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The Gerson protocol, cancer, and the death of Jess Ainscough, a.k.a. “The Wellness Warrior”

The Wellness Warrior website now redirects to this photo.

The Wellness Warrior website now redirects to this photo.

Less than four days ago, a young Australian woman died of a very rare type of cancer. Most of my American and probably many of my European readers have never heard of her, but in Australia she had become quite famous over the last seven years as a major proponent of “natural health.” Her name was Jess Ainscough, but, like a certain American woman who has become famous for promoting dubious science, she was better known by her “brand” name. That brand name was The Wellness Warrior.

I first encountered Ms. Ainscough about a year and a half ago and have been intermittently following her career ever since. I’ve even blogged about her three or four times during that period over at my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, for whatever reason, even though it was my intent to write about her here on Science-Based Medicine, I never got around to it. Her death prodded me to write now, because her tale is a cautionary one important enough that I believe there should be something written here about it. Given that, those of you who follow my cubical other self will find some of this post repetitive. However, think of it as the first opportunity I’ve had to tell the story from beginning to end, along with a major deconstruction of the Gerson protocol. (Yes, unfortunately the Gerson protocol figures heavily in this story.) It’s a story that has led to the deaths of at least two people, and whose harm to others is impossible to quantify, given that the reach of The Wellness Warrior was long, at least in Australia.
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, History, Science and the Media

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How not to report about vaccine safety issues, Toronto Star edition

This is the original headline of the Toronto Star's scientifically incompetent and fear mongering Gardasil story. It was later changed to "Families seek more transparency on HPV vaccine."

This is the original headline of the Toronto Star‘s scientifically incompetent and fear mongering Gardasil story. It was later changed to “Families seek more transparency on HPV vaccine.”

I remember it well, because several of my readers forwarded it to me not long after it appeared on the website of the Toronto Star: An eye-catching headline proclaiming a “wonder drug’s dark side,” that “wonder drug” being Gardasil, one of two vaccines against the human papilloma virus (HPV) designed to prevent cervical cancer by preventing infection with the HPV virus. The story’s caption blared:

Hundreds of thousands of teen girls in Canada have safely taken Gardasil, a vaccine shown to prevent HPV. But a Star investigation has found that since 2008 at least 60 Canadians have experienced debilitating illnesses after inoculation. Patients and parents say the incidents point to the importance of full disclosure of risks.

There was even a video that would have been right at home on a variety of antivaccine websites, such as Age of Autism, SafeMinds, or VaxTruth:

Indeed, the video above reminded me more than anything else, of a segment from the antivaccine “documentary” that functions as antivaccine propaganda, The Greater Good, which portrays as one of its vaccine “victims” Gabi Swank, a girl whose story is not unlike that of Kaitlyn Armstrong, the teen profiled by the Star. Both girls had a deterioration of their health that appears to have happened sometime after receiving Gardasil. Both attribute their health issues to Gardasil. Neither story was examined with even a modicum of skepticism or critical thinking. In fact, part of the reason I recognized immediately how bad the Star story was derives from my previous experience examining similar stories promoted by the particularly vociferous wing of the antivaccine movement that focuses on the perceived “evils” of Gardasil. That’s something we expect from an antivaccine propaganda film like The Greater Good. We expect better from investigative journalists like David Bruser and Jesse McLean. We don’t get it.

I had meant to blog about this incident because the Star story was such a horrendously bad story from a scientific perspective, but, blogging being what it is, other topics intruded and for some reason I never got back to this topic. Over the last 11 days, however, the criticism and inept responses kept percolating along, as you will see, involving a clueless editor who lashed out at critics, a public editor who just didn’t “get it,” and a newspaper that took far too long to admit that it had screwed up epically and only then after sliming its critics. Fortunately, an excellent analysis in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Hiltzik provided me with an “in” to do the post I had wanted to do before. How the Toronto Star wrote the story is an object lesson in how not to do a vaccine safety story, and how it responded to reasonable criticism was an even more pointed lesson in how not to deal with scientific critics.

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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The Food Babe’s war on “chemicals” heats up again

The Food Babe

[Note: This is an extra bonus post. Because The Food Babe has been in the news and I couldn’t wait until today, I discussed it at a certain not-so-super-secret blog. If you’ve read it before, it’s only somewhat modified and updated. If you haven’t, it’s new to you. Either way, feel free to comment. Completely new material by me will appear here in a scant few hours.]

It’s been a while since I’ve taken notice of Vani Hari, a.k.a. The Food Babe, the misguided “food safety” activist who sees chemicals, chemicals, chemicals everywhere and raises fears about them all, especially the ones that she can’t pronounce. The first time I took any significant notice of her was about a year ago, when she was making news for lobbying Subway to remove the “yoga mat chemical” azodicarbonamide from its bread, although I didn’t write about her here for a few months after that. As I explained at the time, azodicarbonamide is a chemical used in small amounts to mature bread dough, improve its handling properties, and produce a drier, more cohesive, and more pliable dough that holds together better during kneading by hand or machine. It is safe, breaks down during baking into small amounts of safe substances, and is only a hazard if you inhale it in powder form, where it can be a pulmonary irritant. Then, she made some astonishingly ignorant statements about beer, where she pulled the same routine, to the point where I labeled her tactics as the “appeal to yuckiness.” Basically, if something sounds yucky to her (such as isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladders of fish and is used in some beers to remove haziness and yeast byproducts), then it must be bad, either for you or just bad because it’s gross. It also turns out that The Food Babe makes quite a pretty penny spreading her ignorance and has become sought after to feature in various media appearances, such as magazine covers.

For the last few months I’ve been somewhat dreading February, because I knew Hari was poised to release her first book. As I described before, she has more than a fair amount of social media savvy and business acumen, which have allowed her to build the Food Babe brand rapidly and explains (to me at least) why she seemed to come out of nowhere on a trajectory to become as influential as Dr. Mehmet Oz. Her book, released this week, is called The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days! (Talk about ridiculously long subtitles!) You see, I knew that when it came time for Hari’s book to come out we’d be seeing a lot more of her, and unfortunately that’s what happened. As part of that publicity, Hari was featured in a fairly long feature article in The Atlantic by James Hamblin, The Food Babe: Enemy of Chemicals. It’s a relatively amusing title, to be sure, and there’s a lot that’s good about the article. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot that’s downright infuriating about it as well, the more so given that Hamblin is a physician and really should know better, but unfortunately in this piece he shows himself far more respectful of pseudoscience of the sort promoted by The Food Babe than a physician should be.
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Posted in: Nutrition, Science and the Media

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An aboriginal girl dies of leukemia: Parental “rights” versus the right of a child to medical care

makayla-sault-v2

One topic that keeps recurring and obligating me to write about it consists of critically analyzing stories of children with cancer whose parents, either on their own or at the behest of their child, stop or refuse chemotherapy or other treatment. It is, sadly, a topic that I’ve been discussing for nearly a decade now, starting first on my not-so-super-secret other blog and continuing both there and here. Indeed, the first post I wrote about this problem was in November 2005, a fact that depressed me when I went back through the archives to find it because so little has changed since that time.

I was painfully reminded of this last week when stories started circulating in the media about the death of Makayla Sault, an Ojibwe girl and member of the New Credit First Nation in Ontario:

The entire community of New Credit is in mourning today, following the news of the passing of 11 year old Makayla Sault.

The child suffered a stroke on Sunday morning and was unable to recover. Friends and family from across the province travelled to New Credit First Nation today to offer condolences, share tears and pay their respects.

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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Religion, Science and the Media

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The Disneyland measles outbreak: “Dr. Bob” Sears says measles isn’t that bad, and an antivaccine activist invokes the Brady Bunch fallacy

Editor’s note: There is an extra special bonus guest post today in addition to my regular post. It’s by Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell biologist, and it’s about unregulated stem cell clinics. Be sure to check it out!


BradyBunch

Last week, I wrote about a rather impressive measles outbreak at the “happiest place on earth,” a.k.a. Disneyland. At the time I wrote that post, the outbreak, which had reached several states, had spread to 17 people. As I sat down to write this, I wasn’t actually sure that this topic needed another post, but then I saw this:

As the number of measles cases continues to rise in Southern California following an outbreak at Disneyland last month, about two dozen unvaccinated students at one Orange County high school have been forced to stay home after a classmate contracted the disease.

In a message to students and parents at Huntington Beach High School on Thursday, Pamela Kahn, health and wellness coordinator at the Orange County Department of Education, said that students “who do not have any documented [measles, mumps and rubella] immunizations will be excluded from attending school until January 29.”

Also, the number of confirmed measles cases has climbed to 52, 46 of them in southern California. In Orange County itself, there were 16 cases as of Friday, ten of them linked to Disneyland, the rest not, a finding that’s led health officials to conclude that “measles has become more widespread throughout the county.” Not surprisingly, health officials in Californian are warning that the number is likely to go higher still. In fact, it’s already happening as “satellite” outbreaks are being reported as children infected at Disneyland come home and infect others.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Stem cell clinics and unapproved, for-profit human experimentation

Editor’s note: I met Dr. Paul Knoepfler online in the wake of my two posts on Gordie Howe and his stem cell treatment for stroke. I was impressed by his posts on the topic and what I saw at his own blog. Given that he’s a stem cell researcher, I wanted him to write a post on stem cell clinics like the one that treated Gordie Howe, and, I’m happy to say, he accepted my invitation and agreed to write this post. I hope to persuade him to write more for us in the future, even though he has his own blog.


When I started blogging in 2010 the stem cell arena was a very different place.

Back then the hot topic was the battle over the legality of federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. That battle is over, or at least in hibernation, with a 2013 federal court ruling allowing such funding to continue. The stem cell debate of today, which in its own way is just as fierce as the old one, is focused on how best to regulate the clinical translation and commercialization of innovative stem cell technologies.

The stakes in this new stem cell battle on the regulatory front are very high both for the stem cell field and for patients. Too little regulation could lead to harm to patients and damage to the stem cell field at a crucial juncture in its history, while too much regulation could stifle stem cell and regenerative medicine innovations.

Stem cell clinics should be better-regulated than a Starbucks

Stem cell clinics should be better-regulated than a Starbucks

The goal of stem cell advocates, including myself, is to find a regulatory sweet spot where science-based, innovative stem cell medicine can advance expeditiously. On the other side we have largely physicians and lawyers along with some patients arguing for drastically-reduced regulation and acceleration of for-profit stem cell interventions to patients, even without concrete data supporting safety or efficacy.

The latter group is a key part of a rapidly-proliferating stem cell clinic industry in the US. It consists of for-profit stem cell clinics that collectively have already conducted stem cell transplants on potentially thousands of patients without federal regulatory approval. These clinics have in effect thrown down the gauntlet to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with their use of non-FDA approved stem cell products on patients. (more…)

Posted in: Legal, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Is cancer due mostly to “bad luck”?

One of the more difficult conversations to have with a patient as a cancer doctor occurs when a patient, recently informed of her diagnosis of, for example, breast cancer, asks me, “Why did I get this? What caused it?” What almost inevitably follows is an uncomfortable conversation in which explanations of the multiple known causes of breast cancer do not satisfy the patient. The reason, of course, is because when a patient asks, “What caused it?” she doesn’t mean what causes breast cancer in general or in statistical terms. Rather, she means, what caused my breast cancer? It’s a question that can only occasionally be answered. For instance, if it’s lung cancer and the patient is a smoker, then it was almost certainly smoking that caused the cancer, because lung cancer is a relatively rare cancer in the absence of smoking. In the case of breast cancer, contrary to the prevailing belief that leads women with breast cancer to be puzzled about how they could get it when there’s “no cancer” in their families, only around 5-10% of cases have a familial or genetic component. That means that around 90% of breast cancers are what we call “sporadic,” which means that we can’t identify a specific cause. Or, as I like to say, “We just don’t know.” Worse, in the case of breast cancer, the environmental factors we know about appear to contribute modestly at best to the risk of cancer. (More on this later.)

Understandably, patients hate hearing “We just don’t know,” some vague handwaving about genes, and that there is nothing that we know of that they did that caused their cancer. People—including oncologists—really don’t like the concept of “sporadic” cancer, mainly because humans crave explanation. The default assumption is that everything must happen for a reason and there must be a cause for every disease or cancer. Perhaps the most ridiculously emphatic statement of this that I’ve encountered thus far comes from (who else?) über-quack Mike Adams when he heaped contempt on the idea of sporadic disease as “spontaneous disease.” He did this in the context of a story describing how, after Dr. Mehmet Oz had followed recommended care and undergone screening colonoscopy to look for polyps, he was shocked that he actually had some. This led Adams, in his usual inimitable fashion, to construct a straw man so massive that it could be seen from space when he set it on fire, declaring that “colon polyps, in other words, appear without any cause!” and that “mainstream medicine…believes in the theory of ‘spontaneous disease’ that ‘strikes’ people at random.”

Not exactly.

On the other hand, there is a lot of randomness in disease, not just cancer, as hard as it is for Mike Adams, or anyone to accept. Just because there is a varying amount of randomness in who gets a disease does not mean that mainstream medicine claims there is no cause to these diseases. Rather, for diseases like cancer, it’s a stochastic process, meaning that chance can play a role—sometimes a big role—in determining who gets sick. Indeed, just last week there was more evidence supporting this idea published in Science. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream press coverage presented the message of the paper a bit too simplistically. Even more unfortunately, it was the authors who encouraged this, as did the Johns Hopkins University press release about the study, which was entitled “Bad Luck of Random Mutations Plays Predominant Role in Cancer, Study Shows“. Yes, I groaned when I read this title.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Epidemiology, Science and the Media

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Stem cells versus Gordie Howe’s stroke, part 2

Gordie-Howe

Another Christmas has come and gone, surprisingly fast, as always. I had thought that it might make a good “last of 2014″ post—well, last of 2014 for me, anyway; Harriet and Steve, at least, will be posting before 2014 ends—to do an end of year list of the best and worst of the year. Unfortunately, there remains a pressing issue that doesn’t permit that, some unfinished business, if you will. I’m referring to a story I commented on last week, specifically the credulously-reported story of how 86-year-old hockey legend Gordie Howe is doing a lot better after having undergone an experimental stem cell therapy for his recent stroke. As you might recall at the time, I saw a lot of holes in the story. It turns out that over the last week there have been developments that allow me to fill in some of those holes. Unfortunately, other holes still remain.

First, a brief recap is in order (You can click here for a more detailed timeline). Gordie Howe suffered a massive stroke on October 26, leaving him hemiplegic and with serious speech impairment. Since then, judging from various media reports, he has been slowly improving, although not without significant setbacks. We also know that Howe suffers from significant dementia. Out of the blue, a press release issued on December 19 by the Howe family announced that on December 8 and 9, Gordie Howe “underwent a two-day, non-surgical treatment at Novastem’s medical facility. The treatment included neural stem cells injected into the spinal canal on Day 1 and mesenchymal stem cells by intravenous infusion on Day 2.” His response was described as “truly miraculous,” although, as I pointed out in my post, it’s not clear exactly what “miraculous” meant, given conflicting contemporaneous news accounts before the Howe family press release, particularly his hospitalization from December 1 to 3 for a suspected stroke that turned out to be dehydration.

I noted a number of problems with the story, the first of which is that Howe was clearly not eligible for the clinical trial offered by Stemedica, a company in San Diego that manufactured the stem cells used. Another glaring issue was my inability to locate any description of an actual clinical trial for stroke offered by Novastem. I could find no such trial listed in ClinicalTrials.gov, and you, our intrepid readers, searched the registry maintained by the Mexican Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risk (COFEPRIS) and were not able to find any registered clinical trials for stroke being carried out by Clínica Santa Clarita, the clinic Novastem operates. What you, our intrepid readers, did find were trials of stem cells for:

I did the search again over the weekend, and there were no further trials that I could find.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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TV Doctors Give Unreliable Recommendations

DrOzMiracleIt’s always preferable to have objective empirical evidence to inform an opinion, rather than just subjective impressions. Confirmation bias will make it seem as if the facts support your opinion, even when they don’t. Of course, when objective evidence (such as published studies) does seem to support your position, you still have to keep your critical shields up. Confirmation bias can still kick in, resulting in cherry-picking favorable evidence, finding fault with studies whose conclusions you don’t like, and too-easily accepting those that confirm your position.

I therefore had to be careful in evaluating the following study from the BMJ, because it nicely confirms what I and many others here at SBM have been saying for years – recommendations made by TV doctors, particularly Dr. Oz, are unreliable and insufficiently based on evidence.

This was a prospective study that:

…randomly selected 40 episodes of each of The Dr Oz Show and The Doctors from early 2013 and identified and evaluated all recommendations made on each program.

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Posted in: Science and the Media

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Stem cells versus Gordie Howe’s stroke

GordieHowe1

Note: There is now a major update to this story published here, which explains a lot of the questions remaining in this blog post.

Seven years ago I returned to Michigan, where I was born and spent the first quarter century of my life, after an absence of more than 20 years. In the interim, I had done my surgical residency and earned my PhD in Cleveland, a surgical oncology fellowship in Chicago, and worked in New Jersey at my first academic job for eight and a half years. Then I was lured back with a job in Detroit. One of the odd things about this return after such a long absence was the culture shock, how much I had forgotten about the Detroit area. One of those things that I had forgotten is just how crazy about hockey Michigan, in particular Detroit (meaning the Detroit metropolitan area), is. Detroiters love their Red Wings—love them. Hockey is ingrained in the suburban culture from a very young age, so much so that many Canadians would feel right at home here. Memories of trying and failing to be halfway decent at street hockey and of not being anywhere good enough a skater even to try real hockey as a teen came flooding back to me. (It didn’t help that back then I was approaching six feet tall and weighed only 135 lbs.; “beanpole” didn’t even begin to describe me back then.) In fact, the “cultural center” of the town where I live consists of—I kid you not—a hockey rink and some classrooms that are used for various community functions. No, really, it’s named the city’s Cultural Center.

So it should be no surprise, given how much Detroiters love hockey in general and their Red Wings in particular that it was big news here in late October when Red Wing legend Gordie Howe at age 86 suffered a debilitating stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body, a condition known as hemiplegia. Understandably, there was an outpouring of good wishes for recovery, coupled with retrospectives of Howe’s stellar hockey career. Indeed, I remember that Howe’s condition sounded bad enough from the tenor of the news reports at the time that it seemed likely that he would not survive. But survive he did, and is apparently recovering slowly, with occasional setbacks, such as a recent hospitalization in early December for a suspected “mini-stroke” that turned out to be dehydration and several much smaller strokes before that. The most recent press report I saw before the announcements I’m going to discuss described Howe as on the upswing again.

Then, on Friday, I saw headlines all over the place that were basically similar to this Detroit Free Press headline, “Gordie Howe underwent stem cell clinical trial in Mexico.” The story consisted largely of a press release from Howe’s family that read:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media

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