Far too many trees have died in the service of praising or debunking homeopathy in the two centuries since Hahnemann invented it. The forests can celebrate, because this is the definitive book about homeopathy. It is neither “for” nor “against” homeopathy; it is explanatory. It is dispassionate and as unbiased as it could possibly be. It says good things about homeopathy, shows how arguments for and against it have been flawed, and contains nothing that the most ardent homeopaths should be able to complain about (but complain they surely will, because the facts Ernst reports are not what they want the world to hear). (more…)
Posts Tagged Edzard Ernst
German alternative cancer clinics: Combining experimental therapeutics with rank quackery and charging big bucks for it
A couple of months ago, I discussed patient deaths at an alternative medicine clinic in Europe, where a naturopath named Klaus Ross had been administering an experimental cancer drug (3-bromopyruvate, or 3-BP) to patients outside the auspices of a clinical trial. 3-BP is a drug that targets the Warburg effect, a characteristic of cancer cells first reported in the 1920s by Otto Warburg in which the cancer cell changes its metabolism to shut off oxidative phosphorylation (the part of glucose metabolism requiring oxygen that produces the most energy) to rely almost exclusively on glycolysis and anaerobic metabolism. From a cancer cell evolution standpoint, one can understand why cancer cells would behave this way, as this change allows them to survive in environments with much less oxygen than normal cells, but the side effect of the Warburg effect is that cancer cells consume a lot of glucose for their energy needs. Indeed, positron emission tomography (PET scanning) takes advantage of this characteristic of cancer cells to use glucose labeled with a positron-emitting isotope that accumulates in cells. The result is that cancer cells, which in general use a lot more glucose than normal cells, light up compared to the surrounding tissue, allowing the identification of areas suspicious for cancer. Targeting the Warburg effect is therefore a strategy to attack cancer cells preferentially.
Since I wrote about the tragic deaths of those cancer patients, I’ve been seeing stories about German alternative medicine cancer clinics popping up in my newsfeed over and over again. Intuitively, you’d think that a scientifically advanced economic powerhouse like Germany would have stricter regulations over the practice of medicine, but, the more I looked into these clinics, the more I realized that there are a lot of quack clinics in Germany every bit as quacky as any clinic in Tijuana, but with a twist. Like Mexican alternative medicine clinics, German clinics often charge enormous sums of money for treatments that range from the unproven to the dubious to pure quackery. However, in addition to the rank quackery, German cancer clinics include legitimate experimental drugs that are as yet unproven and might even only have cell culture or animal evidence supporting its potential efficacy. Indeed, 3-BP is just such an example. It is a legitimate candidate cancer drug that’s in the pipeline, having shown promise in cell culture and animal experiments, but that has no human data from systematic clinical trials yet, just a handful of anecdotes when it was tried in humans under desperate circumstances. Not surprisingly, Klaus Ross’ main clinic is in Germany, and, like so many other clinics there, he was administering an as-yet-unapproved drug to humans.
So, prodded by a couple of recent stories from the UK, I decided to take another look at these German cancer clinics.
Edzard Ernst published an excellent editorial today addressing the question of why pharmacists sell bogus products. Our own resident pharmacist, Scott Gavura, expressed similar points here on SBM a year ago. Their points are worth emphasizing and expanding upon.
The explicit premise of both editorials is that pharmacists, like physicians, are health care professionals. Being a professional means adhering to certain professional standard of quality control and ethical behavior. A profession is essentially a contract with society – the profession gets exclusive rights to certain commercial behaviors, and in return promises to maintain adequate quality control and to act in the best interests of society and their individual clients.
When a profession puts their own commercial interests ahead of society or their individual customers, they have violated that contract.
There are multiple layers of regulation to maintain quality and ethical standards in the health care professions. Once a profession is licensed, they basically self-regulate, with members of the profession establishing the standard of care. Standardized testing designed by the profession is used to establish competence or specialized expertise.
Anyone who reads Science-Based Medicine on even a semi-regular basis will know our collective opinion of homeopathy. Basically, at its core, homeopathy is pure quackery.
I don’t care if it’s repetitive to say this yet again because it can’t be emphasized enough times that homeopathy is The One Quackery To Rule Them All. OK, there are others that compete for that title, such as reiki and other magical “energy therapies” like therapeutic touch, both of which, unfortunately, can be found in many academic medical centers where the faculty really should know better. Any “medicine” whose very precepts break multiple laws of physics and chemistry, laws that would have to be proven not just wrong but spectacularly wrong for homeopathy to work, deserves only ridicule.
The “laws” of homeopathy
Think of it this way. There are two “laws” of homeopathy, neither of which has any basis in reality. First, there is the law that states “like cures like” and asserts that, to relieve a symptom, you need to use a substance that causes that same symptom in healthy adults. There is, of course, no evidence that this is a general principle of medicine. For instance, we don’t generally treat fever by administering something that causes fever or treat vomiting with something that causes vomiting. The second law, however, is the one that’s completely ridiculous. Basically, it’s the law of infinitesimals. This law states that a homeopathic remedy is made stronger with dilution, specifically serial dilutions with vigorous shaking between each dilution step to “potentize” the remedy. That’s ridiculous enough, but homeopaths, never satisfied with the merely ridiculous have to turn the ridiculous up to 11 and beyond by using this principle to assert that dilutions far beyond the point where there is likely even to be a single molecule of the original remedy left are effective and become more so with more dilution. For instance, a 30C dilution is 30 one hundred-fold dilutions (C=100, get it?), or a 1060 dilution. Avogadro’s number is only on the order of 6 x 1023, or more than 1036-fold less than the dilution. The simple mathematics of homeopathy just doesn’t work, although this doesn’t stop homeopaths from coming up with some truly spectacular flights of pseudoscience (like the “memory of water”) to try to “explain” how it can work.
A few months ago, Steve Novella and I published an article in Trends in Molecular Medicine entitled “Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?” It was our first foray together into publishing commentary about science-based medicine versus evidence-based medicine, using a topic that we’ve both written extensively about over the years on this blog and our respective personal blogs. Specifically, we discussed whether it is worthwhile to do randomized clinical trials (RCTs) testing highly improbable treatments, such as reiki and homeopathy, both of which have no physical basis to believe that they do anything whatsoever. As I’ve said many times before, reiki is simply faith healing in which Eastern mysticism is substituted for Christian beliefs, and homeopathy, as we’ve discussed many times here on SBM, is vitalistic sympathetic magic with no evidence to support its two laws.
To our surprise, that article generated a fair amount of press (for example this), with accounts of it showing up in the media in various places and Steven and I being asked to do a fair number of interviews. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the editor made the article available for free for a month after its initial publication. (Unfortunately it’s back behind the pay wall again.) Part of the reason is that, intuitively, it makes sense to people not to waste money testing what is, at its core, magic. When I followed up that publication with an article criticizing “integrative oncology” in Nature Reviews Cancer entitled “Integrative oncology: Really the best of both worlds?“, the target was well and truly on my back. Indeed, let’s just say that the Society for Integrative Oncology and the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (CAHCIM) are quite unhappy with me. When both their letters to the editor are published (right now, only one is), I might even blog about them.
In the meantime, I want to deal with criticism published in an unexpected place, albeit not by unexpected critics. The reason is that this criticism relies on a common straw man caricature of what we are saying when we advocate science-based medicine (SBM) that considers prior plausibility in determining what modalities to test in clinical trials and understands Bayesian thinking in which prior plausibility affects posterior plausibility that a “significant” result is not a false positive in contrast to the current evidence-based medicine (EBM) paradigm, which relegates basic science knowledge, even well-established principles of science that show that something like, say, homeopathy or reiki is impossible under the current understanding of physics, chemistry and biology, to the lowest rung on the EBM pyramid. It’s also a criticism that comes up frequently enough that, even though it’s been addressed before in various ways by various SBM bloggers, it’s worth revisiting from time to time. In this case, that’s particularly so because one of the two critics taking Steve and me to task is currently embroiled in a controversy about testing homeopathy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at the University of Toronto (more details on that later). Let’s just say, the criticism of Steve and me gives me an “in” to address a story that I thought had passed me by, and I intend to take it.
Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds. He went from practicing alternative medicine to questioning it, to researching it, to becoming its most prolific critic. I have long admired his work, and I finally met him in person when we were invited to speak at the same conferences. He shattered my stereotype of the stern, formal, self-important German “Herr Professor Doktor.” He was affable, unassuming, and funny; he was even a jazz musician. I wished I knew more about his history, and my wishes have been granted in the form of his new autobiographical book, A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble.
Edzard Ernst, the early years
Dr. Ernst was born in post-war Germany; his family had suffered greatly during the war and his uncle had been a general in the Waffen SS. He felt slightly ashamed to be German, and as a result he researched and wrote about Nazi health beliefs and medical atrocities so the history of their misdeeds would not be forgotten.
His father was a doctor, his mother an enthusiastic devotee of alternative medicine who subjected him to homeopathy, ice cold baths, and barefoot walks at dawn through wet grass. Early in life, Ernst began to manifest a tendency towards doubt and irreverence, along with an irrepressible sense of curiosity.
Music was his first love. He earned good money when he and his friends spent their summer vacation busking on the beach at St. Tropez, and he had been seriously considering a musical career until his mother persuaded him to study medicine. He earned an MD in Germany, in an environment where alternative medicine was unquestioningly integrated with mainstream medicine. He received hands-on training in acupuncture, autogenic training, herbalism, homeopathy, cupping, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, even leeches. His first job was in a homeopathic hospital where a colleague chose remedies by dowsing with a pendulum. (more…)
Acupuncture has been in the news recently. A former President of South Korea had to undergo major surgery to remove an acupuncture needle that had somehow lodged in his lung. A recent study in Pain compiled a list of 95 published reports of serious complications of acupuncture including 5 deaths. Meanwhile, acupuncturists continue to insist that their procedures are “safe.”
Edzard Ernst et al.’s article “Acupuncture: Does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews“ was published in the journal Pain in April 2011. It had two parts: (1) it was a systematic review of 57 systematic reviews showing that there was “little truly convincing evidence that acupuncture is effective in reducing pain,” and (2) it tabulated published reports of 5 deaths and 90 other serious complications of acupuncture treatments. I wrote an accompanying commentary, “Acupuncture’s claims punctured: Not proven effective for pain, not harmless.”
William Morris chastised me for not declaring a conflict of interest (!?) in my commentary. Now, in Acupuncture Today, he has criticized the Ernst et al. study itself.
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…)
OK, I admit that I pulled a fast one. I never finished the last post as promised, so here it is.
This systematic review has clearly identified the need for randomised or controlled clinical trials assessing the effectiveness of Laetrile or amygdalin for cancer treatment.
I’d previously asserted that this conclusion “stand[s] the rationale for RCTs on its head,” because a rigorous, disconfirming case series had long ago put the matter to rest. Later I reported that Edzard Ernst, one of the Cochrane authors, had changed his mind, writing, “Would I argue for more Laetrile studies? NO.” That in itself is a reason for optimism, but Dr. Ernst is such an exception among “CAM” researchers that it almost seemed not to count.
Until recently, however, I’d only seen the abstract of the Cochrane Laetrile review. Now I’ve read the entire review, and there’s a very pleasant surprise in it (Professor Simon, take notice). In a section labeled “Feedback” is this letter from another Cochrane reviewer, which was apparently added in August of 2006, well before I voiced my own objections:
This is the third post in this series*; please see Part II for a review. Part II offered several arguments against the assertion that it is a good idea to perform efficacy trials of medical claims that have been refuted by basic science or by other, pre-trial evidence. This post will add to those arguments, continuing to identify the inadequacies of the tools of Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) as applied to such claims.
Prof. Simon Replies
Prior to the posting of Part II, statistician Steve Simon, whose views had been the impetus for this series, posted another article on his blog, responding to Part I of this series. He agreed with some of what both Dr. Gorski and I had written:
The blog post by Dr. Atwood points out a critical distinction between “biologically implausible” and “no known mechanism of action” and I must concede this point. There are certain therapies in CAM that take the claim of biological plausibility to an extreme. It’s not as if those therapies are just implausible. It is that those therapies must posit a mechanism that “would necessarily violate scientific principles that rest on far more solid ground than any number of equivocal, bias-and-error-prone clinical trials could hope to overturn.” Examples of such therapies are homeopathy, energy medicine, chiropractic subluxations, craniosacral rhythms, and coffee enemas.
The Science Based Medicine site would argue that randomized trials for these therapies are never justified. And it bothers Dr. Atwood when a systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration states that no conclusions can be drawn about homeopathy as a treatment for asthma because of a lack of evidence from well conducted clinical trials. There’s plenty of evidence from basic physics and chemistry that can allow you to draw strong conclusions about whether homeopathy is an effective treatment for asthma. So the Cochrane Collaboration is ignoring this evidence, and worse still, is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) calling for more research in this area.
On the other hand:
There are a host of issues worth discussing here, but let me limit myself for now to one very basic issue. Is any research justified for a therapy like homeopathy when basic physics and chemistry will provide more than enough evidence by itself to suggest that such research is futile(?) Worse still, the randomized trial is subject to numerous biases that can lead to erroneous conclusions.
I disagree for a variety of reasons.