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Hope and hype in genomics and “personalized medicine”

“Personalized medicine.” You’ve probably heard the term. It’s a bit of a buzzword these days and refers to a vision of future medicine in which therapies are much more tightly tailored to individual patients than they currently are. That’s not to say that as physicians we haven’t practiced personalized medicine before; certainly we have. However it has only been in the last decade or so that our understanding of genomics, systems biology, and cell signaling have evolved to the point where the vision of personalized medicine based on each patient’s genome and biology might be achievable within my lifetime.

I was thinking about personalized medicine recently because of the confluence of several events. First, I remembered a post I wrote late last year about integrating patient values and experience into the decision process regarding treatment plans. Second, a couple of months ago, Skeptical Inquirer published an execrably nihilistic article by Dr. Reynold Spector in Skeptical Inquirer in which he declared personalized medicine to be one of his “seven deadly medical hypotheses,” even though he never actually demonstrated why it is deadly or that it’s even really a hypothesis. Come to think of it, with maybe–and I’m being very generous here–one exception, that pretty much describes all of Dr. Spector’s “seven deadly medical hypotheses”: Each is either not a hypothesis, not deadly, or is neither of the two. Third, this time last week I was attending the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in Orlando. I don’t really like Orlando much (if you’re not into Disney and tourist traps, it’s not the greatest town to hang out in for four days), but I do love me some good cancer science. One thing that was immediately apparent to me from the first sessions on Sunday and perusing the educational sessions on Saturday was that currently the primary wave in cancer research is all about harnessing the advances in genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and systems and computational biology, as well as the technologies such as next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques to understand the biology of each cancer and thereby target therapies more closely to what biological abnormalities drive each cancer. You can get an idea of this from the promotional video the AACR played between its plenary sessions:

Which is actually a fairly good short, optimistic version of my post Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? As I mentioned before, with this year being the 40th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, as December approaches expect a lot of articles and press stories asking that very question, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I write about this this year.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation

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The World Has Moved On

I do a lot of driving as part of my job.  I am the sole Infectious Disease doctor at three hospitals and I can spend an hour or two a day in the car, depending on traffic.  What prevents me from going crazy sitting in traffic is listening to podcasts and audible books.    I especially like reading (and yes, audio books is reading, pedant) multivolume epics.   Currently I am reading Steven King’s Dark Tower series, which occurs in a universe “where the world has moved on.”  In Mid-world there was once a world with science and beauty and art, but something changed, what I do not know yet (I am only on the third volume; no spoilers in the comments), and the world moved on, leaving behind some artifacts of science and technology, but it appears to be an increasingly primitive world.  Being fantasy, there is, unlike the world I live in, magic as well.

I like that phrase: “the world has moved on.” (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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Can Vitamin C Induce Abortion?

Editors Note: This is a guest contribution from two medical students, one from Chicago and one from Queensland. If you like their work, we’ll consider having them write more for us.

Authors:

Andrey Pavlov Jr.
UQ-Ochsner
University of Queensland School of Medicine

Igor Irvin Bussel
Chicago Medical School
Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science

In hopes of joining the SBM movement as medical students, we wanted to take aim at a topic that has yet been finely dissected a la Novella or logorrheicly dismembered a la Gorski. Having realized that a fellow medical student, Tim Kreider, is already addressing integrative medicine on campus, we decided that we would attempt to find a controversial topic that has yet to be addressed on SBM. A serendipitous question from a friend sent us on a mission to explore the pseudo-scientific underbelly of the web and science-based rationale of the claim that vitamin C can induce abortion.

The World Wide Web is a stranger place than we can ever imagine. Most users are aware that they can’t believe everything they read on the Internet, yet they often feel like Sherlock Holmes when they find an esoteric and isolated clue to their own unique health puzzle. Recently, we were asked if there was a connection between vitamin C, menstruation and abortion. We were caught off guard by the question, finding it such a strange connection to make. The story, it seems, is that our friend had come down with a cold and taken mega doses of vitamin C to stave it off (another false belief, but not the subject here). A couple of days later her menses began and she was surprised since it was 4 days earlier than normal. She of course turned to Dr. Google and was quickly provided with numerous sources indicating that indeed, vitamin C would induce the start of a menstrual cycle and can even act as a “natural” abortefacient and a substitute for the ‘morning after’ pill. Being a bit more keen than your average Dr. Google user, she was surprised and continued searching, trying to find evidence to contradict these claims. Alas, she found nothingexcept more sites parroting and corroborating the claim. Then she realized she knew a couple of medical students and asked us what we thought. Our literature review turned up a slew of websites using the standard repertoire of trite pseudo-scientific tactics. Any attempt to find a credible source, validated claim, or independent consensus proved futile.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Science vs Homeopathic Pseudoscience

Science is a philosophy, a technology, and an institution. It is a human endeavor- our collective attempt to understand the world around us,  not something that exists solely in the abstract. All of these aspects of science have be progressing over the past decades and centuries, as we refine our concepts of what science is and how it works, as we develop better techniques, and organize and police scientific activities more effectively. The practice of science is not relentlessly progressive, however, and there are many regressive forces causing pockets of backsliding, and even aggressive campaigns against scientific progress.

So-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is one such regressive force. It seeks to undermine the concepts, execution, and institutions of medical science in order to promote sectarian practices and ideological beliefs. Examples of this are legion, exposed within the pages of this blog alone. I would like to add another example to the pile – the recent defense of homeopathy by Dana Ullman in the Huffington Post (names which are already infamous among supporters of SBM).

In a piece titled: Homeopathy for Radiation Poisoning, Ullman demonstrates yet again the pseudoscientific aspects of homeopathy and its proponents. The primary principle that is abused by Ullman this time is the need for scientists to carefully define their terms and concepts. Scientific concepts should be defined as carefully, precisely, and consistently as possible. Squishy concepts are very difficult to deal with in science – but are the bread and butter of pseudoscience.

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Posted in: Homeopathy

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Frequencies and Their Kindred Delusions

The word “frequency” ranks right up there with “quantum” and “energy” as a pseudoscientific buzzword. It is increasingly prevalent in product advertisements and in CAM claims about human biofields and energy medicine. It doesn’t mean what they think it means.

I have written about Power Balance products, the wristbands and cards that allegedly improve sports performance through frequencies embedded in a hologram. They amount to nothing but a new version of the old rabbit’s foot carried for superstition and their sales demonstrations fool people with simple musculoskeletal tricks. I addressed their ridiculous claims (including “We are a frequency”). I pointed out that

The definition of frequency is “the number of repetitions of a periodic process in a unit of time.” A frequency can’t exist in isolation. There has to be a periodic process, like a sound wave, a radio wave, a clock pendulum, or a train passing by at the rate of x boxcars per minute. The phrase “33⅓ per minute” is meaningless: you can’t have an rpm without an r. A periodic process can have a frequency, but an armadillo and a tomato can’t. Neither a periodic process nor a person can “be” a frequency.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine

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Anti-vaccine propaganda from Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News

I’m not infrequently asked why the myth that vaccines cause autism and other anti-vaccine myths are so stubbornly resistant to the science that time and time again fails to support them. Certainly useful celebrity idiots like Jenny McCarthy are one reason. So, too, are anti-vaccine propaganda websites and blogs such as Age of Autism and anti-vaccine organizations like Generation Rescue, the National Vaccine Information Center, and SafeMinds and the organizations that publish them. However, these are clearly not the only reason. Alone, these people and organizations are in general quite rightly viewed as fringe, although they are very popular among the anti-vaccine movement. It is when such groups find a willing conduit for their pseudoscience in the “mainstream media” that they see the opportunity to attain a degree of seeming respectability that they can’t achieve on their own based on science. Worse, when mainstream news organizations or reporters fall for the pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism, they contribute to the persistence of this myth outside the activist core of the anti-vaccine movement in the public at large.

In the past, anti-vaccine activists tried to accomplish this with the help of formerly respectable journalists such as David Kirby and Dan Olmsted, the former of whom wrote Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Mystery and the latter of whom wrote and promoted the Age of Autism series when he was an editor at UPI. However, although Kirby was never really that prominent or trusted, Olmsted was an editor of UPI. Now that he’s given up his UPI gig to become full time editor of AoA and to team up with Mark Blaxill to write a book (Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine and a Manmade Epidemic) that regurgitated all the old misinformation about thimerosal and autism in a way that’s so 2005, Olmsted’s lost all credibility as a serious reporter. That’s a good thing.

The bad thing is that he has a replacement. Or at least so it would appear.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The Hazards of “CAM”-Pandering

Steven Salzberg, a friend of this blog and Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland, is on the editorial boards of three of the many journals published by BioMed Central (BMC), an important source of open-access, peer-reviewed biomedical reports. He is disturbed by the presence of two other journals under the BMC umbrella: Chinese Medicine and BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. A couple of days ago, on his Forbes science blog, Dr. Salzberg explained why. Here are some excerpts:

The Chinese Medicine journal promotes, according to its own mission statement, studies of “acupuncture, Tui-na, Qi-qong, Tai Chi Quan, energy research,” and other nonsense. Tui na, for example, supposedly “affects the flow of energy by holding and pressing the body at acupressure points.”

Right. What is this doing in a scientific journal?… I support BMC…But their corporate leaders seem to care more about expanding their stable than about maintaining the integrity of science. Chinese Medicine simply does not belong in the company of respectable scientific journals.

Forming a scientific journal whose goal is to validate antiquated, unproven superstitions is simply not science, whatever the editors of Chinese Medicine claim.

BMC should be embarrassed to be publishing journals that promote anti-scientific theories and otherwise muddy the literature. By supporting these journals, they undermine the credibility of many excellent BMC journals. They should cut these journals loose.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The benefits and risks of folic acid supplementation

Could a vitamin with proven benefits in one group cause harm to another? That’s the growing concern with folic acid, the vitamin that dramatically reduces the risk of neural tube birth defects such a spina bifida. Studies designed to explore the possible benefits of folic acid for heart disease, stroke and cancer are giving out some worrying signs: At best, folic acid is ineffective, and at worst it may be increasing the risks of some cancers. So what does this say about routine supplementation for the typical healthy individual, and its overall risk and benefit?

Folate (vitamin B9) is an essential nutrient found green, leafy vegetables, broccoli, peas, corn, oranges, grains, cereals, and meats. Folate has important roles in the synthesis of DNA, and consequently cell division. Significant folate deficiency can lead to macrocytic anemia. Folic acid, a synthetic form of folate, is used in multivitamins supplements because it is better absorbed.

Folic acid’s benefits in pregnancy are well documented. Supplementation before conception, and in the first few weeks of pregnancy, significantly and substantially lower the risk of several different birth defects, including neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is the embryonic precursor to the brain and spinal column. NTDs include very serious defects like spinal bifida and anencephaly, birth without part of the brain.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology

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EMDR and Acupuncture – Selling Non-specific Effects

The scientific approach to understanding the world includes the process of carefully separating out variables and effects. Experiments, in fact, are designed specifically to control for variables. This can be especially challenging in medicine, since the body is a complex and variable system and there are always numerous factors at play. We often characterize the many variables that can influence the outcome in a clinical study as “placebo effects” or “non-specific effect” – things other than a specific response to the treatment in question.

A common error to make when interpreting clinical studies is to confuse non-specific effects – those that result from the therapeutic interaction or the process of observation – with a specific effect from the treatment being studied. While this is broadly understood within the scientific medical community, it seems that within certain fields proponents are going out of their way to sell non-specific effects as if they were specific effects of the favored treatment.

This is perhaps most true for acupuncture. As has been discussed numerous times on SBM, the consensus of the best clinical studies on acupuncture show that there is no specific effect of sticking needles into acupuncture points. Choosing random points works just as well, as does poking the skin with toothpicks rather than penetrating the skin with a needle to elicit the alleged “de qi”.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Acupuncture Revisited

Believers in acupuncture claim it is supported by plenty of published scientific evidence. Critics disagree. Thousands of acupuncture studies have been done over the last several decades, with conflicting results. Even systematic reviews have disagreed with each other. The time had come to re-visit the entire body of acupuncture research and try to make sense out of it all. The indefatigable CAM researcher Edzard Ernst stepped up to the plate. He and his colleagues in Korea and Exeter did an exhaustive study that was published in the April 2011 issue of the medical journal Pain:   “Acupuncture: Does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews.” It is accompanied by an editorial commentary written by yours truly: “Acupuncture’s claims punctured: Not proven effective for pain, not harmless.” (The editorial is reproduced in full below.)

Ernst et al. systematically reviewed all the systematic reviews of acupuncture published in the last 10 years: 57 systematic reviews met the criteria they set for inclusion in their analysis. They found a mix of negative, positive, and inconclusive results. There were only four conditions for which more than one systematic review reached the same conclusions, and only one of the four was positive (neck pain). They explain how inconsistencies, biases, conflicting conclusions, and recent high quality studies throw doubt on even the most positive reviews.

They also demolished the “acupuncture is harmless” myth by reporting 95 published cases of serious adverse effects including infection, pneumothorax, and 5 deaths. Some but not all of these might have been avoided by better training in anatomy and infection control. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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