The burgeoning U.S. stem cell therapy industry was delivered a setback last month in the form of a U.S. District Court injunction against use of the “Regenexx™ Procedure,” which purports to treat joint, muscle, tendon or bone pain due to injury or other conditions. The court agreed with the FDA that the cell product used in the procedure is both a drug and a “biological product” subject to FDA regulation. Because a similar process is used in other stem cell therapies the decision increases the possibility that the FDA will take a like position in other cases.
The general term “stem cell therapy” comprises an array of treatments which range from the clinically proven to quackery. On one end of the spectrum is blood stem cell transplantation to treat diseases and conditions of the blood and immune system. On the other lies the kind of stem cell therapy tourism addressed by both Steve Novella (here and here) and Orac (here and here), which involves the injection of what may, or may not be, stem cells from what may, or may not be, humans. In between fall therapies which are plausible and have promise but have not been adequately tested in clinical trials. There is a concern that these therapies are being oversold by clinics which charge thousands of dollars (not reimbursed by insurance) to treat conditions including multiple sclerosis, musculoskeletal pain, and cardiac disease.