It’s been difficult to avoid the buzz about vitamin D over the past few years. While it has a long history of use in the medical treatment of osteoporosis, a large number of observational studies have linked low vitamin D levels to a range of illnesses. The hypothesis that there is widespread deficiency in the population has led to interest in measuring vitamin D blood levels. Demand for testing has jumped as many physicians have incorporated testing into routine care. This is not just due to alternative medicine purveyors that promote vitamin D as a panacea. Much of this demand and interest has been driven by health professionals like physicians and pharmacists who have looked at what is often weak, preliminary and sometimes inconclusive data, and concluded that the benefits of vitamin D outweigh the risks. After all, it’s a vitamin, right? How much harm can vitamin D cause? (more…)
Posts Tagged cancer
While social media and news outlets were reacting, or in some cases overreacting, to a new rodent-based medical study on the unlikely link between cell phone use and brain cancer last month, two studies and an accompanying commentary were quietly published in Pediatrics that raised similar concerns. Rather than cell phone use, the proposed potential cause of pediatric cancer in these newly published papers was phototherapy, a common treatment for newborn jaundice that I use regularly and have written about before. My previous post has a full review of jaundice in the newborn, how it can potentially cause permanent brain damage, and why phototherapy is a safe and effective treatment in most cases.
But is phototherapy truly safe? Can exposure to a narrow spectrum of blue light increase the risk of cancer in young children? And if so, what type or types of cancer? This is exactly what the study authors set out to investigate using the power of “Big Data.” Time will eventually tell us if the authors’ conclusions are justified or if they will end up only serving as excellent future examples of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. (more…)
No, a rat study with marginal results does not prove that cell phones cause cancer, no matter what Mother Jones and Consumer Reports say
There are certain myths that are frustratingly resistant to evidence, science, and reason. Some of these are basically medical conspiracy theories, where someone (industry and/or big pharma and/or physicians and/or the government) has slam-dunk evidence for harm but conspires to keep it from you, the people. For example, despite decades worth of negative studies, the belief that vaccines are harmful, causing conditions ranging from autism to sudden infant death syndrome, to all varieties of allergies and autoimmune diseases, refuses to die. Fortunately, this myth is one that, after more than a decade of hammering by scientists, skeptics, and public health advocates, has finally taken on enough of the patina of a fringe belief that most mainstream news sources no longer feel obligated to include the antivaccine side in stories about vaccines for “balance.” It is a zombie myth, one that, no matter how often it is “killed,” always seems to rise again. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the myth that cell phones cause cancer, as some very credulous reporting late last week demonstrated in the form of headlines like this:
We think of cancer as caused by mutations. Mutations are necessary, but not sufficient, to cause cancer. New research indicates that it’s the body’s response to mutant cells that determines whether cancer will develop. James S. Welsh, MD, a radiation oncologist and researcher, has written a book on the immunology of cancer, Sharks Get Cancer, Mole Rats Don’t: How Animals Could Hold the Key to Unlocking Cancer Immunity in Humans. In it, he pieces together clues from animals, pregnancy, Ebola virus, infections, organ transplantation, parasites, and human cancer patients, weaving a web of insights that point to a better understanding of cancer biology and treatment.
Sharks do get cancer
The first book claiming that sharks don’t get cancer came out in 1992. It persuaded so many people to take shark cartilage that the world market exceeded $30 million and shark populations decreased by as much as 80%. Sharks do get cancer, as you can see in this picture.
Ironically, sharks can even get cancer of the cartilage! And of course shark cartilage supplements don’t prevent cancer in humans. Welsh explains how that myth got started. It was magical thinking based on extrapolation from a legitimate scientific study on angiogenesis where tumor growth in lab animals was suppressed by placing rabbit cartilage next to the tumors.
Alternative medicine, like all good marketing, is largely about creating a narrative. Once you have sold people on the narrative, products essentially market themselves. That narrative has been evolving for literally centuries, although it seems to have accelerated with the advent of mass media and now the internet. It is optimized to push emotional buttons in order to sell products.
There are countless examples available on the internet, with many peaking above the crowd for their 15 minutes of fame. In my feed this morning came this typical example: “Cancer Cells Die In 42 Days: This Famous Austrian’s Juice Cured Over 45,000 People From Cancer And Other Incurable Diseases!“
The story has many of the typical alternative medicine narrative talking points: natural is good, a healthful diet can cure anything, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidants, and detoxification are all good.
We at Science-Based Medicine often describe “integrative medicine” as integrating quackery with medicine (at least, I often do), because that’s what it in essence does. The reason, as I’ve described time and time again, is to put that quackery on equal footing (or at least apparently equal footing) with science- and evidence-based medicine, a goal that is close to being achieved. Originally known as quackery, the modalities now being “integrated” with medicine then became “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), a term that is still often used. But that wasn’t enough. The word “complementary” implies a subordinate position, in which the CAM is not the “real” medicine, the necessary medicine, but is just there as “icing on the cake.” The term “integrative medicine” eliminates that problem and facilitates a narrative in which integrative medicine is the “best of both worlds” (from the perspective of CAM practitioners and advocates). Integrative medicine has become a brand, a marketing term, disguised as a bogus specialty.
Of course, it’s fairly easy to identify much of the quackery that CAM practitioners and woo-friendly physicians have “integrated” itself into integrative medicine. A lot of it is based on prescientific ideas of how the human body and disease work (e.g., traditional Chinese medicine, especially acupuncture, for instance, which is based on a belief system that very much resembles the four humors in ancient “Western” or European medicine); on nonexistent body structures or functions (e.g., chiropractic and subluxations, reflexology and a link between areas on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet that “map” to organs; craniosacral therapy and “craniosacral rhythms”); or vitalism (e.g., homeopathy, “energy medicine,” such as reiki, therapeutic touch, and the like). Often there are completely pseudoscientific ideas whose quackiness is easy to explain to an educated layperson, like homeopathy.
Antioxidants are now an iconic example of premature hype making its way into marketing and the public consciousness long before the science is adequately understood. There are multiple lessons to be learned in this story, and a new study just emphasizes those lessons further.
A brief history of antioxidants
One of the unavoidable consequences of metabolism (burning food for energy) is the creation of oxygen free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are molecules that are highly reactive. They essentially contain oxygen with an extra electron, which can react with another molecule, breaking bonds and causing damage.
As you might expect, the body has natural antioxidants which react with ROS to form benign molecules.
In the 1990s it became increasingly apparent that oxidative stress was playing an important role in cell damage, even sometimes triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Many degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease, were shown to be driven in part by oxidative stress. In addition, it seemed that ROS play a role in aging.
This is an expansion of a post I did over on the Society for Science-Based Medicine blog about this time last year. The original post, which got far more traffic than is usual for the SFSBM, is a good example of how science works and the good that it can do. The hard work of real science illustrated here serves as a striking counterpoint to the slap-dash system of pseudoscience, which churns out fake diseases, causes, and cures by the dozen based on a fuzzy understanding of real science fueled by a healthy dose of imagination.
Naturopaths and “functional medicine” practitioners would have the public believe that they are the true experts on nutrition and health. Even though their nutritional advice contains a large serving of hooey and a big helping of dietary supplements, which they are happy to sell to patients.
So it was with great interest that I read the obituary of Dr. Lee Wattenberg in the New York Times.
Dr. Wattenberg published a landmark paper in the journal Cancer Research that reviewed 36 years of animal studies on the effects that certain compounds had on the development of cancer. The paper laid the framework for understanding how these compounds work. . . .
He showed that cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli inhibit the development of carcinogens. He isolated a compound in garlic that decreased “by a factor of three” the chances that animals injected with cancer agents would develop that cancer. He found two chemicals in coffee that neutralize free radicals, which are harmful chemicals commonly implicated in the onset of cancer.
One of my favorite television shows right now is The Knick, as I described before in a post about medical history. To give you an idea of how much I’m into The Knick, I’ll tell you that I signed up for Cinemax for three months just for that one show. (After its second season finale airs next Friday, I’ll drop Cinemax until next fall.) The reason why I’m bringing up The Knick (besides I love the show and need to bring it up at least once a year) is because an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker entitled “Tough Medicine“, which is a commentary based on a new book on cancer by a veritable god of cancer research, Vincent T. DeVita, Jr., immediately resonated with a storyline in this season of The Knick. I haven’t yet read The Death of Cancer: After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer Is Winnable–and How We Can Get There by Vincent T. DeVita and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, but I want to. I can tell, though, that there will be parts of the book I find annoying just from Gladwell’s take on it, which approvingly describes DeVita as railing against the cautiousness and incremental nature of today’s cancer research. To give you an idea of where Gladwell’s coming from, I note that his article shows up in the title bar of my web browser not as “Tough Medicine” but rather “How To Cure Cancer”, even as the title on the web page itself remains “Tough Medicine”. On the other hand, the article does conclude with Gladwell demonstrating a better understanding of the disadvantages of what DeVita is proposing than it seems that he will in the beginning. In fact, it is Gladwell who is more reasonable than his subject, although he does appear share DeVita’s apparent assumption that potentially all cancer patients are savable if only we try hard enough. (more…)
Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young: How two quacks of a feather illustrate how poorly states regulate medical practice
One of the weaknesses in our system of regulating the practice of medicine in the United States is that, unlike most countries, we don’t have one system. We have 50 systems. That’s because the functions of licensing physicians and regulating the practice of medicine are not federal functions, but state functions. Each state sets its own laws and regulations governing the practice of medicine, making for wide variability from state to state. Some states are lax in their regulation (cough, cough, I’m talking to you, Texas), others are not so lax.
Given how often state medical boards and the other enforcement bodies states use to protect the public from professional misconduct and quackery, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update our readers on two men who have been frequent topics of discussion on this blog, Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young. The reason is that, through some bizarre confluence of events, both of them faced justice last week, in the form of a hearing due to action against Burzynski by the Texas Medical Board, and in the form of the trial of Robert O. Young in southern California.
What these two quacks share in common is that they’ve gotten away with their cancer quackery for a very long time, two decades in the case of Robert O. Young and nearly four decades in the case of Stanislaw Burzynski, with attempts by the law to bring them to heel having been largely ineffective. They are different in that one is a physician (Dr. Burzynski) and one is not (Young) and therefore different legal considerations come into play. Young, for instance, is a self-proclaimed naturopath known for his “pH Miracle Living” cure, which, he claims, can be used to cure basically any disease by “alkalinizing” the body. After two decades of running, he is being tried for practicing medicine without a license, and, of course, fraud. Burzynski, although not an oncologist, is a licensed physician in Texas and has been administering an unproven and almost certainly ineffective “natural” treatment consisting of substances derived from blood and urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons” (ANPs) back in the 1970s. He is also different in that he’s gotten away with this largely through abuse of the clinical trial process, which is regulated at the federal level through the FDA and the HHS. It is not, however, the federal government that is pursuing action against Burzynski, but rather the Texas Medical Board (TMB). Thus, while Young is on trial and could go to jail if he loses, if Burzynski loses he will only lose his license to practice medicine in the state of Texas.
Despite their differences, both Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young illuminate major shortcomings in how the legal system deals with quacks.