Since I graduated from medical school, new scientific developments in immunology have been occurring at a prodigious rate. I knew I could use a refresher course, and serendipity dropped one in my mailbox in the form of a review copy of the new book Immunity, by William E. Paul, MD, chief of the Laboratory of Immunology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health and a major player in many of the scientific discoveries he describes. It was just what I needed. It brought me up to date, and it left me in awe of the amazing things our bodies do to keep us alive.
We are bombarded with claims that something will “boost the immune system” but the people who say that have no understanding of how the immune system really works. We have anti-vaxxers who still deny the effectiveness of vaccines and the existence of herd immunity, and who imagine all kinds of hypothetical harms from vaccines, but who have little understanding of how vaccines actually work. This book itself could serve as a sort of vaccine to immunize readers against scientifically ignorant arguments. (more…)
One of the disadvantages of writing for this blog is that sometimes I feel as though I spend so much time deconstructing bad science and pseudoscience in medicine that I’m rarely left with the time or the opportunity to discuss some interesting science. Of course, even when I do that, usually it’s in the context of that very same bad science or pseudoscience, and this post won’t be different. Still, there was some interesting science with respect to vaccines published last week in Science, and I think it’s worth looking over. The only thing that surprises me is that the antivaccine movement hasn’t jumped all over it yet. On the other hand, its press coverage was relatively minimal, and I didn’t really notice it until an article appeared on (sadly, yes) The Huffington Post entitled “The Measles Vaccine Can Protect Against Much More Than Measles, According To New Study“:
A new study suggests the measles shot comes with a bonus: By preventing that disease, the vaccine may also help your body fight off other illnesses for years.
It’s long been known that contracting measles weakens the immune system for weeks or months, putting people, especially children, at increased risk for potentially fatal infection by a host of germs.
Now, scientists find that this vulnerable period goes on much longer than thought, up to three years. So the benefit of avoiding measles also extends longer than was appreciated. Researchers also found that measles vaccination campaigns were followed by a drop in deaths for other infectious diseases.
Experts said the work is a wake-up call to parents who don’t vaccinate their children out of unfounded fears about a link between vaccines and autism.
Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) is a high impact journal (JIF > 16) that advertises itself as a “must read” for oncologists. Some cutting edge RCTs evaluating chemo and hormonal therapies have appeared there. But a past blog post gave dramatic examples of pseudoscience and plain nonsense to be found in JCO concerning psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and, increasingly, integrative medicine and even integrations of integrative medicine and PNI. The prestige of JCO has made it a major focus for efforts to secure respectability and third-party payments for CAM treatments by promoting their scientific status and effectiveness.
Once articles are published in JCO, authors can escape critical commentary by simply refusing to respond, taking advantage of an editorial policy that requires a response in order for critical commentaries to be published. An author’s refusal to respond means criticism cannot be published.
Some of the most outrageous incursions of woo science into JCO are accompanied by editorials that enjoy further relaxation of any editorial restraint and peer review. Accompanying editorials are a form of privileged access publishing, often written by reviewers who have strongly recommended the article for publication, and having their own PNI and CAM studies to promote with citation in JCO.
Because of strict space limitations, controversial statements can simply be declared, rather than elaborated in arguments in which holes could be poked. A faux authority is created. Once claims make it into JCO, their sources are forgotten and only the appearance a “must read,” high impact journal is remembered. A shoddy form of scholarship becomes possible in which JCO can be cited for statements that would be recognized as ridiculous if accompanied by a citation of the origin in a CAM journal. And what readers track down and examine original sources for numbered citations, anyway?
Do not use this to try to boost your immune system.
Topics, as I noted a fortnight ago in my uniquely misspelled and ungrammatical way, never die.* Or even fade away. There are popular ideas that persist in the world that have little to do with reality. In the reality based world of medicine there are concepts that refuse to die. Atelectasis causing fever or the need to ‘double cover’ Pseudomonas. Neither are true, yet every year medical students tell me that is what they have been taught. It is said the only way new ideas take hold is for those that hold the old ideas to die off. So maybe 50 years from now those medical myths will be gone.
Popular culture also its myths. Take the immune system. Please. It is not a bicep that can be made stronger with a little exercise. It is a complex network of cells and proteins. There are antibodies (IgG with various subtypes, as well as IgM, IgA, IgE, etc.), the complement pathway, polymorphonuclear cells, monocytes, and lymphocytes in a profusion that rivals beetles. God, I think, has an inordinate fondness for lymphocytes. There is the Toll system, the cytokines and lymphokines, the non-specific defenses like cilia and mannose-binding lectin and on and on and on. (more…)
My right bicep. Oily, a little sticky, and otherwise completely unlike your immune system.
This post is a wee bit of a cheat in that it is a rewrite of a Quackcast, but I have three lectures and board certification in the near future, so sometimes you have to cook the wolf.
What does that mean: boost the immune system? Most people apparently think that the immune system is like a muscle, and by working it, giving it supplements and vitamins, the immune system will become stronger. Bigger. More impressive, bulging like Mr. Universe’s bicep. That’s the body part I am thinking about. What they are boosting is vague, on par with chi/qi or innate intelligence. They never really say what is being boosted.
The other popular phrase is “support”. A product supports prostate health, or breast health or supports the immune system. It sounds like the immune system is sagging against gravity due to age and needs a lift.
The immune system, if you are otherwise healthy, cannot be boosted, and doing those things you learned in kindergarten health (reasonable diet, exercise and sleep), will provide the immune system all the boosting or support it needs. (more…)