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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part III: Parapsychology is the Role Model for “CAM” Research

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.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part II: Is it a Good Idea to test Highly Implausible Health Claims?

Review

This is the second post in a series* prompted by an essay by statistician Stephen Simon, who argued that Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) is not lacking in the ways that we at Science-Based Medicine have argued. David Gorski responded here, and Prof. Simon responded to Dr. Gorski here. Between that response and the comments following Dr. Gorski’s post it became clear to me that a new round of discussion would be worth the effort.

Part I of this series provided ample evidence for EBM’s “scientific blind spot”: the EBM Levels of Evidence scheme and EBM’s most conspicuous exponents consistently fail to consider all of the evidence relevant to efficacy claims, choosing instead to rely almost exclusively on randomized, controlled trials (RCTs). The several quoted Cochrane abstracts, regarding homeopathy and Laetrile, suggest that in the EBM lexicon, “evidence” and “RCTs” are almost synonymous. Yet basic science or preliminary clinical studies provide evidence sufficient to refute some health claims (e.g., homeopathy and Laetrile), particularly those emanating from the social movement known by the euphemism “CAM.”

It’s remarkable to consider just how unremarkable that last sentence ought to be. EBM’s founders understood the proper role of the rigorous clinical trial: to be the final arbiter of any claim that had already demonstrated promise by all other criteria—basic science, animal studies, legitimate case series, small controlled trials, “expert opinion,” whatever (but not inexpert opinion). EBM’s founders knew that such pieces of evidence, promising though they may be, are insufficient because they “routinely lead to false positive conclusions about efficacy.” They must have assumed, even if they felt no need to articulate it, that claims lacking such promise were not part of the discussion. Nevertheless, the obvious point was somehow lost in the subsequent formalization of EBM methods, and seems to have been entirely forgotten just when it ought to have resurfaced: during the conception of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine’s Introduction to Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine.

Thus, in 2000, the American Heart Journal (AHJ) could publish an unchallenged editorial arguing that Na2EDTA chelation “therapy” could not be ruled out as efficacious for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease because it hadn’t yet been subjected to any large RCTs—never mind that there had been several small ones, and abundant additional evidence from basic science, case studies, and legal documents, all demonstrating that the treatment is both useless and dangerous. The well-powered RCT had somehow been transformed, for practical purposes, from the final arbiter of efficacy to the only arbiter. If preliminary evidence was no longer to have practical consequences, why bother with it at all? This was surely an example of what Prof. Simon calls “Poorly Implemented Evidence Based Medicine,” but one that was also implemented by the very EBM experts who ought to have recognized the fallacy.

There will be more evidence for these assertions as we proceed, but the main thrust of Part II is to begin to respond to this statement from Prof. Simon: “There is some societal value in testing therapies that are in wide use, even though there is no scientifically valid reason to believe that those therapies work.”

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Evidence-Based Medicine, Human Studies Ethics, and the ‘Gonzalez Regimen’: a Disappointing Editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology Part 2

NB: If you haven’t yet read Part 1 of this blog, please do so now; Part 2 will not summarize it.

At the end of Part 1, I wrote:

We do not need formal statistics or a new, randomized trial with a larger sample size to justify dismissing the Gonzalez regimen.

In his editorial for the JCO, Mark Levine made a different argument:

Can it be concluded that [the] study proves that enzyme therapy is markedly inferior? On the basis of the study design, my answer is no. It is not possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

That conclusion may be correct in the EBM sense, but it misses the crucial point of why the trial was (ostensibly) done: to determine, once and for all, whether there was anything to the near-miraculous claims that proponents had made for a highly implausible “detoxification” regimen for cancer of the pancreas. Gonzalez himself had admitted at the trial’s inception that nothing short of an outcome matching the hype would do:

DR. GONZALEZ: It’s set up as a survival study. We’re looking at survival.

SPEAKER: Do you have an idea of what you’re looking for?

DR. GONZALEZ: Well, Jeff [Jeffrey White, the director of the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the NCI—KA] and I were just talking a couple weeks ago. You know, to get any kind of data that would be beyond criticism is—-always be criticism, but at least three times.

You would want in the successful group to be three times — the median to be three times out from the lesser successful groups.

So, for example, if the average survival with chemo, which we suspect will be 5 months, you would want my therapy to be at least — the median survival to be at least 15, 16, 17 months, as it was in the pilot study.

We’re looking for a median survival three times out from the chemo group to be significant.

Recall that the median survival in the Gonzalez arm eventually turned out to be 4.3 months.

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Evidence-Based Medicine, Human Studies Ethics, and the ‘Gonzalez Regimen’: a Disappointing Editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology Part 1

Background: the distinction between EBM and SBM

An important theme on the Science-Based Medicine blog, and the very reason for its name, has been its emphasis on examining all the evidence—not merely the results of clinical trials—for various claims, particularly for those that are implausible. We’ve discussed the distinction between Science-Based Medicine (SBM) and the more limited Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) several times, for example here (I began my own discussion here and added a bit of formality here, here, and here). Let me summarize by quoting John Ioannidis:

…the probability that a research finding is indeed true depends on the prior probability of it being true (before doing the study), the statistical power of the study, and the level of statistical significance.

EBM, in a nutshell, ignores prior probability† (unless there is no other available evidence) and falls for the “p-value fallacy”; SBM does not. Please don’t bicker about this if you haven’t read the links above and some of their own references, particularly the EBM Levels of Evidence scheme and two articles by Steven Goodman (here and here). Also, note that it is not necessary to agree with Ioannidis that “most published research findings are false” to agree with his assertion, quoted above, about what determines the probability that a research finding is true.

The distinction between SBM and EBM has important implications for medical practice ethics, research ethics, human subject protections, allocation of scarce resources, epistemology in health care, public perceptions of medical knowledge and of the health professions, and more. EBM, as practiced in the 20 years of its formal existence, is poorly equipped to evaluate implausible claims because it fails to acknowledge that even if scientific plausibility is not sufficient to establish the validity of a new treatment, it is necessary for doing so.

Thus, in their recent foray into applying the tools of EBM to implausible health claims, government and academic investigators have made at least two, serious mistakes: first, they have subjected unwary subjects to dangerous but unnecessary trials in a quest for “evidence,” failing to realize that definitive evidence already exists; second, they have been largely incapable of pronouncing ineffective methods ineffective. At best, even after conducting predictably disconfirming trials of vanishingly unlikely claims, they have declared such methods merely “unproven,” almost always urging “further research.” That may be the proper EBM response, but it is a far cry from the reality. As I opined a couple of years ago, the founders of the EBM movement apparently “never saw ‘CAM’ coming.”

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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“Gonzalez Regimen” for Cancer of the Pancreas: Even Worse than We Thought (Part II: Loose Ends)

Last week I discussed the dismal results of the “Gonzalez Trial” for cancer of the pancreas,* as reported in an article recently posted on the website of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. I promised that this week I’d discuss “troubling information, both stated and unstated [in the report],” and also some ethical issues. More has come to light in the past few days, including Nicholas Gonzalez’s own voluminous, angry response to the JCO article. I’ll comment upon that below, but first a brief review.

The trial was begun in 1999 under the auspices of Columbia University, after Rep. Dan Burton had pressured NCI Director Richard Klausner to fund it. It was originally conceived as a randomized, controlled trial comparing the “Gonzalez Regimen” to standard chemotherapy for cancer of the pancreas. In the first year, however, only 2 subjects had been accrued, purportedly because those seeking Gonzalez’s treatment were not willing to risk random assignment to the chemotherapy arm. In 2000, the protocol was changed to a “prospective, cohort study” to allow potential subjects to choose which treatment they would follow. Gonzalez himself was to provide the ‘enzyme’ treatments.

After that there was little public information about the trial for several years, other than a few determination letters from the Office of Human Research Protections and a frightening account of the experience of one subject treated by Gonzalez. By 2006 or so, those of us who pay attention to creeping pseudomedicine in the academy were wondering what had become of it. About a year ago we found out: the trial had been quietly “terminated” in 2005 after it met “pre-determined stopping criteria.” As explained here, that meant that the Gonzalez group had not fared well.

Four years after the trial’s ‘termination,’ the report was finally published: The Gonzalez cohort had not only fared much worse than the cohort that received chemotherapy, but it had fared worse than a comparable group of historical controls. Here, again, is the survival graph from the JCO paper:

Snapshot 2009-09-11 16-16-15

The Gonzalez group had also fared much worse in ‘quality of life’ scores, which included a measure of pain.

Now let’s read between the lines. Forgive me for taking shortcuts; I’m a little pressed for time. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Tom Harkin, NCCAM, health care reform, and a cancer treatment that is worse than useless

ResearchBlogging.orgPRELUDE: SOME BAD NEWS FOR ADVOCATES OF SCIENCE-BASED MEDICINE

It was a bad week for science-based medicine. It was a good week (sort of) for science-based medcine.

First the bad.

There has been a development that anyone who supports science in medicine and opposes quackery will likely find disturbing. Do you remember Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)? We’ve written about him extensively over the last several months on this blog. First of all, he is the man most responsible for the creation of that government-sanctioned, government-funded bastion of pseudoscience, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. He’s also one of the men most responsible for the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, which has done more to protect the supplement industry from making dubious health claims than any other piece of federal legislation. More recently, Harkin has made a name for himself in the health care reform debate currently ongoing by inviting advocates of “integrative” medicine (IM), which in essence integrates quackery and the pseudoscientific with scientific medicine, to Capitol Hill as a means of trying to persuade his fellow legislators to include a CAM/IM version of “wellness” care as part of any bill that might pass this fall. In essence, he is trying to hijack any health care reform bill to include government sanction of unscientific medicine. Meanwhile, he has been chastising NCCAM because it hasn’t “validated” enough “alternative medicine” for his taste. (Actually, it’s validated none, because virtually none of it is likely to be valid.)

This is the man who, according to reports, will almost certainly be taking over the chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) after the death of its former chair, Senator Edward Kennedy. This committee is among the most important for government health policy and will be in the thick of the final negotiations and battles over any health care reform that may arise from Congress this fall.

The existence of powerful supporters of pseudoscience in the highest eschelons of government has real consequences. As I’ve described before, NCCAM, being based entirely on studying highly–even ridiculously implausible–notions about disease and how to treat it, has resulted in the infiltration of quackery into academia, where ideas once rightly dismissed as quackery are respectfully given deference and studied as though they were anything other than Tooth Fairy science, a process that Dr. R. W. Donnell has amusingly termed “quackademic medicine.” One result was the expenditure of $30 million on an unethical, poorly designed, and corrupt trial of chelation therapy for cardiovascular disease. Another result was an even more unethical trial of an even more scientifically implausible remedy for a deadly cancer. Although the fact that the trial was even done is a horror, at least last week we finally found out the results, which had been suppressed for nearly four years, namely that this protocol is not just useless, but worse than useless. It’s a Pyrrhic victory for science-based medicine and cold comfort to patients with pancreatic cancer who may have continued to use this protocol during those four years, but at least we finally know.

Let’s take a look at the study. But first, a little background.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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“Gonzalez Regimen” for Cancer of the Pancreas: Even Worse than We Thought (Part I: Results)

ResearchBlogging.org

Review

One of the more bizarre and unpleasant “CAM” claims, but one taken very seriously at the NIH, at Columbia University, and on Capitol Hill, is the cancer “detoxification” regimen advocated by Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez:

Patients receive pancreatic enzymes orally every 4 hours and at meals daily on days 1-16, followed by 5 days of rest. Patients receive magnesium citrate and Papaya Plus with the pancreatic enzymes. Additionally, patients receive nutritional supplementation with vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and animal glandular products 4 times per day on days 1-16, followed by 5 days of rest. Courses repeat every 21 days until death despite relapse. Patients consume a moderate vegetarian metabolizer diet during the course of therapy, which excludes red meat, poultry, and white sugar. Coffee enemas are performed twice a day, along with skin brushing daily, skin cleansing once a week with castor oil during the first 6 months of therapy, and a salt and soda bath each week. Patients also undergo a complete liver flush and a clean sweep and purge on a rotating basis each month during the 5 days of rest.

Veteran SBM readers will recall that in the spring of 2008 I posted a series of essays* about this regimen and about the trial that compared it to standard treatment for subjects with cancer of the pancreas. The NIH had funded the trial, to be conducted under the auspices of Columbia, after arm-twisting by Rep. Dan Burton [R-IN], a powerful champion of quackery, and much to the delight of the “Harkinites.”

In the fall of 2008 I posted an addendum based on a little-known determination letter that the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) had sent to Columbia during the previous June. The letter revealed that the trial had been terminated in October, 2005, due to “pre-determined stopping criteria.” This demonstrated that Gonzalez’s regimen must have been found to be substantially worse than the current standard of care for cancer of the pancreas, as ineffective as that standard may be. I urge readers who require a review or an introduction to the topic to read that posting, which also considered why no formal report of the trial had yet been made available.

Now, finally, the formal report has been published online by the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO):

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How not to win friends and influence people

BLOGGER’S NOTE: The incident described in this post is true, although somewhat embellished to protect the names and identities of the innocent, if you know what I mean. This conversation occurred a few years ago at a large national cancer meeting.

The question caught me by surprise.

While attending a large national cancer meeting, I was having brunch with a friend, a colleague with whom I used to work when I was doing laboratory research, someone whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. She and her husband had brought along two of their oldest and dearest friends, whom they had known for decades, as well as another of my former coworkers from my old lab. We were idly chatting away and eating, when one of the occupational hazards of being a doctor presented itself. Tthe conversation drifted to medical topics. And then it came.

“What do you think of Dr. Gonzalez?”

Ah, hell.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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The “Gonzalez Trial” for Pancreatic Cancer: Outcome Revealed

A Review

Dr. Lipson’s “detoxification” post on Thanksgiving Day and Dr. Gorski’s recent post about “Gerson Therapy” were timely, because last weekend I noticed something that I should have noticed months ago. Before delivering the punch line, let me remind you, Dear Reader, of the nature of the topic. The regimen advocated by Nicholas Gonzalez is a variation of a “detoxification” treatment for cancer that has been around, in one form or another, for more than 50 years (“Gerson Therapy” is another example).† Here is the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) description:

Patients receive pancreatic enzymes orally every 4 hours and at meals daily on days 1-16, followed by 5 days of rest. Patients receive magnesium citrate and Papaya Plus with the pancreatic enzymes. Additionally, patients receive nutritional supplementation with vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and animal glandular products 4 times per day on days 1-16, followed by 5 days of rest. Courses repeat every 21 days until death despite relapse. Patients consume a moderate vegetarian metabolizer diet during the course of therapy, which excludes red meat, poultry, and white sugar. Coffee enemas are performed twice a day, along with skin brushing daily, skin cleansing once a week with castor oil during the first 6 months of therapy, and a salt and soda bath each week. Patients also undergo a complete liver flush and a clean sweep and purge on a rotating basis each month during the 5 days of rest.

As unlikely as it may seem, in 1999 American taxpayers began paying for people with cancer of the pancreas to be subjected to that regimen, in a trial sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the NCI, conducted under the auspices of Columbia University. Gonzalez provided the treatments. A few months ago I presented a multi-part treatise on the “Gonzalez regimen” and the trial. It demonstrated that all evidence, from basic science to clinical, including the case series that supposedly provided the justification for the trial, had failed to support any real promise (the case series had previously been considered by reader Dr. Peter Moran, who also found them wanting).

It showed that the impetus for the trial, as has been true for other regrettable trials of implausible health claims, can be traced not to science but to the reactionary politics of anti-intellectual populism: initially to Laetrile and to the “Harkinites,” and more recently to the Honorable Dan Burton (R-IN). It reported that there were major problems with the Gonzalez trial from the outset, and that for at least one subject the regimen was more torture than therapy. It reported that for unclear reasons the trial had come to a halt a couple of years ago, and that it appeared that there would never be a report of its findings.

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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The (Not-So-)Beautiful (Un)Truth about the Gerson protocol and cancer quackery

Note added by editor: The complete movie is now available on YouTube:

The Beautiful Truth

Although this blog is about medicine, specifically the scientific basis of medicine and threats to the scientific basis of medicine regardless of the source, several of us also have an interest in other forms of pseudoscience and threats to other branches of science. One branch of science that is, not surprisingly, critical to medicine is the science of biology, and the organizing theory of biology is the theory of evolution, which was first reported by Charles Darwin and subsequently synthesized with the developing science of genetics in the early 20th century and then with our increasing knowledge of molecular biology, genomics, and proteonomics whose rise ushered us into the 21st century. However, the implications of evolution, namely that humans and apes both evolved from a common ancestor and that humans, for all their belief of being different and superior to animals, are in fact related to animals in the great chain of life going all the way back to single-celled organisms, does not go down well with certain religious fundamentalists, particularly Christian fundamentalists. Whereas I (and I daresay several of my cobloggers) find the interconnectedness of life, including humans, implied by Darwin’s theory to be beautiful and uplifting, many fundamentalists see it as a profound threat to their world view. Consequently, they have attacked the theory of evolution at every turn and tried to insert creationism, particularly the latest incarnation of creationism known as “intelligent design,” into science classes as an “alternative” to “Darwinism.” The manner in which they torture science, logic, and reason to try to cast doubt on a theory that is every bit as rock solid in terms of massive quantities of experimental and observational evidence to support it as any other theory in science, if not more so, is legendary and well documented at blogs such as The Panda’s Thumb and websites such as Talk Origins.

Although one day I plan on writing about how insights from evolutionary theory have led to deeper understandings of human disease and strategies to improve human health in the future, this time I want to concentrate on the similarities in techniques of spreading disinformation between creationists and purveyors of unscientific medical “treatments.” For background, first, you need to be aware of a movie that was released in April. The movie, Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed was released. Starring Ben Stein at his most unctuous sporting a bullhorn and styling himself as a conservative, buttoned-down version of Angus Young through his choice of apparel in its promotional material, the movie’s main theme is that any academic who “questioned Darwinism” is “expelled” from academia. The basic idea is that “intelligent design” creationism is being “suppressed” by biologists who just can’t accept the thought of the existence of a “designer” (i.e., God). Indeed, the movie goes so far as to equate biologists and scientists who accept the theory of evolution as the best current explanation for the diversity of life to Hitler and the Nazis and their “suppression” of “alternatives” (word choice intentional) to “Darwinism” to Nazi and Stalinist persecution of dissidents and perceived threats to the regime. The movie even features a sequence where Ben Stein visits Dachau and Auschwitz, as though to imply that biologists are busy firing up the ovens for the Brave Maverick Scientists who “dissent from Darwin.”

These Brave Maverick Scientists are a lot like the Brave Maverick Doctors who champion unscientific medicine. After all, Kevin Trudeau has made a cottage industry and sold millions of books based on the claim that there are “natural cures” that “they” (as in doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and the government) don’t want you to know about and that as a consequence the full forces of these groups are being marshalled to “suppress” them and “persecute” the Brave Maverick Doctors who dare to question the “orthodoxy” of “allopathic medicine,” up to and including claims of “Nazi”-like suppression. (Just read those repositories of quackery NaturalNews.com and Whale.to if you don’t believe me.) For the “alternative medicine” movement, it’s all there, in websites, blogs, and books. But one thing that the movement pushing unscientific treatments has lacked, and that’s a movie to call its own, a movie to spread the same message.

That is, until now.

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