I've read a couple of medical papers recently that show how tricky it is to draw conclusions on what patients would be best helped by a specific therapy. Many of you will have seen the paper in The Lancet on the use of statins in low-risk patients. This isn't something you'd necessarily think would do much good - it all depends on what the benefits are, at the margin, of lowering LDL. But the results appear surprisingly strong:
In individuals with 5-year risk of major vascular events lower than 10%, each 1 mmol/L reduction in LDL cholesterol produced an absolute reduction in major vascular events of about 11 per 1000 over 5 years. This benefit greatly exceeds any known hazards of statin therapy. Under present guidelines, such individuals would not typically be regarded as suitable for LDL-lowering statin therapy. The present report suggests, therefore, that these guidelines might need to be reconsidered.
A note to the conspiratorially minded, should any such come across this: it's worth noticing that this "maybe everyone should take statins" result comes after the major ones have gone off patent. Pfizer, Merck et al. would have greatly enjoyed this recommendation had it occurred ten years ago, but it didn't (and probably couldn't have, since we didn't have as much data as we do now).
Now to another (often related) disease, type II diabetes. It's been found that bariatric surgery improves glycemic control in the very obese patients who are candidates for the procedure. And that makes sense - obesity is absolutely a risk factor for type II in the first place. But as more and more of these surgeries are being done, something odd is becoming apparent:
Clinicians note that bariatric operations can dramatically resolve type 2 diabetes, often before and out of proportion to postoperative weight loss. Now two randomized controlled trials formally show superior results from surgical compared with medical diabetes care, including among only mildly obese patients. The concept of 'metabolic surgery' to treat diabetes has taken a big step forward.
Why this happens is a very good question indeed. Patients seem to benefit greatly within the first two weeks after gastric bypass surgery, well before any significant weight loss has occurred. My first guess is that it's something to do with secretion of hormones from the gut itself, and you'd also have to think that nutrient sensing gets profoundly altered. It's not going to be easy to turn this into an approved therapy, though. Running randomized clinical trials for dramatic surgical procedures (versus noninvasive care) is difficult, as you'd imagine:
Despite these compelling clinical observations, RCTs of surgery versus nonsurgery are sorely needed. Ample precedents exist wherein RCTs reversed longstanding paradigms derived from nonrandomized clinical trials. Some of the best evidence in bariatric surgery, from the Swedish Obese Subjects study (a long-term observation of various operations versus conventional care), is prone to allocation bias because participants were not randomized. Subjects who actively chose surgery may be more motivated overall and generally take better care of themselves. The NIH is unlikely to reconsider its guidelines without pertinent RCTs, and insurance companies are unlikely to pay for operations that are not NIH-sanctioned.
Both of these results point out the completely nonlinear nature of living systems. It can work for good, as in these cases, or for bad. Alzheimer's, the subject of yesterday's post, is a perfect example of the latter: one protein, out of perhaps a few million, has one of its hundreds of amino acids changed in one small way on its side chain. And it's a death sentence. Good to know that things can work in the other way once in a while.