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The Essential Role of Regulation In Human Health and In Ecology: The Serengeti Rules

serengeti

The doubling time for E.coli bacteria is 20 minutes. With uncontrolled growth, it would take a mere two days for the weight of bacteria to equal the weight of the Earth. What rules determine the actual numbers of bacteria? Why is the world green; why don’t insects eat all the leaves? How does the body maintain homeostasis? What determines the uncontrolled growth of cancers? What happens when you remove natural predators from an ecosystem?

You can find the answers in Sean Carroll’s new book The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters.

Everything is regulated: every kind of molecule, cell, and process in the body is maintained in a specific range and governed by a specific substance or set of substances. Diseases are mostly abnormalities of regulation. Too little insulin = diabetes. Uncontrolled cell multiplication = cancer. To intervene in disease, we need to understand the rules of regulation.

Carroll calls them the Serengeti Rules because of the ecological rules that regulate the predator/prey ratios in Africa. But the same rules apply everywhere, at every level of biology. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Cancer

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Are the recommended childhood vaccine schedules evidence-based?

The vaccine schedule: Safe and efficacious.

The vaccine schedule: Safe and efficacious.

We write about vaccines a lot here at SBM, and for a very good reason. Of all the medical interventions devised by the brains of humans, arguably vaccines have saved more lives and prevented more disability than any other medical treatment. When it comes to infectious disease, vaccination is the ultimate in preventive medicine, at least for diseases for which vaccines can be developed. We also know that when vaccination rates fall, it opens the door for diseases once controlled to come roaring back. We saw this phenomenon with the measles a year ago in the Disneyland measles outbreak. We’ve seen it around the country, with measles outbreaks occurring in areas where a lot of antivaccine and vaccine-averse parents live. Perhaps the most spectacular example occurred in the UK, where prior to Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent case series in The Lancet that was used to link the MMR vaccine to autism, measles was under control; it came roaring back as MMR uptake plummeted in the wake of the publicity his research engendered. By 2008, ten years after Wakefield’s case series was published, measles was again endemic in the UK. Measles outbreaks flourished. Although MMR uptake is improving again in the UK, there remains a reservoir of unvaccinated children aged 10-16 who can transmit the virus.

Thanks, Andy.

Fortunately, Wakefield has been relegated to sharing the stage with crop circle chasers, New World Order conspiracy theorists, sovereign citizen cranks, and other antivaccine cranks like Sherry Tenpenny. Unfortunately, the damage that he has done lives on and has metastasized all over the developed world. Given the persistence of the antivaccine movement, which fuels concerns about vaccines in parents who are not themselves antivaccine but are predisposed to the antivaccine message because they distrust government and/or big pharma or have a world view that overvalues “naturalness,” I was quite interested in an article that appeared in The BMJ last week. Basically, it asked the question “Is the timing of recommended childhood vaccines evidence based?
(more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Public Health, Vaccines

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Reporting results from clinical trials is vital for science-based medicine

Real medicine is built on high quality data. That’s one lesson I learned through my rehabilitation as a former naturopath. I can assure you that this principle does not apply to naturopathy or any of the other types of alternative medicine, which are mostly based on anachronistic traditions, magical thinking, and poor academic integrity. I now know that real medicine incorporates any therapy scientifically demonstrated to be effective and safe, regardless of origin. Therapies that fail to demonstrate effectiveness remain alternative for good reason.

I made a sharp turn in my career when I realized this, but I was recently surprised to learn that a failure to respect the data can sometimes also characterize medicine. I’m not trying to fool anyone with an appeal to hypocrisy (often used by alternative medicine zealots to argue that their beliefs are somehow valid simply because medicine has problems). But I do want to draw attention to a problem with medical research, which has the potential to undermine science-based medicine and take us down the dark path of misinformed medicine — medicine based on incomplete data.

pills

Most people probably don’t realize that a majority of clinical trials do not report their findings.[1–3] About half of trials conducted before 2007, before it was legally required to register and report clinical trials, have never been published.[4, 5] Even since stronger legal mandates were enacted, most clinical trials still are not registered or reported.[1–3] As a result, there is a huge amount of clinical data unknown to the medical community and not available to clinicians or patients.

This effectively means that medical decisions can be based on incomplete information, not only diminishing the effectiveness of treatments but also eroding the perceived plausibility of medical interventions over time. This is what Sense About Science’s AllTrials campaign is all about: ensuring that all clinical trials register and report results in a publicly-available database. I see it as an obvious and straightforward means to improve medicine. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Quality Improvement, Science and Medicine

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Chiropractic and the Newborn Baby

birth subluxation

I had the pleasure of speaking on the topic of chiropractic and the newborn baby earlier this week at a meeting of the Boston Skeptics. There is a video of the talk online for anyone interested in learning more. And if you haven’t yet, please read yesterday’s post on chiropractic and babies by Sam Homola.

My introduction to pediatric chiropractic

Although I was aware of the existence of chiropractic well before beginning my medical training, I was blissfully ignorant of the full scope of what many chiropractors actually do on a daily basis. My belief that they practiced solely as “doctors of the back” was shattered early in my pediatric training at Vanderbilt while on a pulmonary medicine rotation when I was asked to consult on the child of a well-known musician who lived in the area. The patient, perhaps only hours from respiratory failure, had been brought to our emergency department only after chiropractic treatments had failed to manage a severe asthma exacerbation.

That encounter, as well as another around the same time involving a child with a throat abscess being treated with acupuncture, inspired me to dig deeper into the general concept of alternative medicine. I even went so far as to approach a local chiropractor who had set up a table at a Nashville YMCA to promote chiropractic prevention and treatment of the flu. Dr. Fakename happily allowed me to spend a day in his office, and even brought in his own child to demonstrate his approach pediatric care.

Needless to say, Dr. Fakename failed to convince me of the benefits or need for chiropractic involvement in pediatric healthcare. When the discussion turned to routine childhood vaccines, I heard the party line on the subject for the first of many times. Dr. Fakename was not against vaccines, he was in favor of giving families all of the facts. He gave me some reading material, and a book suggestion or two, which provided nothing but potential and unproven risks with no mention of the well-established benefits and proven safety of immunizations. I’ll never forget what his wife, who had brought their child in for the demonstration, whispered to me during a moment of distraction: “Don’t worry, we vaccinate our kids. I make sure.”

By the end of my residency I was a full blown skeptic of a variety of alternative medical modalities in addition to chiropractic, and had built a reputation as someone interested in and knowledgeable on the subject of quackery. I even gave a grand rounds on pediatric CAM with a focus on chiropractic which I’m proud to say drew a standing room only crowd that included folks from the community interested in alternative medicine as well as from the brand new integrative medicine center at Vanderbilt. I had even been asked to serve as a resident representative, however that invitation was quickly rescinded after my skeptical talk. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine

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Subluxation Correction: A Chiropractic Treatment for Babies

baby
My article “Pediatric Chiropractic Care: The Subluxation Question and Referral Risk” was published in the 2016 February issue of the journal Bioethics. The abstract summarizes the message of the article:

Chiropractors commonly treat children for a variety of ailments by manipulating the spine to correct a “vertebral subluxation” or a “vertebral subluxation complex” alleged to be a cause of disease. Such treatment might begin soon after a child is born. Both major American chiropractic associations─the International Chiropractic Association and the American Chiropractic Association─support chiropractic care for children, care that includes subluxation correction as a treatment or preventive measure. I do not know of any credible evidence to support chiropractic subluxation theory. Any attempt to manipulate the immature, cartilaginous spine of a neonate or a small child to correct a putative chiropractic subluxation should be regarded as dangerous and unnecessary. Referral of a child to a chiropractor for such treatment should not be considered lest a bad outcome harms the child or leads to a charge of negligence or malpractice.1

The first objection to my article came in a January 30 Facebook posting by Milehighchiro, a subluxation-based group: (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine

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Genomic testing at your pharmacy: Ready for prime time?

Is genomic testing as useful as pharmacies claim it can be?

Is genomic testing as useful as pharmacies claim it can be?

Despite science’s ability to develop sophisticated and targeted new drugs, predicting the effect of a drug in an individual is still maddeningly difficult. Not every drug works for everyone that takes it. Similarly, the very same drug can be well tolerated in some, but can cause intolerable side effects in others. So-called “targeted therapies” were supposed to improve our accuracy, by focusing on specific targets on cells. That’s been good – but not sufficient to make drug treatments more consistently effective. Pharmacogenomics is the relationship between your DNA and how your body responds to drugs: how they’re absorbed, how they work, and how they’re eliminated from the body. It has been heralded for some time as the white knight of drug therapy. The genome revolution was supposed to remove (or dramatically reduce) the uncertainty in medicine, telling us which drugs will work more effectively, and which we might want to avoid. And to some extent, the genome-based treatment era is already here. There are over 100 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now that include genomic information in their prescribing information. For a small number of drugs, genomic testing is warranted. Increasingly, genomic testing is more accessible, moving from the research bench directly into retail pharmacies for sale when you pick up your prescription. Given pharmacies have a less-than-stellar record of selling laboratory testing that isn’t validated or even useful, I was immediately skeptical when I saw a new story on pharmacy-based genomic testing. Titled “Your pharmacist’s secret weapon: How your DNA can help perfect your medication,” it appeared in last week’s Globe and Mail: (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Air Pollution and Public Health

airpollution

Public health measures are those not aimed at individuals but at society as a whole, or subgroups within society. Physicians are charged not only with promoting the health of their own patients, but as a profession we (and health care professions in general) are charged with promoting the public health.

Public health measures, however, are highly likely to cross into politically charged areas. This should not deter the promotion of public health.

Issues that we deal with regularly involving public health include vaccination programs and laws surrounding vaccine requirements, fluoridation of public water supplies, helmet laws, and even gun laws. We have never, however, written about air pollution as a public health concern (except for dubious claims that air pollution is linked to autism).

The health risk of air pollution

Air pollution as a health risk is nothing new, but several recent studies are focusing attention on this issue. Recently the Royal College of Physicians produced a report in which they claim that 40,000 deaths per year in the UK can be attributed to poor air quality, both indoors and outdoors. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health

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Stem Cells and Chiropractic

As good a source of stem cells as any chiropractor.

As good a source of stem cells as any chiropractor.

My local newspaper is a constant source of topics to blog about. It regularly features ads for untested dietary supplements and for chiropractors who offer non-chiropractic treatments and don’t identify themselves as chiropractors. Recently, a full-page ad for NW Pain Relief Centers trumpeted “Stem Cell Technology Takes Joint Treatment to the Next Level.” It said stem cell treatments could heal and regenerate tissue in conditions such as knee osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel, peripheral neuropathy, spinal stenosis, hip pain, and tendinitis. A table titled “Consider these facts” compared stem cell therapy to surgery, saying stem cell treatments involve no known side effects, little or no pain, and immediate recovery; whereas surgery involves complications, poor outcomes, addiction to pain medications, severe pain for months, and a prolonged recovery over months and years. It said, “Call now if you experience any degree of joint pain or discomfort…Space is limited to the first 30 callers!”

A few days later there was another full-page ad for NW Pain Relief Centers, this time for hyaluronic acid injections into the knee for osteoarthritic knee pain. It reprinted the same table of comparisons with surgery, with an additional line comparing costs (that didn’t actually compare costs, but only vaguely mentioned insurance coverage, deductibles, copays, and time off work. It featured the same “Call now, space limited” ploy.

These ads reminded me so much of chiropractic ads that I had to wonder what was going on. They mentioned an “allied team of health professionals.” I guessed there must be at least one MD on their team if they were injecting stem cells and hyaluronic acid into joints. I guessed chiropractors were a prominent part of the team. I guessed right. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Pharmaceuticals

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What naturopaths say to each other when they think no one’s listening, part 2

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When last I visited this topic, I started out by making a simple observation, namely by quoting John Wooden’s famous adage, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” What I was referring to was a private discussion forum for naturopaths known as Naturopathic Chat, or NatChat for short, and how a leak from the group had revealed the sort of pure quackery that naturopaths talk about when they are among themselves and think that no one else is listening. Basically, NatChat revealed just how quacky naturopaths are, based on the advice they gave each other about patients and their general discussions of what passes for “naturopathic medicine.” I found examples of naturopaths recommending intravenous peroxide, homeopathic drainage therapy, black salve (for a huge protruding breast cancer), and even ozone to treat a postsurgical J-pouch abscess that clearly required the attention of a colorectal surgeon. After naturopaths on NatChat became widely aware that someone on the list had revealed discussions on the list, apparently the moderators, instead of moving to another platform, stayed on Yahoo! Groups.

None of what I’ve described in this brief recap of my first post about NatChat should be surprising to regular readers of this blog, who would also know that we are not particularly fond of naturopaths, even the nice ones, who might be perfectly fine as people. Of course, it is naturopathy we don’t like, mainly because it is, as I like to describe it, a cornucopia of quackery based on prescientific vitalism mixed with a Chinese restaurant menu “one from column A, two from column B” approach to picking quackery and pseudoscience to apply to patients. Indeed, whenever the topic of naturopathy comes up, I like to refer readers to Scott Gavura’s excellent recurring series “Naturopathy vs. Science,” which has included editions such as the Facts Edition, Prenatal Vitamins, Vaccination Edition, Allergy Edition, Diabetes Edition, Autism Edition, Fake Diseases, and, of course, the Infertility Edition. We’ve also described just what happens when a naturopath tries to treat a real disease like whooping cough. The results are, to put it very mildly, not pretty.

Of course, as I’ve pointed out, any “discipline” that counts homeopathy as an integral part of it, as naturopathy does to the point of requiring many hours of homeopathy instruction in naturopathy school and including it as part of its licensing examination, cannot ever be considered to be science-based, and this blog is, after all, Science-based Medicine. Not surprisingly, we oppose any licensing or expansion of the scope of practice of naturopaths, because, as we’ve explained time and time again, naturopathy is pseudoscience and quackery.

Interestingly, what led the Reddit user and naturopathy critic NaturoWhat (who inspired my earlier post regarding NatChat) to give me the heads up as to what’s going on in NatChat again is an incident on the discussion board involving a naturopath who featured in the previous edition of my coverage of NatChat, Eric Yarnell. He’s a naturopath who tried to point out to his fellow naturopaths how black salve is a really nasty treatment because of the way it fries normal tissue just as badly as it fries abnormal tissue. He also appears to be one of those rarest of beasts, a seemingly pro-vaccine naturopath. I say “seemingly,” because whenever I encounter a naturopath billing herself as pro-vaccine (e.g., Erika Krumbeck), a closer examination of his or her views almost always reveals he or she believes in at least some antivaccine misinformation. Surprisingly, Yarnell is the naturopath who comes closest to actually being pro-vaccine that I’ve seen.
(more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy, Vaccines

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Chiropractors, Naturopaths, Concussions and Senate Bill 1535

Concussion small
There is a bill before the Oregon Legislature, Senate Bill 1535, that:

Allows chiropractic physicians and naturopathic physicians to provide release for athlete who sustained concussion or is suspected of sustaining concussion.

Unfortunately, the Oregon legislature has already granted naturopaths primary care physician status, so I expect this may well pass, despite the fact neither chiropractors nor naturopaths have much reality-based education and training in medicine.

You may wonder, why you should care about what is going on in Oregon? Well, it is likely similar laws are being considered in your state. You might be surprised at the shenanigans going on in your legislature. I was when I looked. To keep informed, go to Legislative Update at the Society for Science-Based Medicine for weekly updates.

Let’s go through the issues: why is it a bad idea for the athletes of the state, most of whom will be children, to be cared for by NDs and DCs? (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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