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Stanislaw Burzynski: A deceptive propaganda movie versus an upcoming news report

Well, I’ve finally seen it, and it was even worse than I had feared.

After having heard of Eric Merola’s plan to make a sequel to his 2010 propaganda “documentary” about Stanislaw Burzynski, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business, which I labeled a bad movie, bad medicine, and bad PR, I’ve finally actually seen the finished product, such as it is. Of course, during the months between when Eric Merola first offered me an “opportunity” to appear in the sequel based on my intense criticism of Burzynski’s science, abuse of the clinical trials process, and human subjects research ethics during the last 18 months or so, there has been intense speculation about what this movie would contain, particularly given how Merola’s publicity campaign involved demonizing skeptics, now rechristened by Merola as “The Skeptics,” a shadowy cabal of people apparently dedicated (according to Merola) to protecting big pharma and making sure that patients with deadly cancers don’t have access to Burzynski’s magic peptides, presumably cackling all the way to the bank to cash those big pharma checks.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s cancer “success” stories update: Why is the release of the Burzynski sequel being delayed?

It’s no secret that I happen to be on several mailing lists of groups or doctors whose dedication to science is—shall we say?—questionable. Of course, the reason I join such mailing lists is to keep my finger on the pulse of pseudoscience, so to speak. Between such lists and strategically selected Google Alerts (the latter of which appear to be failing me these days), I’m usually aware of potential blogging material fast on selected topics that have become my bailiwick on this blog. So it was that I became aware on Saturday of a development regarding the movie about Stanislaw Burzynski that was going to be released direct to DVD this week.

I wrote about this “documentary” a couple of weeks ago, because it had become pretty clear that a significant part of the movie will be dedicated to a PR counterattack (more like a smear job) on skeptics who have been critical of Burzynski, criticism that apparently goaded him to use a rather unhinged individual by the name of Marc Stephens to threaten skeptical bloggers who had written posts critical of Burzynski’s science (more appropriately, his lack of science), and his proclivity for charging patients huge amounts of money to be in clinical trials, a practice that is in general considered at best questionable. The brouhaha in the blogosphere led me to pay attention to Burzynski in a way that I hadn’t before. Sure, I had heard of him, but I hadn’t really delved deeply into his claims. That situation was rectified in late 2011, as I reviewed the first propaganda movie made about Burzynski by Eric Merola, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business. As I delved deeper, I learned that Burzynski’s evidence for the anticancer efficacy of his “antineoplaston therapy” doesn’t hold up; that his “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” is anything but personalized or gene-targeted; and that he’s using an orphan drug now in what appears to me to be a strategy to bypass restrictions on his use of antineoplastons that he agreed to in a consent agreement with the Texas Attorney General back in 1998 that allow him only to use these drugs as part of a valid clinical trial.

So I awaited the approach of this week with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation; anticipation because I wanted to see what sort of bizarre new conspiracy theories (or new twists on old conspiracy theories) that Merola could weave, and trepidation because I don’t know how badly Merola will trash me (and people I know) in his movie and such attacks could cause me difficulties. Suffice to say, it looked very much as though Merola was going to resurrect Jake Crosby’s scurrilous attacks against me from three years ago. So it was with great surprise that I read this e-mail on Saturday morning, sent to the Burzynski Movie mailing list:

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Kudos to a Journalist

Many SBM readers will remember the late, great Barry Beyerstein,  a luminary of the skeptical movement and author of a classic article that has been cited many times on SBM, an explanation of why bogus therapies seem to work.

One of his greatest personal accomplishments is not as well known: he produced an exceptional daughter, Lindsay Beyerstein, a freelance writer, philosopher, and polymath who stepped into her father’s shoes as a faculty member of the annual Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop after his death and has done a truly admirable job there.

Among Lindsay’s many other activities, she works for the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a nonprofit that honors excellence in socially conscious journalism. One of her goals has been to reward excellence in science journalism. Bob Ortega has just received a Sidney Award for his exposé of a widely used HPV (human papillomavirus) test that is not FDA approved and has an unacceptably high rate of false negative results. Her interview with him was published on the Hillman Foundation website.  On SBM, we frequently criticize journalists who get the science wrong. For a change, I’d like to congratulate Mr. Ortega for not only getting the science right, but for accomplishing something that could potentially save lives.

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Posted in: Cancer, Obstetrics & gynecology, Science and the Media

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Now that Burzynski has gotten off in 2012, Burzynski The Movie will spawn a sequel in 2013

About a year ago, I became interested in a physician named Stanislaw Burzynski who has been treating cancer with compounds that he calls “antineoplastons” for over three decades without, in my opinion, ever having ever produced any compelling evidence that antineoplastons have significant anticancer activity. Although I had been vaguely aware of Burzynski and his activities, it was the first time that I had looked into them in a big way.

Having found very few skeptical, science-based takes on Burzynski and having noted that the Quackwatch entries on Burzynski (1, 2, 3) were hopelessly out of date, I wrote a trilogy of posts about him, starting with a review of an execrably bad movie made by a simultaneously credulous yet cynical independent writer, producer, and director named Eric Merola whose primary business, appropriately enough, is mainly marketing. The movie was Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is A Serious Business, a “documentary” (and I’m being polite here) that I characterized at the time as a bad movie and bad P.R. In brief, I saw this movie as a hagiography, a propaganda film so ham-fisted that, if she were still alive, it would easily simultaneously make Leni Riefenstahl blush at its blatantness and feel nauseated how truly awful it was from a strictly film making standpoint. It was also chock full of highly dubious science, in particular Burzynski’s latest venture, which is to sell “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” similarly lacking in oncological insight, so much so that I observed at the time that it was as though Dr. Burzynski read a book called Personalized Cancer Therapy for Dummies and decided he is an expert in genomics-based tailoring of targeted therapies to individual cancer patients. Finally, I completed the trilogy by pointing out that lately Burzynski has been rebranding an orphan drug that showed mild to moderate promise as an anticancer therapy.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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It’s time for true transparency of clinical trials data

What makes a health professional science-based? We advocate for evaluations of treatments, and treatment decisions, based on the best research methods. We compile evidence based on fair trials that minimize the risks of bias. And, importantly, we consider this evidence in the context of the plausibility of the treatment. The fact is, it’s actually not that hard to get a positive result in a trial, especially when it’s sloppily done or biased.  And there are many ways to design a trial to demonstrate positive results in some subgroup, as Kimball Atwood pointed out earlier this week. And even when a trial is well done, there remains the risk of error simply due to chance alone. So to sort out true treatment effects, from fake effects, two key steps are helpful in reviewing the evidence.

1. Take prior probability into account when assessing data. While a detailed explanation of Bayes Theorem could take several posts, consider prior probability this way: Any test has flaws and limitations. Tests give probabilities based on the test method itself, not on what is being tested. Consequently, in order to evaluate the probability of “x” given a test result, we must incorporate the pre-test probability of “x”. Bayesian analysis uses any existing data, plus the data collected in the test, to give a prediction that factors in prior probabilities. It’s part of the reason why most published research findings are false.

2. Use systematic reviews to evaluate all the evidence. The best way to answer a specific clinical question is to collect all the potentially relevant information in a structured way, consider its quality, analyze it according to predetermined criteria, and then draw conclusions. A systematic review reduces the risk of cherry picking and author bias, compared to non-systematic data-collection or general literature reviews of evidence. A well-conducted systematic review will give us an answer based on the totality of evidence available, and is the best possible answer for a given question.

These two steps are critically important, and so have been discussed repeatedly by the contributors to this blog. What is obvious, but perhaps not as well understood, is how our reviews can still be significantly flawed, despite best efforts. In order for our evaluation to accurately consider prior probability, and to be systematic, we need all the evidence. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible if clinical trials remains unpublished or are otherwise inaccessible. There is good evidence to show that negative studies are less likely to be published than positive studies. Sometimes called the “file drawer” effect, it’s not solely the fault of investigators, as journals seeking positive results may decline to publish negative studies. But unless these studies are found, systematic reviews are more likely to miss negative data, which means there’s the risk of bias in favor of an intervention. How bad is the problem? We really have no complete way to know, for any particular clinical question, just how much is missing or buried. This is a problem that has confounded researchers and authors of systematic reviews for decades. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Who’s to Blame for Drug Shortages?

All the best effort to practice science-based medicine are for naught when the optimal treatment is unavailable. And that’s increasingly the case – even for life-threatening illnesses. Shortages of prescription drugs, including cancer drugs, seem more frequent and more significant than at any time in the past. Just recently manufacturing deficiencies at a large U.S.-based contract drug manufacturer meant that over a dozen drugs stopped being produced. This lead to extensive media coverage, speculating on the causes and implications of what seems like a growing problem. So who’s to blame? (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Breast implants and anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL): Is there a link?

I must admit that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with breast implants. On the one hand, as a breast cancer surgeon, I see them as a major benefit to my patients who are unfortunate enough to require mastectomy in order to control their disease. The armamentarium of techniques for reconstructing breasts after mastectomy generally falls into one of two categories, either various form of muscle flaps or breast implants. However, some women are, for various reasons, not eligible for various muscle flap reconstructions. That leaves either breast implants–or nothing. Certainly, some women are perfectly fine with no reconstruction after mastectomy, but many, if not most, women are not. For these women, it would be difficult to overstate how much of a boon to body image and self-esteem reconstruction can be, particularly given how much better at it plastic surgeons have become over the last couple of decades.

On the other hand, breast implants make my life as a breast cancer surgeon more difficult for a variety of reasons. First, they tend to make mammography more difficult by obscuring part of the breast, thus decreasing the sensitivity of mammography. Good mammography facilities can get around this to some extent by using various displacement techniques, but it takes some effort, and it doesn’t completely correct the problems that implants cause for mammographic screening. Moreover, when a woman who has had implants placed for cosmetic reasons comes to see me for a breast mass or an abnormal mammogram, the presence of the implants can complicate treatment decisions. If the abnormality or mass is close to the implant, we worry about rupturing it in the process, particularly if the implant is not below the pectoralis major muscle. Even when the implant is subpectoral, the muscle overlying it frequently ends up being so stretched out that the muscle in essence forms part of the capsule around the implant and ends up being a lot thinner than you might expect. Let me tell you, my anal sphincter tone is always much tighter when operating near an implant, particularly a silicone implant. True, I’m perfectly capable of removing an implant if it’s accidentally ruptured, but such an outcome is not desirable, particularly with silicone implants, where cleaning up the leaking silicone can be difficult.

It doesn’t help that silicone breast implants have been the subject of controversy since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when thousands of women with silicone implants reported a variety of ailments, including autoimmune disease and a variety of other systemic illnesses. These reports led to a rash of lawsuits and, ultimately, the banning of silicone breast implants for general use in 1992. After that, silicone breast implants were only permitted in women requiring breast reconstruction or women enrolled in clinical trials studying breast implants. This ban was partially lifted in 2006, as evidence accumulated that the claims of autoimmune diseases and increased cancer risk due to silicone breast implants were not supported by clinical and scientific evidence and two products made by Allergan Corp. (formerly Inamed Corp.) and Mentor Corp. Not surprisingly, given that the furor over silicone breast implants as a cause of autoimmune and other systemic diseases is based on about as much solid scientific evidence as the antivaccine furor over vaccines as a cause of the “autism epidemic,” there was widespread criticism of this decision. Even now, it is not difficult to find articles about breast implants with titles like Breast Implants: America’s Silent Epidemic and websites like the Humantics Foundation and Toxic Breast Implants . I do note, however, that the number of such sites and articles does appear to be declining and, at least to my impression, seems to have decreased markedly over the last 10 years or so.

Having reviewed the literature and found evidence for a link between silicone breast implants and the systemic diseases attributed to them to be incredibly weak at best, I had little problem with the FDA’s decision. Actually, the only thing I had a problem with at the time, my opinions of how breast implants interfere with breast cancer detection and treatment notwithstanding, is that the FDA was probably being more cautious than the evidence warranted after 14 years.

Was I wrong?
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Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Avastin and metastatic breast cancer: When science-based medicine collides with FDA regulation

One of the most frustrating aspects of taking care of cancer patients is that in general, with only a few specific exceptions, we do not have good curative therapies for patients with stage IV cancer, particularly solid tumors. Consequently, patients with stage IV disease are viewed as “incurable” because, the vast majority of the time, they are incurable. Over the years, we have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at patients with stage IV disease, largely with dissapointing results. That’s not to say that the few specific exceptions to which I alluded are not a reason for hope. After all, patients with colorectal cancer and liver metastases used to have a median survival of around 6 months, but these days, with newer chemotherapeutic regimens like FOLFOX plus Avastin, median survival has more than tripled. While expecting to live less than two years is cold comfort to cancer patients with this particular clinical situation, the prognosis is far better than it was.

Of course, I specifically mentioned Avastin because it’s been in the news a lot recently with respect to my area of clinical specialty, breast cancer. Specifically, beginning in July there started appearing a spate of stories about the FDA considering revoking the approval of Avastin for advanced breast cancer based on recent studies that demonstrate that it does not prolong survival in these patients. Many lay people and patients find this reconsideration of Avastin to be quite puzzling, given that the drug was granted accelerated approval in 2008 and has since gone on to be used fairly widely. Given that the case of Avastin in breast cancer is rapidly becoming a classic case study of how messy science-based medicine can be when practiced in the public eye and debated among pharmaceutical companies, the government, and patient advocacy groups.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Off-Label Use of Prescription Drugs

A recent survey of 599 primary care physicians and 600 psychiatrists found that:

The adjusted response rate was 47%, respondents were similar to non-respondents, and physicians commonly prescribed the drugs examined. The average respondent accurately identified the FDA-approval status of just over half of the drug-indication pairs queried (mean 55%; median 57%). Accuracy increased modestly (mean 60%, median 63%) when limited to drugs the respondent reported having prescribed during the previous 12 months. There was a strong association between physicians’ belief that an indication was FDA-approved and greater evidence supporting efficacy for that use (Spearman’s 0.74, p < 0.001). However, 41% of physicians believed at least one drug-indication pair with uncertain or no supporting evidence (e.g., quetiapine [Seroquel®] for dementia with agitation) was FDA approved.

These results are interesting, but deserve to be dissected a bit further. Taken at face value they indicate that physicians need better education regarding the FDA indications and (more importantly) the evidence-base for commonly prescribed drugs. This is an uncontroversial recommendation, and I personally strongly advocate more thorough physician continuing medical education.

Of course, at SBM we have to also dissect the weaknesses of any study we examine. This was a voluntary survey with a 47% response rate, which opens the door for significant responder bias. The survey does not broadly represent different specialties and therefore its relevance beyond primary care and psychiatry is uncertain. The details of the study may also have greatly influenced the outcome.

For example, one of the drug-indication pairs was gabapentin for diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Gabapentin is not specifically indicated for diabetic neuropathy, but it is indicated for post-herpetic neuralgia. Both conditions are forms of neuropathic pain, and it is highly scientifically plausible for a treatment of one condition to also be effective for the other. In fact, there is strong evidence that gabapentin is effective for diabetic neuropathy, and it is commonly prescribed for this condition (in fact insurance companies often require that it is first line treatment as it is now available generically and is therefore less expensive than newer drugs that are indicated specifically for diabetic neuropathy). In other words, this was one of the easiest mistakes to make.

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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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Is Tylenol Safe?

Tylenol (acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol outside the US) has been in the news recently. Most of the stories I’ve seen have been accurate, but I’ve run across a couple of people who misunderstood what they read. I thought I’d try to put the record straight.

An FDA advisory panel has recommended reducing the maximum allowed single dose from 1000 mg to 650 mg in over-the-counter acetaminophen products. The 1000 mg dose would be available by prescription only. They also recommended eliminating painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin that contain a combination of a narcotic and acetaminophen. They did not recommend removing acetaminophen from over-the-counter cold remedies, cough medicines and similar products that combine acetaminophen with other drugs. Advisory panel recommendations are not binding, but the FDA usually follows them.

Some people got the impression that the FDA had just discovered that acetaminophen can be dangerous. No, we always knew that. The danger is when you take too much: it can damage the liver. The “new” information is just that acetaminophen overdose is now the leading cause of liver damage, causing an estimated 1600 cases of liver failure each year. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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