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About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 18, 2014

Chemical Myths

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Posted by Derek

Several folks on my Twitter feed have mentioned a new book coming out from Springer, 100 Chemical Myths. I haven't seen a copy, but it's supposed to "deals with popular yet largely untrue misconceptions and misunderstandings related to chemistry." That gives plenty of room to work in, for sure.

Looking over the table of contents on that Amazon link, my guess is that I would agree with the authors pretty much across the board. But my other guess is that the book won't do as much good as anyone would like. I fear that it may be 400 pages of preaching to the choir - the people who need to read it won't ever hear about it, and they probably wouldn't crack the cover on it even if they did. They already have their opinions, firmly held ones, and they already know that this book is full of attempts by some chemists to change their minds, so it'll probably be dismissed out of hand. It could provide useful material for one-on-one encounters, though - I'll report back if I get more details.

Comments (18) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

November 6, 2014

Detox and Cleanse Yourself Away From the Food Babe's Advice

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Posted by Derek

I'm glad that this blog post exists. It's a lengthy, detailed rebuttal to a sheet of advice that the "Food Babe" recommends for her followers. For example, you are apparently supposed to start off the day with some warm lemon juice in water with some cayenne pepper in it. Why would I do that to myself, you ask - to ensure that nothing worse happens to me the rest of the day? No, you fools, you do it to "eliminate environmental and lifestyle toxins" from your system by waking up your liver. And so on, and very much so on.

Life is just too short to swat every bizarre misconception caroming around inside Vani Hari's skull. It's pandemonium in there, because the clerks at the front desk are clearly not very selective. But when someone does take the time, I'll gladly point it out. There's plenty for everyone.

Comments (52) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

October 22, 2014

Green Coffee Beans Will Mostly Slim Your Wallet

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Posted by Derek

Very few readers of this site are likely to have a good opinion of Dr. Oz (I certainly don't). And very few readers will be surprised to hear that one of his highly-touted miracle weight loss regiments - green coffee bean extract (GCA) - has turned out to be a load of faked-up nonsense. Retraction Watch has the details, and let's just say that the clinical trial results were. . .a little bit below the desired standard:

The FTC charges that the study’s lead investigator repeatedly altered the weights and other key measurements of the subjects, changed the length of the trial, and misstated which subjects were taking the placebo or GCA during the trial. When the lead investigator was unable to get the study published, the FTC says that AFS hired researchers Joe Vinson and Bryan Burnham at the University of Scranton to rewrite it. Despite receiving conflicting data, Vinson, Burnham, and AFS never verified the authenticity of the information used in the study, according to the complaint.

Other than that, the study was just fine, I guess. Sheesh. I have to admit, that's even worse than I had pictured, and that's saying a lot. Dr. Oz himself, though, will probably not even note this in passing. Too many other miracle cures to peddle, too many TV slots to fill. He's a busy man, you know.

Update: the show has released a rather bland statement about this whole affair, but has also apparently scrubbed the web site of any mention of green coffee beans, had videos taken down at YouTube, and so on. So that's all right, then!

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

September 26, 2014

The Deadly Stupidities Around Ebola

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Posted by Derek

It's not all that often that you can say "Now this is a person who's going to get people killed". But I'm willing to say that about Cyril Broderick of Delaware State. He's Liberian-born, and has written an article for a newspaper in Monrovia telling Liberians that the Ebola virus is a manufactured bioweapon from the pharmaceutical companies and the US Department of Defense. And he goes on to say the the WHO, Doctors Without Borders, and the CDC are all in on the plot. Isn't that nice?

This in a region where suspicions run so high that doctors, officials, and aid workers are being killed by angry mobs already. Now Prof. Broderick has given his Liberian countrymen more reason to fear some of the people who are best equipped, of anyone on this suffering world, to actually help them. If GSK's Ebola vaccine actually proves effective, if a rapacious evil pharma company actually comes up with a way to stop the disease and turns it over to people like the WHO and Doctors Without Borders to go into West Africa and administer it, stuff like what Professor Broderick is spewing will make it that much harder to accomplish anything with it. People will hide rather than get vaccinated and attack the people coming in to save their lives. Broderick and Matthias Rath, who's urged HIV patients to throw away their retroviral drugs, are in the same category and I am ashamed to be on the same planet with them.

And all because of a bunch of stuck-together conspiracy theories, chew-toys for halfwits. It would be easier to laugh at if it weren't getting people killed, patients and medical workers alike. Schiller was right: against stupidity, the Gods themselves fight in vain.

Comments (47) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

September 24, 2014

Luc Montagnier Makes His Case in Paris

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Posted by Derek

Well, if you're in Paris next month and want to see some scientific (or perhaps not so scientific?) fireworks at a seminar, here's the event to attend. UNESCO is holding a symposium on the work of Luc Montagnier on his "water memory" studies. I've mentioned this (and some of his other. . .unusual. . .claims) here before, and well. . .it's hard for me to say this, but they are indistinguishable from the work of a crank. Or someone with an unfortunate mental condition. I'm sure that Montagnier gets these kinds of responses all the time, and he obviously is strong enough to keep going with what he believes to be real results, so I have to give him credit for that. But extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence, you know, and I haven't seen much of the latter.

The mathematician Cédric Villani, who received the Fields Medal in 2010, will propose a synthesis of the various presentations. He will include them in the broader context of Professor Jacques Benveniste’s work (1935-2004) on the "memory of water", which was initiated thirty years ago.

Professor Montagnier’s team is working on electromagnetic waves emitted in the area of very low frequencies and thus of low energy. Different reproducible experiments will be presented at the conference. These experiments show that these waves may play an important role in the pathogenicity of micro-organisms - bacteria and viruses – and also in physiological processes such as stem cell differentiation shown by Professor Carlo Ventura.

The experimental facts will be presented by the two biologists. It appears that water is an important mediator in the transmission of molecular information, such as that carried by DNA. To achieve such transmission, water generates organized structures, which also emit electromagnetic signals. Marc Henry and Giuseppe Vitiello, relying on concepts developed by Italian physicists Giuliano Preparata and Emilio Del Giudice, will explain how quantum physics can elucidate these mysterious phenomena. They will reveal new fields of research that are areas of consistency activating water molecules. Interdisciplinarity (physics/biology) is the conference’s major message.

The promoters of this conference are aware of the critical reactions aroused by this work in parts of the scientific community, so they wish to communicate their results with the utmost rigor. . .

Utmost rigor might not be enough. If anyone makes it to this, please send a report!

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

July 2, 2014

All Natural And Chemical Free

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Posted by Derek

Yesterday's link to the comprehensive list of chemical-free products led to some smiles, but also to some accusations of preaching to the choir, both on my part and on the part of the paper's authors. A manuscript mentioned in the blog section of Nature Chemistry is certainly going to be noticed mostly by chemists, naturally, so I think that everyone responsible knows that this is mainly for some comic relief, rather than any sort of serious attempt to educate the general public. Given the constant barrage of "chemical-free" claims, and what that does to the mood of most chemists who see them, some comedy is welcome once in a while.

But the larger point stands. The commenters here who said, several times, that chemists and the public mean completely different things by the word "chemical" have a point. But let's take a closer look at this for a minute. What this implies (and implies accurately, I'd say) is that for many nonscientists, "chemical" means "something bad or poisonous". And that puts chemists in the position of sounding like they're arguing from the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. We're trying to say that everything is a chemical, and that they range from vital to harmless to poisonous (at some dose) and everything in between. But this can sound like special pleading to someone who's not a scientist, as if we're claiming all the good stuff for our side and disavowing the nasty ones as "Not the kind of chemical we were talking about". (Of course, the lay definition of chemical does this, with the sign flipped: the nasty things are "chemicals", and the non-nasty ones are. . .well, something else. Food, natural stuff, something, but not a chemical, because chemicals are nasty).

So I think it's true that approaches that start off by arguing the definition of "chemical" are doomed. It reminds me of something you see in online political arguments once in a while - someone will say something about anti-Semitism in an Arab country, and likely as not, some other genius will step in with the utterly useless point that it's definitionally impossible, you see, for an Arab to be an anti-Semite, because technically the Arabs are also a Semitic people! Ah-hah! What that's supposed to accomplish has always been a mystery to me, but I fear that attempts to redefine that word "chemical" are in the same category, no matter how teeth-grinding I find that situation to be.

The only thing I've done in this line, when discussing this sort of thing one-on-one, is to go ahead and mention that to a chemist, everything that's made out of atoms is pretty much a "chemical", and that we don't use the word to distinguish between the ones that we like and the ones that we don't. I've used that to bring up the circular nature of some of the arguments on the opposite side: someone's against a chemical ingredient because it's toxic, and they know it's toxic because it's a chemical ingredient. If it were "natural", things would be different.

That's the point to drop in the classic line about cyanide and botulism being all-natural, too. You don't do that just to score some sort of debating point, though, satisfying though that may be - I try not to introduce that one with a flourish of the sword point. No, I think you want to come in with a slightly regretful "Well, here's the problem. . ." approach. The idea, I'd say, is to introduce the concept of there being a continuum of toxicity out there, one that doesn't distinguish between man-made compounds and natural ones.

The next step after that is the fundamental toxicological idea that the dose makes the poison, but I think it's only effective to bring that up after this earlier point has been made. Otherwise, it sounds like special pleading again: "Oh, well, yeah, that's a deadly poison, but a little bit of it probably won't hurt you. Much." My favorite example in this line is selenium. It's simultaneously a vital trace nutrient and a poison, all depending on the dose, and I think a lot of people might improve their thinking on these topics if they tried to integrate that possibility into their views of the world.

Because it's clear that a lot of people don't have room for it right now. The common view is that the world is divided into two categories of stuff: the natural, made by living things, and the unnatural, made by humans (mostly chemists, dang them). You even see this scheme applied to inorganic chemistry: you can find people out there selling makeup and nutritional supplements who charge a premium for things like calcium carbonate when it's a "natural mineral", as opposed (apparently) to that nasty sludge that comes out of the vats down at the chemical plant. (This is also one of the reasons why arguing about the chemist's definition of "organic" is even more of a losing position than arguing about the word "chemical").

There's a religious (or at least quasi-religious) aspect to all this, which makes the arguments emotional and hard to win by appeals to reason. That worldview I describe is a dualist, Manichean one: there are forces of good, and there are forces of evil, and you have to choose sides, don't you? It's sort of assumed that the "natural" world is all of a piece: living creatures are always better off with natural things. They're better; they're what living creatures are meant to consume and be surrounded by. Anything else is ersatz, a defective substitute for the real thing, and quite possibly an outright work of evil by those forces on the other side.

Note that we're heading into some very deep things in many human cultures here, which is another reason that this is never an easy or simple argument to have. That split between natural and unnatural means that there was a time, before all this industrial horror, when people lived in the natural state. They never encountered anything artificial, because there was no such thing in the world. Now, a great number of cultures have a "Golden Age" myth, that distant time when everything was so much better - more pure, somehow, before things became corrupted into their present regrettable state. The Garden of Eden is the aspect this takes in the Christian religion, but you find similar things in many other traditions. (Interestingly, this often takes the form of an ancient age when humans spoke directly with the gods, in whatever form they took, which is one of the things that led Julian Jaynes to his fascinating, although probably unprovable hypotheses in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind).

This Prelapsarian strain of thinking permeates the all-natural chemical-free worldview. There was a time when food and human health were so much better, and industrial civilization has messed it all up. We're surrounded by man-made toxins and horrible substitutes for real food, and we've lost the true path. It's no wonder that there's all this cancer and diabetes and autism and everything: no one ever used to get those things. Note the followup to this line of thought: someone did this to us. The more hard-core believers in this worldview are actually furious at what they see as the casual, deliberate poisoning of the entire population. The forces of evil, indeed.

And there are enough small reinforcing bars of truth to make all of this hold together quite well. There's no doubt that industrial poisons have sickened vast numbers of people in the past: mercury is just the first one that's come to mind. (I'm tempted to point out that mercury and its salts, by the standards of the cosmetics and supplements industries, are most certainly some of those all-natural minerals, but let that pass for now). We've learned more about waste disposal, occupational exposure, and what can go into food, but there have been horrible incidents that live on vividly in the imagination. And civilization itself didn't necessarily go about increasing health and lifespan for quite a while, as the statistics assembled in Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms make clear. In fact, for centuries, living in cities was associated with shorter lifespans and higher mortality. We've turned a lot of corners, but it's been comparatively recently.

And on the topic of "comparatively recently", there's one more factor at work that I'd like to bring up. The "chemical free" view of the world has the virtue of simplicity (and indeed, sees simplicity as a virtue itself). Want to stay healthy? Simple. Don't eat things with chemicals in them. Want to know if something is the right thing to eat, drink, wear, etc.? Simple: is it natural or not? This is another thing that makes some people who argue for this view so vehement - it's not hard, it's right in front of you, and why can't you see the right way of living when it's so, so. . .simple? Arguing against that, from a scientific point of view, puts a person at several disadvantages. You necessarily have to come in with all these complications and qualifying statements, trying to show how things are actually different than they look. That sounds like more special pleading, for one thing, and it's especially ineffective against a way of thinking that often leans toward thinking that the more direct, simple, and obvious something is, the more likely it is to be correct.

That's actually the default way of human thinking, when you get down to it, which is the problem. Science, and the scientific worldview, are unnatural things, and I don't mean that just in the whole-grain no-additives sense of "natural". I mean that they do not come to most people as a normal consequence of their experience and habits of thought. A bit of it does: "Hey, every time I do X, Y seems to happen". But where that line of thinking takes you starts to feel very odd very quickly. You start finding out that the physical world is a lot more complicated than it looks, that "after" does not necessarily mean "because", and that all rules of thumb break down eventually (and usually without warning). You find that math, of all things, seems to be the language that the universe is written in (or at least a very good approximation to it), and that's not exactly an obvious concept, either. You find that many of the most important things in that physical world are invisible to our senses, and not necessarily in a reassuring way, or in a way that even makes much sense at all at first. (Magical explanations of invisible forces at least follow human intuitions). It's no wonder that scientific thinking took such a long, long time to ever catch on in human history. I still sometimes think that it's only tolerated because it brings results.

So there are plenty of reasons why it's hard to effectively argue against the all-natural chemical-free worldview. You're asking your audience to accept a number of things that don't make much sense to them, and what's worse, many of these things look like rhetorical tricks at best and active (even actively evil) attempts to mislead them at worst. And all in the service of something that many of them are predisposed to regard as suspicious even from the start. It's uphill all the way.

Comments (52) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News | Snake Oil | Toxicology

July 1, 2014

Chemical-Free Products: The Complete List

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Posted by Derek

Here's a comprehensive review of chemical-free consumer products, courtesy of Nature Chemistry. I'm flattered to have been listed as a potential referee for this manuscript, which truly does provide the most complete list possible of chemical-free cleaners, cosmetics, and every other class of commercially available product.

Along similar lines, I can also recommend this site as an accurate, clearly stated summary of the evidence for vaccines causing autism. These are important topics that many people are interested in, and good information is essential.

Comments (30) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

June 20, 2014

Stem Cells: The Center of "Right to Try"

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Posted by Derek

I wanted to point out an excellent editorial on the whole "Right to Try" issue at Nature. The authors note correctly that stem cells are the therapeutic area where these battles are being fought most often, since their regulatory status (particularly with any sort of autologous cell treatment) is sometimes unclear, the number of possible treatments (well-intentioned and otherwise) is huge, and the medical need is even bigger.

Many countries have made such experimental stem cell treatments more widely available without proof of efficacy. We're not just talking about the usual "medical tourism" list, although those countries are certainly on this one, but places like Japan and Australia. That cuts both ways. Proponents of the idea say that these countries are making more progress than the US for this reason, but a look at what's happened since these regulations were loosened isn't always encouraging. It's very, very, hard to open up such trials without opening them up to the sort of people who will gladly exploit patients for as long as possible without caring if any efficacy is ever proven or not.

Even the idea of putting products up for sale and into consumers' bodies on the basis of phase I data is disturbing. Early-stage clinical trials reveal only whether a product is safe enough for continued testing, not for widespread use. Some 80% of products that make it through phase I clinical trials fail in later studies — about half of those proving to be insufficiently effective and one-fifth insufficiently safe.

When test subjects are paying for the product under investigation, establishing efficacy is hard: controls, randomization, masking and other hallmarks of clinical research break down. Many stem-cell clinics offer their procedures for disparate conditions, further complicating post-market studies.

Under the guise of 'patient-funded clinical trials', clinics in the United States and Mexico persuade people who are seriously ill to pay tens of thousands of dollars for procedures. Because such patients have been told that a product is experimental, they have little recourse when hoped-for cures fail to materialize. Companies can thus profit from selling hope. With their products already on the market, they have little reason to conduct rigorous, conclusive research.

Stem cells, as has been said many times on this side, are surely one of the most overhyped areas in all of medical research. This has been true for at least ten years now, and the hype does not die down. Some may remember that this was an issue during the 2004 presidential election. I'll bet if you took a poll back then and asked where the field would be by 2014, that the general public would have bet on it being much more advanced than it is now. The usual reason applies: it's because this area of research is extremely, inhumanly complicated and difficult, but people get tired of hearing that and think that it's an excuse for some other factor.

There are libertarian and free-market groups behind several of the legal initiatives in the US, who honestly believe that the current FDA structure is an impediment to medical progress, and that this sort of deregulation will end up helping more people more quickly. I believe that their motives are sincere - not everyone pushing these ideas is looking for a quick buck. But the people who aren't need to look around and realize how many quick-buck artists are surrounding them. Every libertarian reform needs to have someone thinking "OK, less regulation and more freedom of choice, check. But what are the ways that this could be abused by unscrupulous SOBs? Can those abuses mount up to where they cancel out the good that's done on the other end?"

In this case, I think that danger is very real, and very likely. As opposed to the caricatures that you hear from people on the left end of the political spectrum, many free-market types, in my experience, have good hearts. Perhaps too good, in some cases. It would never occur to them personally to immediately turn around and use this newly loosened regulatory environment to start looting desperately ill people of their money. But it sure would occur to some others. Homo homini lupus: man is a wolf to man.

Comments (37) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Clinical Trials | Regulatory Affairs | Snake Oil

June 11, 2014

Whack-A-Mole

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Posted by Derek

I noticed some links to this post showing up on my Twitter feed over the weekend, and I wanted to be sure to mention it. There's a recipe for "all-natural" herbicide that goes around Facebook, etc., where you mix salt, vinegar, and bit of soap, so Andrew Kniss sits down and does some basic toxicology versus glyphosate. The salt-and-vinegar mix will work, it seems, especially on small weeds, but it's more persistent in the soil and its ingredients have higher mammalian toxicity (which I'm pretty sure is the opposite of what people expect).

I hope this one makes a few people think, but I always wonder. The sorts of people who need this most are the ones least likely the read it, and the ones most likely to immediately discount it as "Monsanto shill propaganda" or the like. I had email like that last time I wrote about glyphosate (the second link above) - people asking me how much Monsanto was paying me and so on. And these people are also not interested in hearing about any LD50 data (which they probably assume is all faked, anyway). They're ready to tell you about long-term cancer and everything else (not that there's any evidence for that, either).

Going after this sort of thing is a duty, but an endless chore. I was also sent a link to an interview with some actress where she talks about her all-natural beauty regimen - so pure and green and holistic, and so very expensive, from what I could see. One of the things she advocated was clay. No, not for your skin. To eat it. It has, she explained, "negative charge" so it picks up "negative isotopes". Yeah boy. You'll have heard of those, maybe the last time you were And of course, it also picks up all those heavy metal toxins your body is swimming in, which is why a friend of hers told her that she tried the clay, and like, when she went to the bathroom it like, smelled like metal. I am not making any of this up. A few comments on that site, gratifyingly, wondered if there was any actual evidence for that clay stuff, but most of them were just having spasms of delight over the whole thing (and trading obscure, expensive sources for the all-natural lifestyle). So there's a lot of catching up to do.

Comments (27) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News | Snake Oil | Toxicology

April 15, 2014

Sweet Reason Lands On Its Face

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Posted by Derek

This study has implications for many fields of science where its practitioners keep running into rumor and conspiracy theories. The authors tried several different means to increase the uptake of the MMR vaccine (information about the lack of connection with autism, information about the severity of the diseases being pervented, case histories of children who'd had them, and so on), and compared them to see if anything helped with parent who were skeptical of having their children vaccinated.

You can probably guess: none of these helped at all. In fact, several of the interventions appeared to make things even worse, reinforcing beliefs in the dangers of vaccination. There's a general principle at work here, which I've heard stated as "You can't use reason to talk someone out of a position that they didn't arrive at by reason". It's the wrong tool for the job, like using a screwdriver to pull nails. I'd also note that people who are suspicious of vaccines are also likely to be alert to signs that someone is trying to convince them otherwise, and will react accordingly. They know that their position is a minority one - that's part of the attraction, in many cases.

"Here, read this pamphlet from the CDC" is a strategy with no hope whatsoever of working. The case-history approach was probably a better idea, but just the fact that it's coming from some official medical source is enough, in these cases, to discredit it completely. That's what they want you to think. In the context of this blog, I run into this sort of thinking most often in the form of "Big Pharma doesn't want to cure anything", or even "Big Pharma knows how to cure cancer, but doesn't want to tell anyone because it would hurt their profits". The only way I've ever made any headway with that one (and it hasn't been very often) is when I've had a chance to go one-on-one with a believer. Looking someone in the eye and asking them if they really are accusing me of watching some of my family members die from diabetes, cancer, and heart disease while I was hiding the cures and collecting my paycheck is an uncomfortable conversation, but I've had it a few times. The only counterattack has been that no, they're not saying that I personally have these things in my desk drawer, it's the higher-ups, you know, them. "So how have I been working on these diseases for 25 years without rediscovering any of these cures?" I ask, and that generally winds things up. But I like to think (or to kid myself) that I've planted a slight seed of doubt.

You need as much conviction in your voice as the quacks have, though, and that's not easy, because they have a lot. Science has the evidence on its side, naturally, and that's a lot, but conspiracy theorists and their friends have something to believe in, and that's a very strong part of human nature indeed. It is not satisfied by contemplating charts or tables; it does not find fulfillment in double-blinded trials. It provides a ward against fear, the comfort of knowing secrets that others don't, and a fellowship of like-minded believers. In many cases, when you're trying to persuade someone out of these views, you're not just trying to argue a specific point - you're trying to talk them out of an entire worldview. CDC pamphlets don't stand a chance.

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

March 26, 2014

Getcher Nucleic Acids, Cheap

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Posted by Derek

Via Nathaniel Comfort on Twitter, I note that the health-food people are still selling "DNA supplements". I remember seeing these in a vitamin store some years ago, and wrinkling my brow as I thought about the implications. Does your food have enough DNA in it? Actually, these pills turn out to be 100mg of RNA and only 10mg of DNA, so you might want to adjust your dosages accordingly.

Turns out that the only negative review on the actual site is from someone who's upset that there's so much filler in the pills themselves. More DNA is what he wants. He should try what another guy further down the page does, and swallow five of the things at a time. It gives him "energy", y'know, and he's not alone. Every one of these satisfied customers has felt the energy, and some of them even have picked up a healthy glow to their skin. So there you have it. I thought that peanut M&Ms gave me energy (although maybe not the healthy glow), but I should clearly start snacking on RNA instead.

When I called my wife with this news, her first comment was "RNA from what?" I countered that a whole bottle of pills was only $4.99, and this was (brace yourselves) fifty per cent off the usual price. (In the reviews, one customer found this price very "exceptable"). Anyway, I said, this was not the time to be looking under the hood of such an opportunity. "And how much is shipping?" she wanted to know. I replied that I'm really not sure how I'm still married to her, what with that suspicious nature and all. I tell you.

Comments (32) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

March 18, 2014

Jailhouse Secrets They Don't Want You to Know About!

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Posted by Derek

As I had hoped last year, scam artist Kevin Trudeau is indeed heading off for a ten-year sentence. I have searched, without success, for a photo of him wearing an orange jumpsuit and being bundled into a windowless prison van, but we'll just have to use our imaginations for that. Not to worry - a good steam cleaning, and the vehicle will be surely be fit to transport honest burglers again.

Trudeau had been convicted of criminal contempt, for egregiously violating earlier court orders to stop ripping people off through his all-natural-cures informercial empire. Past entries here have detailed what the man is like, and if you know anything about chemistry or biology, twenty seconds of listening to any of his pitches has usually been enough to make you bury your head in your hands. But there are untold millions of people out there who know nothing about either subject, and are willing to listen when someone spins them tales of wonderful medicines and cures that the great shadowy "They" don't want anyone to know about. Trudeau cynically raked in the cash by appealing to ignorance and promoting suspicion. With any luck, we shall not see his like again. But I'm afraid we will.

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December 4, 2013

More Vaccine Fearmongering

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Posted by Derek

Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus is an excellent overview of the vaccine/autism arguments that raged for many years (and rage still in the heads of the ignorant - sorry, it's gotten to the point where there's no reason to spare anyone's feelings about this issue). Now in this post at PLOS Blogs, he's alerting people to another round of the same stuff, this time about the HPV vaccine:

Over a period of about a month, (Katie Couric's) producer and I spoke for a period of several hours before she told me that the show was no longer interesting in hearing from me on air. Still, I came away from the interaction somewhat heartened: The producer seemed to have a true grasp of the dangers of declining vaccination rates and she stressed repeatedly that her co-workers, including Couric herself, did not view this as an “on the one hand, on the other hand” issue but one in which facts and evidence clearly lined up on one side — the side that overwhelmingly supports the importance and efficacy of vaccines.

Apparently, that was all a load of crap.

Read on for more. One piece of anecdotal data trumps hundreds of thousands of patients worth of actual data, you know. Especially if it's sad. Especially if it gets ratings.

Comments (57) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Autism | Infectious Diseases | Snake Oil

November 13, 2013

Kevin Trudeau Goes to Jail, At Long Last

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Posted by Derek

Good news is always welcome. And I can report today that longtime infomercial pitchman Kevin Trudeau has been jailed on criminal contempt charges, and has another judge breathing down his neck and ordering him to pay $38 million dollars in restitution. This will put me in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Jurors took less than an hour to find Trudeau, 50, guilty of violating a 2004 federal court settlement with the Federal Trade Commission that barred him from misrepresenting the contents of his books in advertisements, said Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago.

Trudeau, who was jailed twice in recent months for civil contempt by a different federal judge in Chicago, faces potential prison time for the criminal contempt conviction in the trial before U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman.

Prosecutors had argued Trudeau knowingly violated the 2004 agreement while marketing his book, "The Weight Loss Cure 'They' Don't Want You To Know About," in infomercials made in 2006 and 2007 that aired about 32,000 times.

In part, Trudeau told viewers in the infomercials that the "cure" to obesity was not a diet and did not require exercise, but the book instructed readers to walk an hour each day and to limit intake to 500 calories.

I've looked in on Trudeau's all-natural pharma-is-killing-you hoo-hah several times over the years, and in 2008 I hoped for jail time in his future. And here we are, at long last. A sleazy, heartless charlatan who has defrauded gullible customers out of uncounted millions of dollars is finally being dragged off to the slammer by deputies, and I hope they're wearing gloves. About damn time. But today, let us celebrate.

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November 4, 2013

The Herbal Supplement Industry Is Not A Very Funny Joke

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Posted by Derek

The regulatory system we have in the US for selling herbal supplements is screwed up. I've thought so for many years, and we're not the only country that fits that description, either. The system is screwed up in so many important ways that it's hard to know where to start, but how about back at the very basics - quality control?

Try this paper from BMC Medicine out (open access) and see what you think. The authors, from the DNA barcoding initiative at Guelph, tested 44 different brands of various herbal supplements, purchased in both the US and Canada. They found ridiculous levels of contamination. In fact, contamination is not the right word: one-third of the samples had no detectable amounts of the herb on the label. Instead, there were invasive weeds, ornamental plants from China, ground rice, soybeans, what have you. 10 of the 12 companies whose products were tested had at least one in this lovely category; 4 of them had nothing but.

This brings up several interesting questions: for one, how come this garbage continues to sell? Could it be that many of these preparations are of no benefit other than the placebo effect, which means that lawnmower scrapings will indeed work just as well? Second, who's ripping off whom? I would assume that some of these companies are buying from middlemen and repackaging, in which case, they're getting hosed (and passing the hosing along to you!) Doesn't anyone have even a passing interest in seeing if they've been sold the right material, or do they just not care, since it sells anyway?

When drug companies sell products of poor quality, the roof should come down on them, and I'm glad when it does. But these sleazeballs - is there even a roof to bring down? Now, I realize that some people will look at my background, and say, sure, this is someone who works in the pharma industry, of course he's going to put down these safe, natural, effective herbal medicines. Why, those would put his kind out of business if people just realized how wonderful they were! But I'm not denying that some herbal preparations can be used as medicines. If they can, though, they should have to prove it (the way we do in the drug industry), and they should have to actually sell what it says on the label, the way we do. Selling people a bunch of ditch clippings from a Chengdu compost pile is not acceptable, and if you're a big proponent of herbal remedies, you should be even more upset about this crap than I am.

More: Here's the New York Times on this story.

Comments (59) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil | The Dark Side

August 26, 2013

On Conspiratorial Thinking

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Posted by Derek

I recently had a e-mail exchange with someone who wanted me to read one of the many books out there that claims that some particular food additive is poisoning everyone. I'm not linking to the stuff, so I'll call the book's author Dr. Cassandra, for short. We argued about data and mechanisms a bit, but my correspondent also brought up what he felt were many other conspiracies around food and health, and I couldn't agree with him on any of those, either. That led to me writing this to him:

Let me get philosophical: one of the big problems with this sort of thinking is deciding what to trust. If you decide that Most Of What You Think You Know Is Wrong, then you have some work ahead of you. If these various authorities and well-documented sources of primary material are faked, then what *isnt'* faked? How do you know that the stuff you've decided to believe is on the level? My usual answer to someone who tries to convince me of the 9/11 stuff, etc., is to lower my voice and say "Well, yeah, but that's just what they want you to think". It's a universal answer. You can't falsify it.

Too often, what happens is that someone chooses to believe the things that fit their worldview, and dismisses the stuff that doesn't. That's human nature, but scientific inquiry is alien to human nature. If you start in with the conspiratorial stuff, then you end up skipping through the fields of data and sources, picking a daisy here and a cherry there, until you've made a wonderful centerpiece out of little bits from all over the place. And you can end up telling yourself, "See, this must be real. Look at this wonderful thing I've assembled, all the parts fit together so well - how can it be anything other than true?" But beautiful sculptures can be made from all kinds of found objects. If you start by assuming your conclusion - they're covering something up! - then you can get there any of a million ways.

So try this thought experiment: how do you know that (Dr. Cassandra) isn't just a plant? A false flag? Someone who's been put out there to make his beliefs look silly and under-researched (because believe me, he does)? Could someone in the pay of the Mighty Conspiracy do a better job of bringing its opposition into disrepute? That's the problem with conspiratorial thinking: the rabbit hole has no bottom to it. I refuse to dive in.

So my correspondent and I agreed to disagree. He thinks that eventually I'll see the truth of some of his beliefs, which I very much doubt. And I have little to no hope that he'll ever accept any of mine. The points made above have naturally been made by many others who've examined conspiratorial thinking, and I don't see much of a way around them. When you get to the Vast Overarching Conspiracy level of some of these schemes, you really do wonder how the believers manage to function. It's only a short step to the sorts of worldviews depicted in Diane Kossy's compendium Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief, which is worth a look if you've never encountered 100-proof paranoia before.

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June 25, 2013

One Conspiracy After Another

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Posted by Derek

Here's a cartoon by someone who's been down the "Who are these people on the internet who think they know chemistry?" path. Many of you will be able to relate!

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June 24, 2013

Eight Toxic Foods: The Aftermath

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Posted by Derek

traffic%20chart.pngWell, as you can see from the graphic, my blast against the "Eight Toxic Foods" stuff picked up a lot of attention over the weekend, which I'm glad to see. A lot of this came from it being handed around Facebook, but Fark, Reddit, Popular Science's website and others all brought in plenty of traffic as well.

I've had a lot of requests for more articles like that one, but they'll be an occasional feature around here. There's certainly enough material to fill a blog that whacks away at things like the original BuzzFeed piece, and there are quite a few bloggers who've made that their turf. I don't really want to make it my daily diet, though - for one thing, there is just so much craziness out there that you start to wonder - rather quickly - if you'll ever see the end of it. I'm not sure if I can stand reading it day after day, either, just as I'm not sure that I could go on day after day writing about things that drive me crazy. But I definitely plan to keep on taking shots every so often at prominent stuff that mangles chemistry and/or drug research as part of its argument. In this latest case, it was the roaring success of the BuzzFeed piece coupled with its chirpy, confident, and bizarrely wrong takes on chemistry and toxicology that set me off.

I spent the weekend, by the way, being called a paid shill for Monsanto, DuPont, and all the other evil monied interests. It made a refreshing change from being called a paid shill for Big Pharma. Going straight to that accusation, by the way (or using it as if that's all that needs to be done) does not say a lot for the people who advance it. There's not much persuasive force behind "I don't like this, therefore the only reason anyone could be advocating it is that they've been paid to do so". What's also interesting is how some of these people act as if this is some newly discovered counterattack, that no one in the history of argument has ever thought of accusing an opponent of bad faith. What else has someone like this not come across, or not bothered to notice?

There's also a strain of Manicheanism running through a lot of the more worked-up responses: Good vs. Evil, 100% one way or or 100% the other. If I don't think that potassium bromate in flour is that big a deal, then I must think that chemical waste drums should be poured into lakes. If I don't think that 2 ppb arsenic in chicken is killing us, then I must want to feed spoonfuls of the pure stuff to infants. And so on.

Not so. As it turns out, the flour we use at home for baking (King Arthur) is not bromated, although I didn't pick it for that reason. Not being a professional baker, I doubt if I could notice a difference one way or another due to the bromate. And while (true to my Arkansas roots) I do drink a Mountain Dew every so often, I really do think that drinking gallons of the stuff day after day would be a very bad idea. The brominated vegetable oil would not be the first of your worries, but (as the medical literature shows) it could indeed catch up with some people.

There is such a thing as overloading the body's clearance mechanisms (as any medicinal chemist is well aware), and that level is different with every substance. Some things get blasted out of the body so quickly by the liver and the kidneys that you never even notice them, even at rather high doses. Others (acetaminophen is the classic example) are cleared out well under normal conditions, but can be real trouble if the usual mechanism is impaired by something else. And others (such as some radioactive isotopes, say) are actively accumulated in the body as well as being cleared from it, and therefore can have extremely low tolerance levels indeed. Every case is different; every case needs its own data and its own decision.

I am planning a follow-up post, though, based on one of the reasonable counterarguments that's come up: why are some of these ingredients banned in other countries? What reasons are behind those regulatory decisions, and why did the FDA come to different conclusions? That's worth going into details about, and I will.

Comments (65) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil | Toxicology

June 21, 2013

Eight Toxic Foods: A Little Chemical Education

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Posted by Derek

Update: You'll notice in this post that I refer to some sites that the original BuzzFeed article I'm complaining out sends people to, often pointing out that these didn't actually support the wilder claims it's making. Well, the folks at BuzzFeed have dealt with this by taking down the links (!) The article now says: "Some studies linked in the original version of this article were concerning unrelated issues. They have been replaced with information directly from the book Rich Food, Poor Food". But as you'll see below, the studies weren't unrelated at all. So when you read about links to the American Cancer Association or NPR, well, all I can say is that they used to be there, until someone apparently realized how embarrassing they were.

Many people who read this blog are chemists. Those who aren't often come from other branch of the sciences, and if they don't, it's safe to say that they're at least interested in science (or they probably don't hang around very long!) It's difficult, if you live and work in this sort of environment, to keep in mind what people are willing to believe about chemistry.

But that's what we have the internet for. Many science-oriented bloggers have taken on what's been called "chemophobia", and they've done some great work tearing into some some really uninformed stuff out there. But nonsense does not obey any conservation law. It keeps on coming. It's always been in long supply, and it looks like it always will be.

That doesn't mean that we just have to sit back and let it wash over us, though. I've been sent this link in the last few days, a popular item on BuzzFeed with the BuzzFeedy headline of "Eight Foods That We Eat in The US That Are Banned in Other Countries". When I saw that title, I found it unpromising. In a world that eats everything that can't get away fast enough, what possible foods could we have all to ourselves here in the States? A quick glance was enough: we're not talking about foods here - we're talking about (brace yourselves) chemicals.

This piece really is an education. Not about food, or about chemistry - on the contrary, reading it for those purposes will make you noticeably less intelligent than you were before, and consider that a fair warning. The educational part is in the "What a fool believes" category. Make no mistake: on the evidence of this article, its author is indeed a fool, and has apparently never yet met a claim about chemicals or nutrition that was too idiotic to swallow. If BuzzFeed's statistics are to be believed (good question, there), a million views have already accumulated to this crap. Someone who knows some chemistry needs to make a start at pointing out the serial stupidities in it, and this time, I'm going to answer the call. So here goes, in order.

Number One: Artificial Dyes. Here's what the article has to say about 'em:

Artificial dyes are made from chemicals derived from PETROLEUM, which is also used to make gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt, and TAR! Artificial dyes have been linked to brain cancer, nerve-cell deterioration, and hyperactivity, just to name a few.

Emphasis is in the original, of course. How could it not lapse into all-caps? In the pre-internet days, this sort of thing was written in green ink all around the margins of crumpled shutoff notices from the power company, but these days we have to make do with HTML. Let's take this one a sentence at a time.

It is true, in fact, that many artificial dyes are made from chemicals derived from petroleum. That, folks, is because everything (edible or not) is made out of chemicals, and an awful lot of man-made chemicals are derived from petroleum. It's one of the major chemical feedstocks of the world. So why stop at artificial dyes? The ink on the flyer from the natural-foods co-op is made from chemicals derived from petroleum. The wax coating the paper wrapped around that really good croissant at that little bakery you know about is derived from petroleum.

Now, it's true that more things you don't eat can be traced back to petroleum feedstocks than can things you do eat. That's because it's almost always cheaper to grow stuff than to synthesize it. Synthesized compounds, when they're used in food, are often things that are effective in small amounts, because they're so expensive. And so it is with artificial dyes - well, outside of red velvet cake, I guess. People see the bright colors in cake icing and sugary cereals and figure that the stuff must be glopped on like paint, but paint doesn't have very much dye or pigment in it, either (watch them mix it up down at the hardware store sometime).

And as for artificial colors causing "brain cancer, nerve-cell deterioration, and hyperactivity", well, these assertions range from "unproven" all the way down to "bullshit". Hyperactivity sensitivities to food dyes are an active area of research, but after decades of work, the situation is still unclear. And brain cancer? This seems to go back to studies in the 1980s with Blue #2, where rats were fed the dye over a long period in much larger concentrations (up to 2% of their total food intake) than even the most dedicated junk-food eater could encounter. Gliomas were seen in the male rats, but with no dose-response, and at levels consistent with historical controls in the particular rat strain. No one has ever been able to find any real-world connection. Note that glioma rates increased in the 1970s and 1980s as diagnostic imaging improved, but have fallen steadily since then. The age-adjusted incidence rates of almost all forms of cancer are falling, by the way, not that you'd know that from most of the coverage on the subject.

Number Two: Olestra

This, of course, is Proctor & Gamble's attempted non-calorific fat substitute. I'm not going to spend much time on this, because little or nothing is actually made with it any more. Olestra was a major flop for P&G; the only things (as far as I can tell) that still contain it are some fat-free potato chips. It does indeed interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, but potato chips are not a very good source of vitamins to start with. And vitamin absorption can be messed with by all kinds of things, including other vitamins (folic acid supplements can interfere with B12 absorption, just to pick one). But I can agree with the plan of not eating the stuff: I think that if you're going to eat potato chips, eat a reasonable amount of the real ones.

Number Three: Brominated Vegetable Oil. Here's the article's take on it:

Bromine is a chemical used to stop CARPETS FROM CATCHING ON FIRE, so you can see why drinking it may not be the best idea. BVO is linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss.

Again with the caps. Now, if the author had known any chemistry, this would have looked a lot more impressive. Bromine isn't just used to keep carpets from catching on fire - bromine is a hideously toxic substance that will scar you with permanent chemical burns and whose vapors will destroy your lungs. Drinking bromine is not just a bad idea; drinking bromine is guaranteed agonizing death. There, see what a little knowledge will do for you?

But you know something? You can say the same thing for chlorine. After all, it's right next to bromine in the same column of the periodic table. And its use in World War I as a battlefield gas should be testimony enough. (They tried bromine, too, never fear). But chlorine is also the major part, by weight, of table salt. So which is it? Toxic death gas or universal table seasoning?

Knowledge again. It's both. Elemental chlorine (and elemental bromine) are very different things than their ions (chloride and bromide), and both of those are very different things again when either one is bonded to a carbon atom. That's chemistry for you in a nutshell, knowing these differences and understanding why they happen and how to use them.

Now that we've detoured around that mess, on to brominated vegetable oil. It's found in citrus-flavored sodas and sports drinks, at about 8 parts per million. The BuzzFeed article claims that it's linked to "major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss", and sends readers to this WebMD article. But if you go there, you'll find that the only medical problems known from BVO come from two cases of people who had been consuming, over a long period, 4 to 8 liters of BVO-containing soda per day, and did indeed have reactions to all the excess bromine-containing compounds in their system. At 8 ppm, it's not easy to get to that point, but a determined lunatic will overcome such obstacles. Overall, drinking several liters of Mountain Dew per day is probably a bad idea, and not just because of the BVO content.

Number Four: Potassium Bromate. The article helpfully tells us this is "Derived from the same harmful chemical as brominated vegetable oil". But here we are again: bromate is different from bromide is different than bromine, and so on. If we're going to play the "made from the same atoms" game, well, strychnine and heroin are derived from the same harmful chemicals as the essential amino acids and B vitamins. Those harmful chemicals, in case you're wondering, are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. And to get into the BuzzFeed spirit of the thing, maybe I should mention that carbon is found in every single poisonous plant on earth, hydrogen is the harmful chemical that blew up the Hindenburg, oxygen is responsible for every death by fire around the world, and nitrogen will asphyxiate you if you try to breathe it (and is a key component of all military explosives). There, that wasn't hard - as Samuel Johnson said, a man might write such stuff forever, if only he would give over his mind to it.

Now, back to potassium bromate. The article says, "Only problem is, it’s linked to kidney damage, cancer, and nervous system damage". And you'll probably fall over when I say this, but that statement is largely correct. Sort of. But let's look at "linked to", because that's an important phrase here.

Potassium bromate was found (in a two-year rat study) to have a variety of bad effects. This occurred at the two highest doses, and the lowest observed adverse effect level (LOAEL) was 6.1 mg of bromate per kilo body weight per day. It's worth noting that a study in male mice took them up to nearly ten times that amount, though, with little or no effect, which gives you some idea of how hard it is to be a toxicologist. Whether humans are more like mice or more like rats in this situation is unknown.

I'm not going to do the whole allometric scaling thing here, because no matter how you do it, the numbers come out crazy. Bromate is used in some (but not all) bread flour at 15 to 30 parts per million, and if the bread is actually baked properly, there's none left in the finished product. But for illustration, let's have someone eating uncooked bread dough at the highest level, just to get the full bromate experience. A 75-kilo human (and many of us are more than that) would have to take in 457 mg of bromate per day to get to the first adverse level seen in rats, which would be. . .15 kilos (about 33 pounds) of bread dough per day, a level I can safely say is unlikely to be reached. Hell, eating 33 pounds of anything isn't going to work out, much as my fourteen-year-old son tries to prove me wrong. You'd need to keep that up for decades, too, since that two year study represents a significant amount of a rat's lifespan.

Number Five: Azodicarbonamide. This is another bread flour additive. According to the article, "Used to bleach both flour and FOAMED PLASTIC (yoga mats and the soles of sneakers), azodicarbonamide has been known to induce asthma".

Let's clear this one up quickly: azodicarbonamide is indeed used in bread dough, and allowed up the 45 parts per million. It is not stable to heat, though, and it falls apart quickly to another compound, biurea, on baking. It not used to "bleach foamed plastic", though. Actually, in higher concentrations, it's used to foam foamed plastics. I realize that this doesn't sound much better, but the conditions inside hot plastic, you will be glad to hear, are quite different from those inside warm bread dough. In that environment, azodicarbonamide doesn't react to make birurea - it turns into several gaseous products, which are what blow up the bubbles of the foam. This is not its purpose in bread dough - that's carbon dioxide from the yeast (or baking powder) that's doing the inflating there, and 45 parts per million would not inflate much of anything.

How about the asthma, though? If you look at the toxicology of azodicarbonamide, you find that "Azodicarbonamide is of low acute toxicity, but repeated or prolonged contact may cause asthma and skin sensitization." That, one should note, is for the pure chemical, not 45 parts per million in uncooked flour (much less zero parts per million in the final product). If you're handling drums of the stuff at the plastics plant, you should be wearing protective gear. If you're eating a roll, no.

Number Six: BHA and BHT. We're on the home stretch now, and this one is a two-fer. BHA and BHT are butylated hydroxyanisole and butylate hydroxytoluene, and according to the article, they are "known to cause cancer in rats. And we’re next!"

Well, of course we are! Whatever you say! But the cancer is taking its time. These compounds have been added to cereals, etc., for decades now, while the incidence rates of cancer have been going down. And what BuzzFeed doesn't mention is that while some studies have shown an increase in cancer in rodent models with these compounds, others have shown a measurable decrease. Both of these compounds are efficient free radical scavengers, and have actually been used in animal studies that attempt to unravel the effects of free radicals on aging and metabolism. Animal studies notwithstanding, attempts to correlate human exposure to these compounds with any types of cancer have always come up negative. Contrary to what the BuzzFeed article says, by the way, BHT is indeed approved by the EU.

Weirdly, you can buy BHT in some health food stores, where anti-aging and anti-viral claims are made for it. How does a health food store sell butylated hydroxytoluene with a straight face? Well, it's also known to be produced by plankton, so you can always refer to it as a natural product, if that makes you feel better. That doesn't do much for me - as an organic chemist, I know that the compounds found in plankton range from essential components of the human diet all the way down to some of the most toxic molecules found in nature.

Number Seven: Synthetic Growth Hormones. These are the ones given to cattle, not the ones athletes give to themselves. The article says that they can "give humans breast, colon, and prostate cancer", which, given what's actually known about these substances, is a wildly irresponsible claim.

The article sends you to a perfectly reasonable site at the American Cancer Society, which is the sort of link that might make a BuzzFeed reader think that it must then be about, well, what kinds of cancer these things give you. But have a look. What you find is (first off) this is not an issue for eating beef. Bovine growth hormone (BGH) is given to dairy cattle to increase milk production. OK, so what about drinking milk?

Here you go: for one, BGH levels in the milk of treated cows are not higher than in untreated ones. Secondly, BGH is not active as a growth hormone in humans - it's selective for the cow receptor, not the human one. The controversy in this area comes from the way that growth hormone treatment in cows tends to increase levels of another hormone, IGF-1, in the milk. That increase still seems to be within the natural range of variability for IGF-1 in regular cows, but there is a slight change.

The links between IGF-1 and cancer have indeed been the subject of a lot of work. Higher levels of circulating IGF-1 in the bloodstream have (in some studies) been linked to increased risk of cancer, but I should add that other studies have failed to find this effect, so it's still unclear what's going on. I can also add, from my own experiences in drug discovery, that all of the multiple attempts to treat cancer by blocking IGF-1 signaling have been complete failures, and that might also cause one to question the overall linkage a bit.

But does drinking milk from BGH-treated cows increase the levels of circulating IGF-1 at all? No head-to-head study has been run, but adults who drink milk in general seem to have slightly higher levels. The same effect, though, was seen in people who drink soymilk, which (needless to say) does not have recombinant cow hormones in it. No one knows to what extent ingested IGF-1 might be absorbed into the bloodstream - you'd expect it to be digested like any other protein, but exceptions are known.

But look at the numbers. According to that ACA web summary, even if the protein were not degraded at all, and if it were completely absorbed (both of which are extremely unrealistic top-of-the-range assumptions), and even if the person drinking it were an infant, and taking in 1.6 quarts a day of BGH-derived cow milk with the maximum elevated levels of IGF-1 that have been seen, the milk would still contribute less than 1% of the IGF-1 in the bloodstream compared to what's being made in the human body naturally.

Number Eight, Arsenic. Arsenic? It seems like an unlikely food additive, but the article says "Used as chicken feed to make meat appear pinker and fresher, arsenic is POISON, which will kill you if you ingest enough."

Ay. I think that first off, we should make clear that arsenic is not "used as chicken feed". That brings to mind someone pitching powdered arsenic out for the hens, and that's not part of any long-term chicken-farming plan. If you go to the very NPR link that the BuzzFeed article offers, you find that a compound called roxarsone is added to chicken feed to keep down Coccidia parasites in the gut. It is not just added for some cosmetic reason, as the silly wording above would have you believe.

In 2011, a study found that chicken meat with detectable levels of roxarsone had 2.3 parts per billion (note the "b") of inorganic arsenic, which is the kind that is truly toxic. Chicken meat with no detectable roxarsone had 0.8 ppb inorganic arsenic, threefold less, and the correlation seems to be real. (Half of the factory-raised chickens sampled had detectable roxarsone, by the way). This led to the compound being (voluntarily) withdrawn from the market, under the assumption that this is an avoidable exposure to arsenic that could be eliminated.

And so it is. There are other (non-arsenic) compounds that can be given to keep parasite infestations down in poultry, although they're not as effective, and they'll probably show up on the next edition of lists like this one. But let's get things on scale: it's worth comparing these arsenic levels to those found in other foods. White rice, for example comes in at about 100 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic (and brown rice at 170 ppb). These, by the way, are all-natural arsenic levels, produced by the plant's own uptake from the soil. But even those amounts are not expected to pose a human health risk (says both the FDA and Canadian authorities), so the fifty-fold lower concentrations in chicken would, one thinks, be even less to worry about. If you're having chicken and rice and you want to worry about arsenic, worry about the rice.

This brings me to the grand wrap-up, and some of the language in that last item is a good starting point for it. I'm talking about the "POISON, which will kill you if you ingest enough" part. This whole article is soaking in several assumptions about food, about chemistry, and about toxicology, and that's one of the big ones. In my experience, people who write things like this have divided the world into two categories: wholesome, natural, healthy stuff and toxic chemical poisons. But this is grievously simple-minded. As I've emphasized in passing above, there are plenty of natural substances, made by healthy creatures in beautiful, unpolluted environments, that will nonetheless kill you in agony. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals produce poisons, wide varieties of intricate poisons, and they're not doing it for fun.

And on the other side of the imaginary fence, there are plenty of man-made substances that really won't do much of anything to people at all. You cannot assume anything about the effects of a chemical compound based on whether it came from a lovely rainforest orchid or out of a crusty Erlenmeyer flask. The world is not set up that way. Here's a corollary to this: if I isolate a beneficial chemical compound from some natural source (vitamin C from oranges, for example, although sauerkraut would be a good source, too), that molecule is identical to a copy of it I make in my lab. There is no essence, no vital spirit. A compound is what it is, no matter where it came from.

Another assumption that seems common to this mindset is that when something is poisonous at some concentration, it is therefore poisonous at all concentrations. It has some poisonous character to it that cannot be expunged nor diluted. This, though, is more often false than true. Paracelsus was right: the dose makes the poison. You can illustrate that in both directions: a beneficial substance, taken to excess, can kill you. A poisonous one, taken in very small amounts, can be harmless. And you have cases like selenium, which is simultaneously an essential trace element in the human diet and an inarguable poison. It depends on the dose.

Finally, I want to return to something I was saying way back at the beginning of this piece. The author of the BuzzFeed article knows painfully little about chemistry and biology. But that apparently wasn't a barrier: righteous conviction (and the worldview mentioned in the above three paragraphs) are enough, right? Wrong. Ten minutes of unbiased reading would have served to poke holes all through most of the article's main points. I've spent more than ten minutes (as you can probably tell), and there's hardly one stone left standing on another. As a scientist, I find sloppiness at this level not only stupid, not only time-wasting, but downright offensive. Couldn't anyone be bothered to look anything up? There are facts in this world, you know. Learn a few.

Comments (382) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events | Snake Oil | Toxicology

February 22, 2013

Nativis Returns

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Posted by Derek

Well, since it's Friday, I thought I'd quickly revisit one of the favorite companies I've written about here: Nativis. You'll recall that this is the outfit that claimed "photonic signatures" of drugs were as effective as the physical molecules themselves. My comments (and those of the readership here) led to some public exchanges with the company's chief financial officer, but last I heard of them they had moved out of San Diego and back to Seattle. Readers mentioned that the company was developing some sort of cancer-treatment device based on their ideas.

A couple of alert readers have now sent along links to the latest news. Nativis has produced a device they're calling the "Voyager", which is being tested in veterinary applications. Here is a YouTube video from a clinic that's trying it out. I have no reason to think that the doctor being interviewed is anything but sincere, but I also tend to think that he may not realize just what the opinion of many observers is about the Nativis technology. The veterinarian says things in the clip about how "the healing energy is then emitted to the tumor from this coil" and "The radiofrequency signal is stored on this device and then played, if you will, through this coil, to the tumor itself".

He does not appear to be misrepresenting Nativis' claims. I believe that this is the relevant patent application. The first claim reads:

"1. An aqueous anti-tumor composition produced by treating an aqueous medium free of paclitaxel, a paclitaxel analog, or other cancer-cell inhibitory compound with a low-frequency, time-domain signal derived from paclitaxel or an analog thereof, until the aqueous medium acquires a detectable paclitaxel activity, as evidenced by the ability of the composition (i) to inhibit growth of human glioblastoma cells when the composition is added to the cells in culture, over a 24 hour culture period, under standard culture conditions, and/or (ii), to inhibit growth of a paclitaxel-responsive tumor when administered to a subject having such a tumor."
.

So yes, we're apparently still talking about turning a sample of water into a drug by playing some sort of radio frequency into it. And no, I still have no idea how this is physically possible, and to the extent that I understand the company's explanations, I do not find them convincing. Here's some more language out of the patent application:

[0151] In one exemplary method, paclitaxel time-domain signals were obtained by recording low-frequency signals from a sample of paclitaxel suspended in CremophorEL™ 529 ml and anhydrous ethanol 69.74 mi to a final concentration of 8 mg/rrtl. The signals were recorded with injected DC offset, at noise level settings between 10 and 241 mV and in increments of 1 mV. A total of 241 time-domain signals over this injected-noise level range were obtained, and these were analyzed by an enhanced autocorrelation algorithm detailed above, yielding 8 time-domain paclitaxel-derived signals for further in vitro testing. One of these, designated signal M2{3), was selected as an exemplary paclitaxel signal effective in producing taxol-specific effects in biological response systems (described below), and when used for producing paclriaxei-specific aqueous compositions in accordance with the invention, also as described below.

[0152] Figs. 9A-9C show frequency-domain spectra of two paclitaxel signals with noise removed by Fourier subtraction (Figs. 9A and 98), and a cross-correlation of the two signals (Fig. 9C), showing agent-specific spectral features over a portion of the frequency spectrum from 3510 to 3650 Hz. As can be seen from Fig. 9C, when a noise threshold corresponding to an ordinate value of about 3 is imposed, the paclitaxel signal in this region is characterized by 7 peaks. The spectra shown in Figs. 9A-9C, but expanded to show spectral features over the entire region between 0-20kHz, illustrate how optimal time-domain signals can be selected, by examining the frequency spectrum of the signal for unique, agent-specific peaks, and selecting a time-domain signal that contains a number of such peaks.

[0153] The time-domain signals recorded, processed, and selected as above may be stored on a compact disc or any other suitable storage media for analog or digital signals and supplied to the transduction system during a signal transduction operation The signal carried on the compact disc is representative, more generally, of a tangible data storage medium having stored thereon, a low-frequency time domain signal effective to produce a magnetic field capable of transducing a chemical or biological system, or in producing an agent-specific aqueous composition in accordance with the invention, when the signal is supplied to electromagnetic transduction coil(s) at a signal current calculated to produce a magnetic field strength in the range between 1 G and 10"8 G, Although the specific signal tested was derived from a paclitaxel sample, it will be appreciated that any taxane-iike compound should generate a signal having the same mechanism of action in transduced form.

I just fail to see how recording "signals" from a drug preparation can then be used to turn water (or water/bubble mixtures, etc., as the patent goes on to claim) into something that acts like the original drug. All the objections I raised in my first post on this company are still in force as far as I'm concerned, and my suggestions for more convincing experimental data are still out there waiting to be fulfilled. Despite various mentions of publications and IND filings when I interacted with Nativis back in 2010, I am unaware of any evidence that has been divulged past their patent filings.

And no, I do not regard patent filings as sufficient evidence that anything actually works - here's one for a process of reincarnation leading to immortality, for example. Even issued patents have proven insufficient in the past: here's one for a faster-than-light radio antenna. If Nativis wants to end up in a different bin than those people, they are, in my opinion, taking an odd path to doing so.

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February 8, 2013

The Name of a Cure

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Posted by Derek

Here's an excellent article at Slate on "natural" medicines versus pharmaceuticals. You won't see too many mainstream articles that suddenly break out into chemical structures, but this one does, and to excellent effect.

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January 30, 2013

Scamorama

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Posted by Derek

One more on quackery, and then back to science. You may have seen this story, which broke in Sports Illustrated, on a strange little outfit that called themselves Sports With Alternatives To Steroids, or S.W.A.T.S. They seem to have had a long list of professional and college athlete customers looking for some sort of (legal) performance edge. And who wouldn't sign up when there are cutting-edge therapies like this on offer?

(S.W.A..T.S.) prescribed a deluxe program, including holographic stickers on the right elbow; copious quantities of the powder additive; sleeping in front of a beam-ray light programmed with frequencies for tissue regeneration and pain relief; drinking negatively charged water; a 10-per-day regimen of the deer-antler pills that will "rebuild your brain via your small intestines" (and which Lewis said he hadn't been taking, then swallowed four during the conversation); and spritzes of deer-antler velvet extract (the Ultimate Spray) every two hours.

"Spray on my elbow every two hours?" Lewis asked.

"No," Ross said, "under your tongue."

We never do find out what's in the "powder additive". My guess is sugar-free drink mix, but perhaps I'm just small-minded. I don't think as big as the founders of S.W.A.T.S., that's for sure - these guys are way out in front of the rest of us:

The theoretical underpinning offered by Key is that radio waves can be stored in fluids (the spray) and in holograms (the chips), and that when an athlete consumes the fluid or wears the holograms, the radio waves are re-emitted and prompt his body to create specific nutrients and hormones -- from vitamin B to testosterone. Key says that it's not unlike the way particular wavelengths of sunlight cause the human body to produce vitamin D. In the musty storage room, the holographic stickers and bottles of deer-antler spray are irradiated for 24 straight hours or more in what Ross and Key say is an effort to program them with performance-enhancing frequencies

You know, that reminds me a lot of Nativis, the odd little biotech company I wrote about here, and who threatened me with legal action here. They went on about "photonic signals" stored in water, that were somehow stored and released later. The people at S.W.A.T.S. should look into this technology; it sounds like it would be a good fit. When last heard from, the Nativis folks were touting some sort of radio-frequency cancer zapper - slap some holographic stickers on at the same time, and who knows what might happen?

The SI article is well worth a read, just to show you that the process of separating the gullible from their money is timeless. There are gloomy thoughts to be had about the state of science education, that such things are believed, but education is a thin spray-painted layer on the surface of a brain that wants miracles and wants to believe. The proper response is the one that NBA owner Mark Cuban had to a very similar scam, the Power Bracelets that would, er, align your energies or something. Cuban found the right alignment for them, as far as I'm concerned - check the video clip at that link. I hope the trash can is big enough for all this stuff.

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January 29, 2013

Dr. Oz's Problem

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Posted by Derek

Red palm oil. Green coffee beans. Raspberry ketone. Some of you are wondering what the heck I'm making for dinner, but some of you will recognize the common characteristic: all of these have been promoted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, the most famous physician in the country.

I'm prompted to write about him by this New Yorker profile, which is excellent reading. It author, Michael Specter, tries his best to figure out why a talented, well-trained cardiac surgeon is sitting down on his own television show with psychic healers, fad-diet pushers, and the likes of Joseph Mercola. (In case you haven't run across him, consider yourself fortunate. His eponymous web site, which I will certainly not link to, is a trackless fever swamp of craziness. If you want to hear about how vaccines are killing you, or how cancer is actually a fungus, or how to heal your ulcers with vinegar and your melanoma with baking soda, well, Mercola is your man).

When Oz says that Mercola is “challenging everything you think you know about traditional medicine and prescription drugs,” it’s hard to argue. “I’m usually earnestly honest and modest about what I think we’ve accomplished,” Oz told me when we discussed his choice of guests. “If I don’t have Mercola on my show, I have thrown away the biggest opportunity that I have been given.”

I had no idea what he meant. How was it Oz’s “biggest opportunity” to introduce a guest who explicitly rejects the tenets of science? “The fact that I am a professor—one of the youngest professors ever—at Columbia, and that I earned my stripes writing hundreds of papers in peer-reviewed journals,” Oz began. “I know the system. I’ve been on those panels. I’m one of those guys who could talk about Mercola and not lose everybody. And so if I don’t talk to him I have abdicated my responsibility, because the currency that I deal in is trust, and it is trust that has been given to me by Oprah and by Columbia University, and by an audience that has watched over six hundred shows.”

Well. . .I'm not sure that that's much of an answer. In fact, if the currency that Dr. Oz deals in is trust, then you'd think that he has a responsibility not to abuse that trust by giving his imprimatur to lunatics. To his credit, the New Yorker's Specter also finds this response lacking, so he tries again. What he doesn't realize is that he's traveling up the river to the heart of darkness:

I was still puzzled. “Either data works or it doesn’t,” I said. “Science is supposed to answer, or at least address, those questions. Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?”

Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it—that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true—was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

Chilling is right. The man's a nihilist. Here we have a massively famous doctor, the public face of medicine to millions of television viewers, and he apparently believes that well, it's hard to say what works, because everyone has their own facts, you know?

A word with you, Dr. Oz, if I may. I know that you're very busy, and that your TV show takes up a lot of your time, and that whatever time you have left is probably occupied with being famous and everything. This won't take long. I only wanted to remind you that you got to wear your scrubs and your stethoscope by virtue of an excellent medical education. But the people who provided it to you (and the people who provided the knowledge that they were passing on) did not get there by assuming that everyone had their own facts. If we'd stayed with that attitude, we'd still be waving bags of magic chicken bones over the groaning bodies of cancer patients. But then, you'll probably have that on your show next week. Why not?

I say all this as someone who has spent his career digging for facts and searching for insight. I'm a scientist, Dr. Oz, and I actually don't think that medicine, at least my end of it, is such a religious experience, at least, not the way you're defining one. My colleagues and I spend our days in the labs. Our facts had better be the same for everyone who looks at them, every time, and if they're not, well, we go back to work until they are.

We can't just go on TV right after we've dosed a few rats, you know. We'd go to jail. The FDA won't listen to anything we come up with unless it's been done under rigorously defined conditions, unless it's been repeated (over and over), and unless we tell them every detail of how we did it all. We can't come in waving our hands and telling everyone how great we are - we have to spend insane amounts of money, time, and effort to put together enough data to convince a lot of very skeptical people. Thank goodness you're not one of them. You're either the easiest person to convince that I've ever seen, or (more likely), you don't worry much about being convinced of anything. Why should you? It would limit your opportunities. That TV show isn't going to produce itself - if you stuck to people who could actually back up their assertions, what would your guest list look like?

But here's a suggestion: get someone on your show who actually knows where medicines come from, and what it takes to find one. Instead of telling people about magic beans, tell them the truth: discovering anything that will treat a sick patient is hard, expensive work. The reason we don't have a Cure For Cancer isn't because there's a conspiracy; it isn't because the Powers That Be are too stupid and greedy to recognize the wonderful healing powers of the latest miracle berry. It's because cancer is really hard to figure out. That would be a lot more of a public service than what you're becoming, which is this:

Most days, Oz mines what he refers to as his go-to subjects: obesity and cancer. . . Cancer, Oz told me, “is our Angelina Jolie. We could sell that show every day.”

I'm sure you could, Dr. Oz. But what you're really selling is yourself. How much is left?

Update: John LaMattina actually did get the Oz experience, as recounted here. And he certainly knows what drug discovery is like, but it doesn't seem to have had much effect on the show, or on Dr. Oz. . .

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September 12, 2012

Honking, Squawking Chemical Ignorance

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Posted by Derek

If you would like to see one of the most idiotic, cloth-headed attempted "explanations" of a chemical structure ever, take yourself to this wonder-rejuvenating-skin-treatment site. And learn what can be accomplished if you take the time, and the effort, to draw the structure of phenol the right way. I am not responsible if you hurt yourself while burying your face in your hands, especially after reading that table in the lower right-hand portion of the page. Spotted by Kevin Booker-Milburn, via Twitter

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May 29, 2012

Luc Montagnier Is Not Losing It. Luc Montagnier Has Lost It.

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Posted by Derek

I don't see any alternative. My question from last year is answered, as I'd feared. Word comes of an autism conference featuring the likes of Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield, which should be all any well-informed person needs to hear.

And Luc Monagnier is there, too. Not content with teleporting DNA molecules and defending homeopathy, he now says that he can cure autistic children with antibiotics, and is decrying the reception that these claims are getting. In fact, all of Montagnier's odd beliefs tend to run together, so in one way, his rubbing shoulders with the likes of the other speakers at this autism meeting is completely fitting. After all, they believe all kinds of weird stuff, too, so why not?

But on another level, it's just sad. Even if one might want to give Montagnier the benefit of the doubt, based on his past work, there's no way that anyone can be taken seriously after sharing a speaker's platform with the likes of Jenny McCarthy et al. The fact that he doesn't seem to realize this, or care, is just another piece of evidence: Luc Montagnier has lost it.

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March 23, 2012

Nativis Update

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Posted by Derek

Longtime readers will remember the interaction I had with Nativis Pharmaceuticals. That's the outfit that claims to be working with "drug signatures" instead of the drug molecules themselves. I found it interesting to see a company with all the outward trappings of a biotech startup that was spending its time (and its investors' money) on what sounded to me like the next thing to homeopathy. "Unique photon fields" of drug molecules? "Photon payloads" from "imprinted coherence domains"? You don't run across this sort of thing every day - well, not where I work.

When I said so, though, I got to hear from the company's chief legal counsel, and we ended up trading helpful advice. (Well, I thought my advice to him was helpful, at any rate). We have not crossed paths since.

But readers are reporting that the company's San Diego site appears to be emptied out, so I decided to check up on them. As it happens, they do not seem to be out of business: they're just moving to Seattle. Now, why the company seems to have pulled back its presence on its own web site, and on LinkedIn, etc., I don't know. And whatever happened to the publications that they were planning, and to their IND, I don't know, either. But at least as of last fall, they were a going concern. If any readers up the Northwest hear some news, please pass it on!

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December 14, 2011

Burzynski Revisited

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Posted by Derek

Here, courtesy of Science-Based Medicine, is a comprehensive look at the Burzynski cancer clinic's methods. If you have any interest at all in cancer quackery or semi-quackery, or especially if you know of anyone desperate enough to approach the Burzynski people themselves, here's everything you need to know from a med-chem point of view.

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November 29, 2011

The Burzynski Cancer Treatment

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Posted by Derek

There seems to have been a recent surge in interest in the Burzynski cancer therapy in the UK. A family publicly raised a good deal of money to have their daughter flown over to Texas for the treatment, and this seems to have raised the profile of the clinic quite a bit over there.

But Dr. Burzynski and his therapy have been around for decades, and not everyone has been pleased with their results. Orac over at Respectful Insolence has (as you'd expect!) taken up this topic before, and for background I definitely suggest reading his piece. Quackwatch also has background. Put together, it seems that no one has been able to replicate Burzynski's results, despite many attempts. This does not appear to have slowed down his acceptance of patients, nor his billing of them.

Perhaps the best single reference I can give for Burzynski and his associates, though, is this blog from Wales. Rhys Morgan, a high school student, wrote earlier this year about his misgivings about all the UK publicity and fund-raising to send patients to the clinic, and for his pains he was treated to some good old-fashioned legal scare tactics. I'm glad to see that he's standing up to these, and it appears to me as if he's been giving good legal advice in doing so. From his post, it seems that the same law firm is sending out such letters to other people who've written unfavorably about the Burzynski Clinic, and has this ever been a good sign?

It would appear that Dr. Burzynski has had a good deal of time, and numerous opportunities, to provide convincing data to back up his claims. Instead, he seems to have spent his efforts at expanding the definition of the phrase "clinical trial" in response to a court order - and in sending lawyers after people who point such things out. Personally, in my review of the literature, I have seen no reason to disagree with the American Cancer Society's opinion that the value, if any, of the Burzynski therapy has not been established, and I would add that this is still the state of affairs 35 years after his initial publications.

If anyone has anything that might change my mind about that - and I'd prefer data, not legal threats - I'd be glad to review it. But you'd think that the convincing evidence would already be out there by now. 1976!

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November 14, 2011

Translation Needed from Execulinga

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Posted by Derek

And Google Translate is no help at all for this sort of thing. A reader who attended the recent TEDMED conference sent along a quote transcribed from one of the speakers, a high-ranking Pfizer executive:

"We’ve moved from a [two-dimensional] to a [three-dimensional] approach. [Now,] we need to work all dimensions of the problems that face us, including the fourth dimension … time. Let’s call it “metacollaboration” — an approach that links knowledge and assets in a productive way to problem solve in every dimension."

Let's call it something else, shall we?

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October 31, 2011

Very Likely Not Real, But Still. . .(The E-Cat)

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Posted by Derek

I occasionally cover odd attempts at alternative - very alternative - energy sources here, because there's a chemistry angle to many of them. The various cold fusion claims have always gotten a slightly less frosty reception among professional chemists than among professional physicists, on average. And yes, there are two good explanations of that, which are not mutually exclusive: (1) that the chemists are willing to be a bit more open-minded since (among other things) they have less invested in the state of physics as it is, and (2) that the chemists are willing to be more open-minded because they know less about physics.

So far, the track record on these things has been pretty close to 100% hardtack disappointment, dry as dust and crunchy as hell. But as Tyler Cowen put it over at Marginal Revolution, the expected value of such things is so high that a small amount of attention is worthwhile. The latest headline-grabber is a mysterious thingie from Italy called the E-Cat, which I mentioned briefly here back in July.

The inventors apparently concluded a larger-scale demonstration over the weekend, as reported here, at the request of an unnamed client from the US. The problem, as that article shows, is that we really don't have a lot more to go on: this "client" could plausibly be DARPA, or that could (also plausibly) just be what the device's backers would like for everyone to think, the better to fleece the unwary in the next round.

So for now, I'm just noting this with cautious interest. I certainly hope that the people behind this are operating in good faith, in which case I will in good faith wish them well. But we'll see what happens next, if anything. For now, the "snake oil" tag stays on.

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August 11, 2011

In Which We Learn Lots About Wine Swirling

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Posted by Derek

Well, we could use some comedy around here these days, and here's someone from the Napa Valley wine business to help us out. Let's work up to this one slowly: do you drink wine? If you do, do you swirl it around in the glass at any point? Do you think it matters, for the taste, which direction you swirl it?

Didn't see that one coming, did you? But never fear, answers are at hand. (Thanks to LeighJKBoerner on Twitter, via Chemjobber.

. . .When you swirl your wine to the left (counter clockwise) the scent you pick up is from the barrels over the grapes, what we call the spice shelf. When you swirl the wines to the right (clockwise) you pick up more flavors from the fruit. . .The question comes up, why is that? Now, as a master herbalist and aroma-therapist, and as someone who has lectured extensively on natural health, anatomy and physiology I know a thing or two about plants, and how people perceive them. So, based upon what I know about how living cells function, these are my insights.

Let's pause a moment, because I want to make sure that everyone's braced for those insights. Make sure that you're ready to keep up with a master aromatherapist and natural health lecturer, because it's going to get pretty, um, technical at this point:

Like all living things wine cells have a magnetic polarity, just like humans and the Earth. The positive pole is more highly charged, just like the North Pole of the Earth, which is why there are Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle, but not Southern Lights in the Antarctic. (Link added for clarity, and because I just couldn't resist - DBL) This polarity tends to keep wine cells generally upright, spinning on their axis when they are being swirled. This magnetic action within a liquid is commonly demonstrated in laboratories. Because plant molecules are mostly liquid, when they form they are also subject to the electromagnetic forces that are a component of the rotation of the Earth. As a result, the pores on the surface of the molecules develop based on that rotation, like the shingles on a roof.

He probably lost you at "wine cells" - see, I told you it was going to be hard to keep up. Note that a follow-up to this adjusts that language, saying that "The proper term would be molecule or even atom", which is surely pretty much roughly the same thing as a cell, right? When you're talking about wine? That second article is worth reading all by itself, by the way, for the kind of check-out-my-credentials display that would do well for a bird of paradise during mating season. But let's get back to the science:

". . .when you swirl the wine clockwise the pressure of the surrounding fluid forces the fruit flavors out through the pores. It also pushes any flavors concentrated on the surface down onto the skin of the molecule. . .

. . .Everything has a polarity right down to the atomic level, and when put into suspension in a liquid it rotates in relation to that pole. Because we are on a planet that has both a polar system and a consistent rotation, everything forms with a pole and a circular patterning. Wind it one way and it tightens and wind it the other and it unwinds.

Honestly this is just basic physics related to molecular science and plant chemistry, something which herbalists and herbal researchers deal with all the time. A pretty sober group of people. . .

So there you have it! Those herbal researchers, they must be right up there on the edge of knowledge if they deal with this kind of stuff all the time. All of this, and it's all half-understood second-hand gibberish, of course, reminds me of the biodynamic wine movement, which from what I can tell is stuffed just as full as it can be with, well, let's just call it half-understood second-hand gibberish.

Check out "Preparation 501", a key part of the process: "Ground quartz is buried in cow horns in the soil over summer. The horn is then dug up, its contents (called horn silica or '501') are then stirred in water and sprayed over the vines at daybreak." You don't need much, though - it's reputed to be very powerful stuff. But honestly, I think I'd rather deal with the mystical-life-force cow horn buriers than with people who try to tell me that it's all just simple physics, all the while yammering about magnetic fields and the skins of molecules. Or atoms. Whatever.

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June 30, 2011

Transcendental Meditation: Hold That Paper!

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Posted by Derek

I couldn't resist mentioning this one: the Archives of Internal Medicine was set to publish a paper showing a benefit for transcendental meditation in heart attack and stroke. Word was already out in the press - in the UK, the Telegraph had already published a story, with a quote from one of the paper's lead authors (from, ahem, the Maharishi University of Management) that the effect seen was as great or greater than any pharmaceutical intervention.

I don't have a link up to that particular newspaper report; its URL is no longer valid. That's because twelve minutes before the paper was set to be published online, the journal pulled it. (Other sources still have their stories up). We still don't know quite what the problem was. Nature got this statement:

“It became apparent that there was additional data not included in the manuscript that was about to be published, and the editor of Archives thought that the information was significant enough that it needed to be included as part of the paper, and then re-analyzed and verified, so she made the last-minute decision not to publish it. . .It’s an unusual situation, but the bottom line is that our journal wants to make sure that the information we put out is as accurate as can be.”

I'm glad to hear it. Larry Husten at Forbes has the data from the paper, and has a lot of questions. We'll see how things look when (and if) it ever appears. But for now, if you're looking for the latest anyone has ever pulled a paper before publication, we may well have the record.

Update: here's an excellent report on this at Retraction Watch.

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil | The Scientific Literature

June 21, 2011

Senator Hatch And His Wonderful Industry

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Posted by Derek

Now, I try to help discover drugs for a living. And boy, do we not discover all that many of them. But you'd get a different impression if you listen to the radio here in the US. So many drugs! So many wonderful things that they can do! Improve your memory, boost your immune system, clean your liver, give you energy, grow hair on your head and flush those toxins out of you like a firehose.

Ah, but these aren't drugs, of course. They are nutritional supplements, silly people, and they are "not intended to treat, cure, or modify any disease". But they say that part low and fast, while the exciting parts are enunciated clearly, con brio, and at least three times. Drugs are foreign chemicals that you put in your body to make it do things, while nutritional supplements, why they're these all-natural. . .things. . .made out of, made out of. . .stuff. . .that you put in your body to make it do things. Anyway, they're different.

And here's the man who says so: Orrin Hatch, to whom (along with Henry Waxman) we owe the Hatch-Waxman legislation that made the supplement industry flourish like the green bay tree. $25 billion a year isn't bad, especially when you consider that the expenses of the supplement companies are just a tiny bit lower than those of the drug companies. Not having to do any preclinical research at all helps, of course, and not having to run any clinical trials at all (nothing for efficacy, nothing for safety) helps, and not having to be reviewed by the FDA helps, too. And then on the other side of the ledger, being able to say any damn thing that comes into your head helps the most of all.

And as you'll see from that article, not only has Senator Hatch himself benefited greatly from his nutritional ties, but so has his family, immediate and extended. And his friends, and his former business partners - pretty much everyone within range, it seems. Each sides regards the other as the gift that keeps on giving. And why shouldn't they?

Comments (59) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil

June 15, 2011

The Failure of Modern Medicine?

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Posted by Derek

I was going to take a shot at this article myself, a piece in The Atlantic called "The Triumph of New Age Medicine". But Matthew Herper at Forbes has done the job for me. The original article advances the thesis that modern medicine isn't doing much for chronic diseases, which is why people are turning to acupuncture, et al. Says Herper:

. . .that’s all horse microbiome. Let’s take those one by one. Saying we’re not making strides against heart disease and cancer is just, well, wrong. Look at the below chart of mortality from both, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Notice something? They’re both going down. . .Yes, the battle against heart disease and cancer is slow, grinding trench warfare, but that’s because these our diseases written by evolution into our genetic code. And we’re still winning.

He goes on to demolish one of the article's other sweeping claims - that alternative medicine focuses on prevention, but mainstream medicine doesn't. And he's got an interesting reason (which may have occurred to you before) for why most "alternative" therapies have such ardent fans. Hint: there really is a secret ingredient, which has been gradually removed from a lot of modern medical practice. . .

Comments (36) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Press Coverage | Snake Oil

March 23, 2011

More Crankitude: All Natural This Time

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Posted by Derek

I managed to do a whole post on medical/pharma cranks without mentioning one of the biggest factors of all. As many people pointed out in the comments, look out for any therapy that makes a big point of being "all-natural".

There are several interesting mental attitudes behind the success of that marketing ploy. One of them is the appeal to primitivism. I'm reading Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, and that's one of the persistent philosophical currents he identified in Western culture. Back to the basics! Shed the corrupting influences of modern life! In medical terms, this shows up as a constellation of beliefs: that people were truly healthier back in the good old days, that, correspondingly, there's something about modern civilization that's making us all sick, and that remedies for such ills are not to be found not among the fruits of that industrial civilization. Why would they? It's like a drunk reaching for an eye-opener to cure a hangover, right? No, you want to go back to the simple, natural remedies, because only those can cancel out what's been done to you.

I should mention up front that these beliefs are not totally insane. One of the things that I took away from an earlier book that I recommended here, A Farewell to Alms, is that life expectancies and general human health actually took a bit of a dive as cities began to grow in importance. Dietary and sanitary standards were lower for the mass of people in London, say, than they were for the farmers in the countryside, and it showed. And even today, some of the less-developed countries are in even worse shape than they were before the modern world ran into them.

But those aren't the customers for pricey natural remedy come-ons, are they? No, those go to well-off first-worlders with disposable income and high life expectancies. Industrial and urban civilization, although it got off to a pretty dirty start, has in fact led to a great upsurge in human health and productivity. And that's given people the time and wherewithal to respond to ads on their large flat-screen TVs or their satellite radios, and to pay money for shaken vials of distilled water or ground-up plants shipped from the other side of the planet.

Speaking of those ground-up plants reminds me of one more mental attitude. Among people who are big herbal medicine believers, there can be a sort of teleology, a view of the world as if it were more rationally constructed than I think it is. I've seen people asking questions like "I have Condition Y, what's the herb for that?" This every-disease-has-a-plant-for-it view is quite odd to me, because I don't see any reason why it should possibly be true. Plants make medicinally active substances for reasons of their own, and they only overlap with our needs once in a while. And for that matter, most of the really active compounds found in nature are things that will mess you up, rather than help you, just like most of the really active compounds made by humans. There are simply more ways for our biochemistries to be interfered with than for them to be improved.

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March 22, 2011

Crankitude: A Quick Glossary

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Posted by Derek

I get probably more than my share of come-ons for various wonder-healing potions. For some reason, people see that I talk about drug discovery and think that I'm sure to be interested in homeopathic wonder water, magnetic healotronic belt buckles, or what have you. I am not. Well, at least not in the usual way that they're presented, as Great New Discoveries that I can order right now, first month's supply is free, and so on.

I also get to hear about many of these things at second hand, from people who write to me about them wondering if there's anything to them. And while I delete the press releases and advertisements, I respond to genuinely curious individuals, and I try to do so civilly. I tell them that no, according to what I know about chemistry, medicine, biology, and such, this things that they're describing won't (or shouldn't) work. I ask what kind of data might be available to back things up, and point out that in my own line of work we have to generate huge amounts of it before we believe we're on to something, and so on. I also try to get across how hard drug discovery really is, and how unlikely it is that there's going to be a Big Honking Breakthrough! every year or so, no matter what the ads on the radio say.

There are repeated themes in these things, and I'm by no means the first to notice them. Anything that promises to "boost your immune system", for example, is automatically suspect. Given what the immune system's capable of when cranked up a bit, I'd rather keep mine at its current setting, thanks. Of course, "detoxifying" is an instant red flag. As crank-watchers know, the conviction that we'd all be in perfect health if it weren't for insidious toxins is a widely held one, and a widely played-upon one. A corollary belief is that these toxins are piled up somewhere in your body, waiting for the right hand on the flush valve to clear them out and restore you to health.

Anything involving the word "energy" when applied to general medical concerns is worth a suspicious look. It's not an invariable sign of hand-waving, but it's common enough. This sort of language runs from the vague "gives you more energy" promises at one end to the mystical-life-forces stuff at the other. And related to that last part, appeals to Ancient Wisdom That We Have Forsaken are almost instant grounds for disqualification. Displacing the burden of proof in time (centuries ago!) or in space (the Mystic East) does not inspire confidence.

Naturally, as in any field, intimations of conspiracy are instant red flags. My friends, the Powers That Be don't want you to learn these wonderful things (but for $39.95, as it happens, you can hear about them until you're dizzy). Appeals to things that most people know of but don't understand well are worth scrutiny (most anything involving magnets, e.g.), as are attempts to make everything seem incredibly simple (Vinegar! The wonder-working key to health!)

In fact, what seems to be missing from most crank medical come-ons is, oddly enough, humility. There are no package inserts detailing side effects or symptoms to watch out for. There are no thoughts that any new data might sweep the latest discovery aside, and rarely any nods to others who have come before. No, this latest therapy is presented like a religious revelation - here it is, what you've been waiting for, and you'll never need anything else. Those of us who are trying to be on the other side should remember this, and try as much as we can not to sound like the people we can't stand. . .

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January 25, 2011

Weirdness: A Cold Fusion Demonstration?

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Posted by Derek

Several people have asked me about this recent press conference, where two Italian researchers (Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi) say that they have demonstrated anomalous nuclear reactions with nickel and copper, on a scale sufficient to produce electrical power. (To be technical, it's probably not fusion per se, but is it anything, and if so, what)?

I hope that they're right, naturally. But there are a lot of things to wonder about. They chose to announce this at a press conference, and to "publish" in a journal that actually doesn't exist. Rossi himself seems to have had some criminal problems with the Italian authorities in the past. All this does not inspire confidence (says the blogger in a scrupulously neutral tone of voice). And this whole area is absolutely saturated with cranks, sharp operators, self-deceivers, paranoids, and loose cannons of every description. I continue to think that these phenomena (if there are phenomena there at all) are worthy of study, but man, the signal-to-noise ratio in this field just could not be worse. The legitimate scientists working in it (and there are some) have my sympathy.

For what it's worth, this latest work seems to follow up on some earlier reports from another Italian physicist, Francesco Piantelli. That link, a blog written by a sceptical enthusiast, will probably tell you more than you want to know about the story, and a look through its other posts will tell you plenty about the state of the whole field. I'm going to take the same course of action that I have with all purported new energy breakthroughs in the last twenty years: wish the participants good luck, hope that they've actually found something worthwhile, and sit back to watch. If anyone does make a breakthrough, it's going to be abundantly clear. If, on the other hand, the people involved are still flopping around and issuing press releases year after year, then they're probably still having to pay their own electric bills.

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Weirdness: Montagnier Again, Teleporting DNA

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Posted by Derek

Well, no sooner do I speculate about whether Luc Montagnier has lost it then he makes headlines with a "water memory" story about teleporting DNA. There are, of course, umpteen reasons for this not to be a real result. We'll start with contamination of vials, which in a system like PCR can be disastrous, and work from there. The other major problem I have with this is one of the major problems I have with homeopathy: if incredibly small dilutions of things have such an effect, then why aren't we seeing it happen all the time? There are tiny amounts of DNA everywhere: how come all our experiments aren't turning into fuzzy blurs of results from all the small but oh-so-powerful fragments and traces in every sample?

Well, Montagnier himself says that he thinks that this experiment will be replicated by others, so I'll hold my fire until that's tried out. Until then, I note that this experiment has apparently made Deepak Chopra's day. It's hard for me to imagine that anything that has inspired such a fuzzy-brained column from such a fuzzy-brained man could lead to any good. But perhaps we'll all be surprised.

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January 10, 2011

Has Luc Montagnier Lost It?

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Posted by Derek

I truly don't know what to make of this one. Virologist Luc Montagnier has announced that he's heading off to Shanghai, to found an institute and investigate. . .mysterious electromagnetic signals from extremely diluted pathogens.

What we have found is that DNA produces structural changes in water, which persist at very high dilutions, and which lead to resonant electromagnetic signals that we can measure. Not all DNA produces signals that we can detect with our device. The high-intensity signals come from bacterial and viral DNA. . .

. . .I can't say that homeopathy is right in everything. What I can say now is that the high dilutions are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules. We find that with DNA, we cannot work at the extremely high dilutions used in homeopathy; we cannot go further than a 10 to the minus 18th dilution, or we lose the signal. But even at 10 to the minus 18th, you can calculate that there is not a single molecule of DNA left. And yet we detect a signal. . .

Well, Montagnier believes that he's chasing something real, and all I can do is wish him luck as he tries to chase it down. I'd be extremely interested to see something reproducible come out of such ideas, not least because it would open up whole new areas of science. But at the same time, I'm not going to hold my breath waiting on success.

That's because this whole homeopathy/high dilution/water signature business isn't just another wild new idea that might or might not pan out. Even if it were that, this would be tricky stuff - any of the edge-of-detection phenomena are. But this area is a known swamp full of quicksand (and inhabited by various strange swamp creatures) which has claimed careers before. There are huge sunken deposits of quackery and self-delusion to be found out there, and before you announce you're digging up something valuable, you'll have to be very sure that you're not just dedging up more of the same swampy stuff.

Montagnier, as a famous researcher past retirement age in his own country, might be (from one perspective) just the sort of person who can investigate such things. But there have been a lot of eccentric dead ends pursued by famous researchers past retirement age, too. Bring us back some numbers, I say, and some reproducible experiments. Then we'll have some serious talks indeed.

Blog housekeeping note - I'm provisionally assigning this to the "Snake Oil" category, since many other discussions of this sort of thing can be found there.

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January 6, 2011

MMR Vaccine and Autism: Lies, All Lies

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Posted by Derek

The 1998 paper that linked MMR vaccination with autism has had a long way to fall. It made, of course, a huge media sensation, and energized the whole vaccination/autism controversy that still (in spite of evidence) goes on. But it didn't look very robust from the start, scientifically. And over the years it's gone from "Really needs shoring up" to "hasn't been reproduced" to "looks like there's something wrong with it" to "main conclusions retracted" to the final, lowest level: outright fraud.

Here's a good history of the whole affair in the BMJ. And here's the first part of a series of articles by Brian Deer, the journalist who dug into the study and found how fraudulent it really was. Not one of the 12 cases in Wakefield's original study hold up; the data were manipulated in every single one to make it fit his hypothesis. His hypothesis that he was getting grant money for. His hypothesis that he was already planning lawsuits around, before the study even started.

His hypothesis, I might add, that has led to completely unnecessary suffering among the unvaccinated children this scare has produced over the years, and has diverted enormous amounts of time, energy, and money away from useful study of autism. This sort of deliberate action is really hard to contemplate, as a reasonable human being - it's like some sort of massive campaign to persuade people to throw bricks through the windows of ambulances.

In a better world, we'd be getting expressions of sorrow and contrition from all the celebrities and others who've profited from this business. But that's not going to happen, is it?

Comments (75) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Autism | Snake Oil | The Dark Side

December 3, 2010

Guess the Author: Revealed

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Posted by Derek

Well, as those of you who searched for the phrases found, the person responsible for the nonsense quoted here is none other than Ray Kurzweil, who with his co-author Terry Grossman published Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever in 2004.

Kurzweil is, of course, a widely quoted futurist. He's also an extremely accomplished inventor and a very intelligent man; there's really no doubt about either of those statements. But his techno-optimism, which I broadly share, still leaves me sounding like H. L. Mencken with a head cold. I think that all kinds of wonderful things are possible, and so does Kurzweil - but he thinks that they're not only possible, but that they're happening right now.

I've had occasion to look over Kurzweil's predictions before. What worries me about his futurism is that whenever he starts talking about a field that I know well, he suddenly sounds to me as if he's gone off the rails. And when that happens, well, you have to wonder about the rest of it.

These latest thoughts were prompted by an article by John Rennie, an acidic look at Kurzweil's prediction record in the areas that he should know best (computing, engineering, etc.) His record in medicine is no improvement. And seeing stuff like this alkaline-water nonsense (which I really didn't know he was into) makes me reluctantly mark him even further down. Honestly, if you go for that stuff, you've lowered your defenses against dumpster-loads of hoo-hah. It's very, very hard for me to take seriously anyone who pushes the health benefits of "alkalinized water". But people do.

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December 2, 2010

Amazing Stuff! Guess Where It's From. . .

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Posted by Derek

OK, let's try a game of "Identify the Author". No fair Googling - that'll call it right up. No, see if you can figure out on your own who believes this:

"Animal cells survive best in an alkaline environment with a blood pH of 7.35 to 7.45. Plant cells are the opposite; they prefer an acidic environment. As our bodies become increasingly acidic, some cells adapt through an internal evolutionary process and become more like plant cells. These abnormal plantlike cells have a high tendency to become cancer cells, which thrive in an acidic environment. So an important strategy for preventing or treating cancer is to maintain an alkaline environment in the body."

No, it's not our old friend Kevin Trudeau, although it sure does sound like him and the other "pH is destiny" people. The guy I'm writing about does indeed sell nutritional supplements, though, and has sold a device to make "alkaline water" at home. About that:

"Another issue concerns the infrastructure of water. Magnetic resonance imaging reveals that most tap water is organized into microclusters of about 12 water molecules each. In alkalinized water, the microclusters are reduced in size to only six molecules per cluster. This enhances the permability, solubility, and absorption of the water, thereby boosting its detoxification effects."

Great stuff! I'll bet you've never seen anything that enhances the solubility of water before. There are a lot of water hucksters out there, for sure, and these claims could be slapped on any of a thousand shady web sites and fit right in.

But that's not where I got them. This guy doesn't have any late-night infomercials, or at least not yet. I'll leave this post up for a while, then update it with the real source, and a few more comments. . .

Update: Here's the source, with more comments.

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July 9, 2010

The Horror Of Asking For Data

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Posted by Derek

A reader in the UK sent along this item from the BBC, and those of us in the drug industry will enjoy it very much. An EU regulation is forcing health food and supplement companies to. . .wait for it. . .actually provide evidence that their advertising claims are true.

For those of us living in Orrin Hatch's world here in the US, this will certainly be a change of pace. US readers know how it works - listen to the ads, with the first two sentences delivered as a low-decibel mutter: "Sold as a nutritional supplement only. Not intended to treat, cure, or modify any disease. But the hell with that! It'll grow hair, regenerate your liver, detoxify your colon, improve your memory, and boost your immune system! You'll lose weight, have more energy, sleep better, and you'll have to fight off the attentions of the opposite sex with whatever weapons come to hand! And it's all-natural! Call now for a free thirty-day supply!"

No, the EU isn't letting this stuff pass. Want to claim that your cranberry drink reduces the risk of urinary tract infection? Show us your clinical data - and no, not from someone else's study. From yours, with your product. Glucosamine for arthritis? Got some data to back that up? Green tea for cholesterol, or as an antioxidant? Show them some numbers, or go home. The marketers aren't too happy:

Ioannis Misopoulos, director general of the International Probiotics Association (IPA), is openly hostile.

"It can take three years to get these kinds of human studies together but in the meantime the claims are going to be wiped away," he said. "The regulation is killing this industry and the job losses are already being felt."

Cry me a procreating river, dude. Or come over here to where you can't get near the market without going through the clinic first - and for a lot longer than three years, I might add. And where every claim you make for your product is hammered out with the regulatory authorities, and if they catch you stretching out past them you can get fined out the wazoo. So they won't even let you keep running the ads while you go fetch some evidence, eh? Well, it gets worse:

Not surprisingly, the process has left many manufacturers here in the UK angry. Some say EFSA is demanding the same kind of clinical evidence which prescription medicines would require.

"EFSA is rejecting most of the proposed food supplement claims," says Jenny Baillie of the York-based health foods company Power Health, "even established claims like cranberry for urinary tract health, which will mean that there will be no information on packs for the consumer to assess what the product is supposed to do."

She believes the regulation may even drive consumers into buying from less reputable sources.

To which I am tempted to reply: Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur. Except in the EU.

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July 1, 2010

"Doctor's Data": Telling the Truth and Getting Sued For It

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Posted by Derek

I wanted to call attention to some legal action that appears to be underway - no, not against me. This is Quackwatch being sued by an outfit called "Doctor's Data" (no link from me).

These people perform urine tests for toxic metals, and seem to cater to all sorts of alternative practitioners, many of whom I'd regard as misled at best and fraudulent at worst (see the list of medical board actions and lawsuits near the end of that link). The biggest issue seems to be that the test is administered under "provoked" conditions (after infusing some sort of chelating agent), but the reference values are for normal conditions. People are then told that they have high levels of toxic metals, need lots of therapy, and so on. . .

It looks to me like Quackwatch's Stephen Barrett has performed a real service by detailing this problem and bringing together a lot of widely scattered information about it. But Doctor's Data is suing him for defamation and seeking to have him remove all such material from his site (and not to post any such anywhere else in the future). I've donated to his legal defense fund and would ask that others consider doing the same.

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June 10, 2010

Nativis: In Which the Distant Footfalls of Lawyers Can Be Heard

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Posted by Derek

I've received a letter from John Kingma, the Chief Financial Officer of Nativis. I reproduce it below word-for-word (Here's the PDF of the original, in case anyone would like to check):

Dear Dr. Lowe,

The scientific nature of your blog seems to have taken a turn for the worse with the negative personal attacks on John and Lisa Butters and othe rmatters related to Nativis. The comments have gone far beyond reasoned scientific debate, skepticism and criticism. In fact, the overall tone seems to have degenerated into something resembling the Internet bulletin boards of old, with personal attacks, sexual comments and statements that may well amount to libel and defamation of character.

It appears to us that that the same person, using multiple names, is responsible for many of the negative personal comments (indications are that this is a person who bears a personal grudge against John Butters, and who now seems intent on ruining his reputation and that of Nativis). It seems clear to us that you have permitted unprofessional, bizarre, and even potentially activity prohibited by law to be conducted by this commenter and others on your blog site, activity that clearly overrides the scientific debate.

No one in the Nativis family has experienced anything so outrageous and unprofessional as the content of your blog site. I don't know if the current non-scientific banter is what you intended for your blog - essentially now a forum for personal attacks. Not only have you allowed theses attacks to be posted, you have also been selective in posting (screening out) information that would be more favorable to Nativis, such as the positive pre-clinical research data that John Butters provided you, showing how drug signal therapy reduced tumors in mouse models.

Moreover, apart from personal attack comments, your blog also contains comments from a person who announced his attempts to gain access to Nativis's facility. In fact, he visited Nativis's site, posing as a representative of your blog, The Pathfinder. When he was turned away by security, he reportedly took photographs or videos through office windows. His actions were reported and encouraged on your site. His actions may well have been illegal.

We have asked counsel to take a look at what is happening on your blog and the activities by commenters promoted there, and to recommend a course of action. But everyone at Nativis would rather get past this unfortunate situation and spend 100 percent of our time advancing our technology.

In that regard, may we suggest that in the best interest of all parties that you moderate your blog, focus on the scientific debate, delete all personal attacks and prevent personal attacks from occurring in the future? That would seem fair and reasonable, while also keeping the scientific debate going.

Thank you, in advance, for the consideration. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

John E. Kingma
Chief Financial Officer

Well. I suppose that the rest of this post should begin with "Dear Mr. Kingma:"

I am, as you see, in receipt of your letter of June 9. Allow me to comment on it, so that we may understand each other.

Your first objection is that the tone of some of the comments to my two posts on Nativis have "gone far beyond reasoned scientific debate". A less charitable observer might say that the claims that Nativis makes for its technology have long since occupied that territory. But I've actually tried to be charitable. Until your letter arrived, most of the criticism I'd received from readers and colleagues in the industry was that I'd been far too tolerant in my discussion of your company.

Your CEO, in addition to sending me papers on such disparate subjects as the Mossbauer effect (and offering generously to send along a large book on quantum electrodynamics), did indeed provide a graph of what is said to be the effect of your most advanced. . .well, let's call it a "therapeutic agent" in a mouse model. This does not help me as much as you seem to believe it does. Imagine some other company claiming that they can show effects in a mouse xenograft model though the intervention of invisible pink unicorns - and providing a dose-response curve as proof. Extraordinary claims, which yours surely are, require extraordinary evidence, and I don't see how you can possibly provide enough in a blog forum to convince your critics. Besides, this would be a waste of your time. You will surely be generating a tremendous amount of data in preparation for your company's IND application, and I certainly can't ask you to share all of it. Convince the FDA, and you'll have gone a long way to convincing everyone else.

Now, to your observations about my blog's comment section: I do not actively moderate it, except to occasionally remove duplicate posts. No real moderation has been needed: the tone of discussion around here is unusually civil, for the most part. It's especially so compared to the rest of the blog world and the Internet as a whole - not just "of old", but every day of the week. If no one in the "Nativis family" has ever experienced anything so outrageous as the contents of this blog, permit me to observe that you appear to have led sheltered lives.

Believe me, you will hear worse from other people as you go on developing your company's approach to drug therapy. I mean this in the best possible way, but the material that Nativis uses to explain and promote its technology does not inspire confidence in trained observers. I assume that you're well aware of this; if you're not, you should be. And that's fine - huge breakthroughs in the sciences often have that effect on people. But the problem is, nonsense has the same effect. If I may quote the late Carl Sagan on this very problem, "They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Einstein. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

Your company's claims are so startling, and so far beyond what most scientists would assume to be possible, that you truly have no alternative but to fall into one of those two categories. A red nose, a fuzzy wig, and floppy shoes are waiting for anyone who makes such claims. Your job is avoid being fitted for them. To that end, you do not have to convince me, or any random bunch of people on the internet. You have to convince the patent offices, the journal editors, and the regulatory authorities. My advice is to devote your time and effort to that task, and to stop worrying about what people say about you on blogs.

Worse things have been said on this site about other (far larger) companies; worse things are said all over the internet a thousand times a second. I certainly do not endorse the making of defamatory comments about people, but I fear that some of the very comments you might object to might not be seen that way by every observer. If I start taking down every comment that offends anyone who writes to me, there will be no end to it.

If you read my posts, you will see that I have not encouraged anyone to engage in illegal conduct. That goes for the entire 8-year archives of the blog, for that matter. I did not encourage anyone to visit your site in any way, and did not comment when someone reported that they did so. I live and work on the other side of the country from you, and my readers are responsible for their own actions. By the way, if the person you speak of did identify themselves as a representative of "The Pathfinder", as you state, then their connection to a blog called "In the Pipeline" is unclear.

As to whether some individual is engaging in a campaign of defamation against your company and your CEO, I can see no evidence of that in my blog's records. The uncomplimentary comments seem, from what I can tell, to have come in from a wide variety of separate sources - you truly have brought people together. On the other hand, some of the glowing endorsements and defenses of your company have come in under different names from the exact same IP addresses. Make of that what you will.

Mr. Kingma, you (and John Butters, and all the other officers and employees at Nativis) should be out there working to revolutionize the entire drug industry. If you can do what you say you can, that's exactly what will happen. Any scientist on the trail of something this wonderful, this huge - and potentially this profitable - would not allow anything to deter them from claiming their place in history. Go do that. I'll be overjoyed if you manage to pull it off. But having heard, after only two blog posts, from both the CEO and the CFO of your company makes me wonder about how you choose to use your time.

Sincerely,

Derek Lowe

Comments (138) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blog Housekeeping | Regulatory Affairs | Snake Oil

June 4, 2010

Nativis: Waiting and Seeing

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Posted by Derek

I've been hearing a lot about Nativis since my post the other day, much of it from their CEO, who's sent along quite a bit of information. Two themes that reoccur are that the company is planning to publish on their technologies within the next few months, and that they're planning to file for an IND on their taxane-derived work.

Rather than continue to speculate on what the heck is going on with them, then, I'm going to wait until one or both these events happen. Either of them will provide a lot more data to work with, and either one will require convincing other observers that there's something worthwhile going on. Based on what I've seen, I remain skeptical, but there are always things that I haven't seen. We'll take up the topic again.

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June 2, 2010

The Power of Photons, You Say?

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Posted by Derek

A longtime reader sends me word of a new company out in La Jolla, Nativis Pharmaceuticals, whose technology is most certainly eyebrow-raising. I think that the only way that I can do it justice is to quote directly from their web site; I wouldn't want to get anything wrong:

Nativis has developed and patented a breakthrough technology that captures the unique photon field (signal) of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), or drugs. . .Every drug molecule in a solution is surrounded by a photon field that contains information unique to the molecule. With Nativis’ technology, the photon field, or “drug signal” can be recorded and then replicated for medical treatment. Nativis has proven in preliminary trials that the drug signal – or photonic signature – mimics the original chemical molecule and can unlock the same biological processes as the original to treat diseases, such as brain tumors. With the technology, the drug signal can be reproduced rapidly and flawlessly, each time containing all relevant biochemical information encoded into the new therapeutic signal to drive a biologic reaction. . .

There now, tell me that your eyebrows didn't get some exercise when you read that. I'm baffled. According to this story from the North County Times, Nativis has investors and advisors who are neither scam artists nor saffron-robed gurus, and unfortunately, the only other appropriate category I can think of is "victim". Am I wrong?

I say that because there have been ripoffs beyond number that claim to use some sort of strangely energized or structured water, which is what seems to be going on here (see below). Honestly, you could easily fill a 500-page book with them, in fine print, and there are more every day. And if the Nativis folks don't want to be taken for another member of that crowd, then they should do more to differentiate themselves from the scam artists (and no, linking to videos of Feynman explaining the basics of quantum electrodynamics is not enough). Here's why I say that - this is the company's explanation of their process:

MIDS (Molecular Interrogation and Data Systems) captures the photon field surrounding the solvation shell of a molecule in solution.

Captured photons are then imprinted into Coherence Domains in dipole (water-based) solution for delivery to patients; following administration, the photon payload chemically activates a non-water molecule for therapeutic effect.

The questions come tumbling out: what, exactly, is a "photon field"? And how do you capture one? Isn't a solvation shell a rather dynamic thing, which depends on (among other things) concentration, ionic strength, and pH? How do you imprint captured photons into something? And "Coherence Domains?" That sounds like optical coherence tomography or the like, but only vaguely. How do you imprint into one? And this creates a "photon payload"? How does that, whatever it is, not dissipate?

And that "chemically activates a non-water molecule", does it? By that, I presume that they mean a drug target. But my understanding of how a drug works on its target is that the drug has to be physically present, because it's interacting, on an atom-by-atom basis, with said target. Drugs engage in a complex dance of attraction and repulsion with their binding sites (with attraction winning out!), and this process is affected by electron density (charge), hydrogen bonding, van der Waals forces, and more besides. The drug molecule physically occupies that binding site, which forces the rest of its target into a different shape. And in many cases, it physically displaces water molecules while doing so, and while it's there, it keeps other molecules from coming in.

I don't see how a "photon payload" can do these things. If it's some real assembly of water molecules, I don't see how it holds together at room temperature. Besides, the water solvation shell of a drug molecule isn't what comes in and binds to a target; it's the molecule itself. Shedding those waters is a key energetic part of the whole process. And if it's not a real, physical assembly of water molecules, then what the heck is it? And here's another objection: either way, it sound as if they're taking this "drug signal" while the original drug is out there in solution. But the shape that most drugs have in solution isn't the one that most drug have when they bind to their targets; adopting that new shape is another key process.

No, I have a weakness for wild ideas, but not this wild. Nativis has a lot to prove: can they take the "drug signal" from a fluoroquinolone antibiotic and kill bacteria with it? Can they use the signal from a receptor agonist and see calcium or cAMP changes in a cell assay? Will the "drug signal" displace a reference compound in a radioligand binding assay? Can you do Michaelis-Menten kinetics with one of an enzyme inhibitor? Will it affect a protein's NMR spectrum? Can you determine its on- and off-rates in an SPR assay? Can you see a thermodynamic signature in a calorimeter?

And most importantly, will it help anyone who's sick? Well. . .Nativis says that they've shown efficacy in a mouse model of glioblastoma with the "drug signal" of taxol. They say that they hope to file an IND later this year, and to publish more details in the literature within the next few months. I cannot wait. If they really have data sufficient for an IND, then I will enjoy, most thoroughly, being proved wrong. And if this stuff works, we can all take the opportunity to learn some physics while glory, prizes, and huge amounts of money rain down on the Nativis folks, to a backdrop of cheering cancer patients.

I am, as this post shows, intensely skeptical. But these are issues that can be answered, completely answered, by experiment. Bring on the data, guys. I'm sticking with the blog category shown until then.

Update: John Butters, CEO of Nativis, has sent along some more information about his company's technology. Much of it seems to be based on work by del Giudice and Preparata on the properties of water. Those names rang a faint bell for me - turns out that their work pops up in all sorts of discussions of odd water effects: cold fusion, homeopathy, theories on the origins of life and of consciousness, and so very much on. I must confess that much of the physics is beyond my competence.

However, this all reminds me very much of homeopathy, and of the Benveniste affair and its aftermath, with many phrases ("digital biology") in common. I have to conclude, for now, that this is what's going on. In which case, I wish everyone involved - particularly the investors - the best of luck, because I have grave doubts that anything useful will come out of it. I will be delighted and amazed if I am proven wrong.

Comments (83) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Cancer | Snake Oil

March 25, 2010

The Problem With Research on Aging

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Posted by Derek

Nature has a review of a new book on the anti-aging field, Eternity Soup by Greg Critser, and I found this part very instructive. The same things apply to several other therapeutic areas where people see fast money to be made:

Critser's methodical portrayal of a host of anti-ageing practitioners reveals some fascinating people who seek to convince others that they can purchase longer and healthier lives like any other commodity. He makes clear that many anti-ageing treatments are based more on faith healing than on science, and that the industry defends them and presents them to the public with evangelical zeal. Scientific gerontologists who point out the lack of empirical evidence behind the claims are shouted down, sued for libel or made fun of as lab technicians or statisticians with no experience in treating patients.

Critser became aware during his research of why the ridiculed scientific gerontologists find the anti-ageing industry so aggravating. The industry closely monitors the field for any advances, and when it spots something that might be turned into a commercial enterprise, the product is repackaged, branded and sold to the public as the next great breakthrough of its own invention. . .

It's interesting, though, that the cancer-cure quacks tend not to ride so much on the current research. A lot of that stuff seems just to be completely made up, without even a connection to something in the scientific literature. Perhaps that's because there are occasional spontaneous remissions from cancer, but none from old age. . .

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Aging and Lifespan | Cancer | Snake Oil

March 17, 2010

Dietary Supplements, Charted

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Posted by Derek

I'm a complete sucker for dense but well-presented information, and this one isn't bad at all: here's a chart of nutritional supplements by the strength of the evidence for them in human trials. I haven't cross-checked the data, but the authors appear to have done some homework in PubMed, at least, and haven't included any non-human or in vitro data. The interactive version at the link is particularly fun to mess around with. (Thanks to a reader and commenter here who put me on to this).

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January 14, 2010

Department of Placebo Effects

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Posted by Derek

Or nocebo, in this case, since people were sure that they were being harmed. Residents of a Johannesburg suburb detailed their reactions to a new cell phone tower in the area: rashes, headaches, nausea, disrupted sleep, and more. Electromagnetic poison, for sure. (Clearly they haven't heard that they might be at less risk for Alzheimer's).

What they didn't know was that the tower had been switched off for six weeks before the hearing. Descriptions of symptoms disappearing when the beleagured locals managed to sleep somewhere else for a night, only to reoccur when they came back to their homes, are thus a bit hard to reconcile. . .

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January 13, 2010

Two Doses of Crazy

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Posted by Derek

I'd like to take the time this morning to deal with two conspiracy theorists, and I'll take them in order of increasing foil-hat thickness. First up is Joe Collier, an emeritus professor who writes a blog for the British Medical Journal. He notes the recent study that suggested that cell phone emissions could have a beneficial effect in rodent models of Alzheimer's. I didn't give that any play on this blog - too many other things going on, and I don't find any rodent models of Alzheimer's particularly trustworthy to start with. But the study also showed (apparently beneficial) effects on normal rodents, and is certainly worth following up on.

But Collier takes this result and runs with it:

So what happens next? Faced with the prospect, albeit remote, of losing a lucrative market, I predict that the industry will want to quash the electromagnetic treatment theory as soon as possible. To this end, I would expect that the industry propaganda machine will go into overdrive in an attempt to undermine the credibility and findings of Arendash, and to overwhelm the decision makers (ultimately the funders) so that the use of drugs is maintained. The power of industry as an information generator and distributor is unmatched, and industry will use all its persuasive skills. . .

And so on, and so on. The problem (well, one problem) with this line of reasoning is that it could also be extended to other new drugs for Alzheimer's. If the industry wanted to keep selling the existing Alzheimer's drugs at all cost, why would we go to the trouble of trying to develop better ones? We are, you know - I have no idea how much money has vanished down that particular pipe, but it sure has been a lot, and I've helped flush some of it through myself. But we're not the monolithic "drug industry" over here. We're a bunch of companies climbing all over each other trying to make money, take each others' market share, and get to the clinic faster than the other guys down the road. That's what keeps things moving - everyone who's done industrial drug discovery has read a new press release or seen a new patent filing and heard the footsteps coming up from behind.

So I have a counterprediction for Collier. The South Florida study will, in fact, be followed up on. It's interesting enough. And if there's something to it, someone will find a way to optimize the effect and make money off it. And the drug industry will not mobilize to squash it, either - honestly, we have enough to do trying to get our own stuff to work. I haven't seen a single statement from a drug company about this study so far myself, and if Joe Collier has, I'd invite him to produce it.

Next! OK, now we move on to something that seems to be getting some more headlines in the past week or two, and that people have been e-mailing me about. One Wolfgang Wodarg, a German doctor and SPD politician, has been telling everyone that the handling of the H1N1 flu epidemic should be investigated because, he says, it's all a "fake pandemic" whipped up by the drug companies. (You can get all the Wodarg you need, and more, at his web site). Stories in the more excitable press make him sound like the head of all the health agencies of Europe, but people are confusing the Council of Europe (where Wodarg heads a subcommittee) with the EU, among other things they're mixing up.

The World Health Organization is now fielding questions about whether they oversold the epidemic, but it's a sure bet that (if it taken off more drastically) they'd be fielding even more about why they weren't prepared for it. At any rate, if you think that the Monolithic Drug Industry can simultaneously push around the WHO, the CDC, and the public health agencies of every other country in the world, I invite you to think again. If we could do all that, we'd at least be in good enough financial shape that we wouldn't be laying thousands of people off and doing ridiculous mergers out of desperation.

Wodarg, for his part, seems to have been sounding all kinds of alarms for a long time now. Back in the fall, he was telling everyone that the vaccine was going to give them cancer, for example. In case anyone's wondering, I treat his suggestions with the contempt that they appear to richly deserve.

Comments (34) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Alzheimer's Disease | Infectious Diseases | Snake Oil | Why Everyone Loves Us

July 6, 2009

Argumentum ad Crumenam

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Posted by Derek

There's been a raging battle going on in the comments to this post wherein I disparaged homeopathic medicine. I've been staying out of it, but I had to excerpt this comment, make by a persistent advocate for the miracle water:

In the meantime, homeopathy is practiced openly by learned men in Europe. Why is that? Are they THAT ‘superstitious’? That ‘stupid’? Or that ‘corrupt’. Seriously. Is Great Britain RULED by a bunch of superstitious idiots? The Royal family retains homeopaths as part of their medical staff.

I'll be glad to field that one. Why yes, since you ask, if the royal family pays homeopaths, then "superstitious idiots" seems to be a perfectly appropriate phrase. And anyone who believes that any member of a hereditary monarchy (or of any other rich family) has to be more intelligent because of their position. . .well, there are phrases to describe a person like that, too. Hey, we can even be thrifty and reuse "superstitious idiot". This is an old enough logical fallacy to have a Latin name; see above.

If you'd like to see someone else berate the House of Windsor for just these same failings, you can see Richard Dawkins do a first-class job of it here.

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June 26, 2009

Snort Yourself Some Zinc. Or Maybe Not.

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Posted by Derek

I missed commenting on this earlier, but many readers may have noticed the recent scandal caused by Zicam. This is a cold remedy which was sold as a homeopathic medicine, but its makers committed the unforgivable sin of actually having something in its formula besides well-shaken distilled water.

A lot of people are convinced that zinc is good for colds - I'm agnostic, having not seen much convincing evidence - so if that's the case, why not snort zinc up your nose? That, at any rate, seems to be the condensed version of the Zicam pitch, although I don't believe that they used that exact wording in their ads. (A gift for advertising copy might not be one of my more robust talents. . .) At any rate, snorting zinc salts has actually been known, for some time now, to injure the sense of smell in some people. So it's proved with Zicam, with several hundred victims.

The moral? If you're going to sell homeopathic medicine - and boy, is it a lucrative business - make sure that you don't put anything in there except sterile water. That'll cut down on your expenses, too, since most ingredients cost more than water, anyway. Stick with that strategy, and you can be absolutely sure that nothing bad will happen to your customers. Nothing good will happen to them either, but they won't know that. When their cold/headache/whatever goes away of its own accord, they'll ascribe it to your miracle product. Sit back and profit! Be sure to thank Senator Hatch while you count your money, though - it's only proper.

Comments (134) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Regulatory Affairs | Snake Oil

May 27, 2009

Homeopathic Merchants Take Your Questions! Well, Sort Of.

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Posted by Derek

I came across this tonight, and had to put up a link. The Guardian newspaper has started a "You Ask, They Answer" feature in its environmental section, and this week a British chain of homeopathic remedies (Neal's Yard) stepped up to the podium. Unfortunately, they weren't prepared for an onslaught of Ben Goldacre fans, who picked up on the opportunity quickly.

About twenty-four hours later, the newspaper had to close down the comments section. The Neal's Yard people had backed out, utterly, refusing to grapple with questions like: "Have you ever been offered a natural remedy that was so obviously without any merit that you refused to bottle it and sell it to your gullible customers, or does pretty much anything go?". But the whole thread is up for your reading pleasure here, even if the ball never does get hit back across the net.

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May 20, 2009

But You Can't Make Them Take It?

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Posted by Derek

Well, we can all study biochemical mechanisms in tumor cells every day of the week. And we can crank out tens of thousands of potential clinical candidates to hit them, run the assays, and then turn around and do it again. We can send things through all sorts of tox testing, take them to the clinic, try them against all sorts of terrible cancers, and amass enough data to make it through the FDA. Then we can let the oncologists continue to try variations, combinations, and regimens in the continuing search for something that works.

And every so often, we actually succeed. Childhood Hodgkin's lymphoma has one of the highest cure rates of all cancers. We can actually do something about that one (as opposed to, say, pancreatic cancer, which we can't do much about at all). Children who would otherwise die - and die slowly - now get a chance to live, to grow up.

But we can't, apparently, convince everyone of this. Many readers will have heard over the last few days of the case of Daniel Hauser of Minnesota, a 13-year-old diagnosed with Hodgkin's a few months ago. Instead of going in for rounds of chemotherapy, the boy (who has said that he doesn't believe that he's sick) and his family have opted for "Native American alternative therapy", and have fled from a court order. The boy's mother, who apparently does believe that he's sick, has said that she's treating him with "herbal supplements, vitamins, and ionized water".

These will, almost certainly, allow the lymphoma to kill him. Chemotherapy and radiation, on the other hand, will very likely allow him to live. If someone is bleeding to death from an arterial wound, anyone trying to heal them by invoking spiritual powers or alternative therapies would (and should) be shoved aside by any onlooker with a tourniquet. Daniel Hauser is bleeding to death as well: just more slowly, and in front of many more onlookers.

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Cancer | Current Events | Snake Oil

January 14, 2009

Qi Gong and Placebo Effects

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Posted by Derek

I’ve been hearing from all sides since I took my swipe at Deepak Chopra et al. the other day. The biggest subgroup with a grievance have been the people who weren’t happy with my comments about Qi Gong.

Part of the problem is that “Qi Gong” means different things to different people, ranging from “Chinese-derived low-impact exercise program” to “manipulation of universal healing energies”. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but I obviously have no problem with the first of those. Exercise is clearly beneficial in a number of different ways. I go to a gym myself, and emerge with sore muscles and a glow of self-righteousness.

But it’s hard to get away from that second definition. Different practitioners put different amounts of woo into it (as Orac puts it), but if you just go grab pages off the web or brochures from a local class, odds are very good that you’re going to start hearing about energy fields and such. And that’s where I get off. I have yet to see any convincing evidence for any such “energy lines” or “concentrations of the life force” (whatever that is) that show up in a lot of (semi-)mystical exercise programs.

If the people boosting Qi Gong and the like stick to claiming that exercise is good, and that these are good ways to get people to exercise, then fine. If they want to claim that Qi Gong is more effective than other sorts of exercise programs, then that’s fine, too, because we can subject that to empirical tests: blood pressure, muscle strength, joint flexibility, per cent body fat, resting heart rate, fasting glucose and triglyceride levels. So far, I haven’t seen anything that convinces me that it is – many of the studies that claim this seem to me to be very small and poorly controlled. The ones that address these issues tend to be a wash, or to show the reverse. But post some literature references and we’ll talk.

But claiming greater effectiveness gets tricky, because many of the people who do that aren’t just saying that Qi Gong (or what have you) is more effective for physical reasons. It’s a quick slide into the syrup from here, and in no time we’re aligning our energies and tapping into ancient wisdom. (I’m not that good a customer for ancient wisdom, myself. I don’t think that people were any wiser or more virtuous in the past, however misty and distant, and given the mixed-up course of history, I think that anything really ancient that’s survived has probably done so by accident as much as anything else. But that’s another subject).

And any of these comparisons will have to deal with the placebo effect, which is what I was getting at with my proposal for the Don Ki Kong protocol. There are, no doubt, patients that will show more benefit from an exercise program that they believe comes from the Ancient Orient than they would from a very similar set of moves that just got marketed in Santa Barbara. Some other patients may well show the reverse, depending on their attitudes. If you’re going to claim specific benefits for Qi Gong (or any other such system), you’re going to have to show that it isn’t due to such effects. Is it something that still works whether you believe in it or not? If belief is important, do the details of what you believe matter or not, or is it just a general placebo effect that depends on thinking that something beneficial is underway?

We have enough confusion with placebo effects already with our supposedly mechanistically targeted drugs. It varies, though – for depression, it’s a relatively huge effect in clinical trials. For post-surgical bleeding, not so much. For an exercise and lifestyle program, especially if we’re going to be measuring things like mood and outlook, I’d think that placebo effects would be quite meaningful. Blood pressure will show up there, too, and a number of other things that are tied in to cortisol and other stress responses.

And if you can improve those, fine. Just don’t try to convince me, unless you have good evidence, that it needs to be these particular Chinese gestures, because I’ll ask you what would happen if you did all of them in reverse instead (would your blood pressure go up?) And especially don’t try to convince me that the effects are due to fuzzily defined life energies that Iron Age shamans are tuned in to, but which we somehow can’t detect.

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January 12, 2009

An Alternative Prescription From Chopra, Roy, and Weil

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Posted by Derek

Update: a follow-up post is here, for those who want more on Qi Gong, placebo effects and the like.

Well, we don’t even know who the new FDA commissioner is going to be under the Obama administration, but people are already making their bid for a change in direction. In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, you can find Deepak Chopra, Rustum Roy, and Andrew Weil with an op-ed titled “Alternative Medicine is Mainstream”. I think you can go ahead and silently append “. . .And Deserves Serious Mainstream Funding”.

My hopes for this piece were not high – Deepak Chopra, for one, I consider to be an absolute firehose of nonsense. Both he and Andrew Weil should be whacked with sticks every time they say the word "quantum". But they manage to avoid that one here - the op-ed turns out to be a marbled blend of things that I can agree with and things that make me raise both eyebrows. Its general thrust is:

1. Chronic diseases related to lifestyle (diet, physical habits, etc.) account for a large percentage of health care costs. These could be ameliorated or downright prevented through changes that don’t involve medical procedures.

2. “Integrative medicine” (by which the authors mean, among other things, plant-based diets, yoga, meditation, acupuncture and herbal therapies, have been shown (they claim) to help with such lifestyle changes, and with less expense. The definition of integrative medicine is not provided, nor is the boundary line between it and "regular" (disintegrative?) medicine drawn.

3. Therefore, the incoming administration should make these a big part of the health care system as soon as possible. Did we mention the funding?

Now, I can’t argue with that first point. Cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes could both be much smaller problems if people in the industrialized nations would just eat less food (and better food) and exercise more. The editorial makes it sound as if no one believes this or has ever heard of such a thing, but come on. No one’s heard anything else for decades. However, it seems equally clear that jawboning people about this issue does not do nearly as much good as one might hope.

Whether “integrative medicine” is any more effective is something that I would very much like to see someone prove. The authors seem to be familiar with a bunch of well-controlled studies that I haven’t heard about, and I invite them to trot out some data. But some of the statements in the op-ed make me think that my cardiovascular health won’t be able to stand it if I hold my breath while waiting for that. For example, we have:

”Chronic pain is one of the major sources of worker’s compensation claims costs, yet studies show that it is often susceptible to acupuncture and Qi Gong. Herbs usually have far fewer side effects than pharmaceuticals”.

Studies show, do they? Is there really a believable study that shows that Qi-freaking-Gong, of all things, is good for chronic pain? Ancient hokum about “energy fields” and “life force” does the trick, does it? My idea of a good trial of Qi Gong would involve one group of patients getting the full hand-waving treatment according to the best practitioners of the art. The other cohort gets random hand motions from a system I will gladly invent on request, and which I will have to be forcibly restrained from naming Don Ki Kong. It’ll be full of talk about holistic energies and connections to the universal flow, don’t you doubt it, and I’ll round up some impressive-looking worthies to administer the laying on of hands. Their passes and taps will be carefully screened by the Qi Gongers beforehand to make sure that none of them, according to their system, have any chance of actually having any effects on the Qi (assuming that any of them can agree). We call that a controlled trial to investigate placebo effects.

And I hardly know where to start with those beneficial herbs. The literature I’ve been reading has been showing that many of the herbal treatments show no effects when they’re looked at closely – St. John’s Wort, Echinacea, and so on. The larger and more well-run the trial, the smaller the effects go, in too many cases. But I have no problem with the idea that plants and plant extracts can have medicinal effects, of course: they’re full of chemicals. My whole career is predicated on the idea that taking chemicals of various sorts can alter one’s health. Where I jump off the parade float is at the nature’s-bounty-of-beneficial-herbs stuff, the idea that things are somehow more benign because they come from natural sources. Vitalism, they used to call that. It’s hooey. Strychnine. Ricin. Come on.

The editorial is full of fountains of happy talk like this one:

Joy, pleasure and freedom are sustainable, deprivation and austerity are not. When you eat a healthier diet, quit smoking, exercise, meditate and have more love in your life, then your brain receives more blood and oxygen, so you think more clearly, have more energy, need less sleep. Your brain may grow so many new neurons that it could get measurably bigger in only a few months. Your face gets more blood flow, so your skin glows more and wrinkles less. Your heart gets more blood flow, so you have more stamina and can even begin to reverse heart disease. Your sexual organs receive more blood flow, so you may become more potent -- similar to the way that circulation-increasing drugs like Viagra work.

Calling Dr. Love! All I have to do is change one letter in my last name, and I'm in business, expanding brains and other useful body parts. Unfortunately, that first sentence typifies a lot of thinking in this area. It's one of those "isn't it pretty to think so" statements. As far as I can see, deprivation and austerity have been the norm for most people throughout most of human history, even though they were eating natural foods and getting lots of exercise and fresh air. And one of the big reasons that people put on weight is that they have the freedom to experience the joy of tasty food a bit too often. No, this is noble-sounding stuff, but there's nothing behind it.

Update: Orac's take, with more on those "studies".

Comments (70) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Press Coverage | Snake Oil

September 15, 2008

Extracting Money From Matthias Rath, For A Change

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Posted by Derek

I need some cheering up this morning – one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, has died most unexpectedly. Perhaps, in looking back over his best work, it wasn’t as unexpected as all that, but you still never see these things coming.

So I’m glad to report, by contrast, that Dr. Matthias Rath has some problems of his own. Rath, some of you may recall, is one of those people who usually has “controversial” somewhere in front of his name in news articles. I’ve never thought of him that way myself: he’s always seemed just a particularly brazen and heartless con artist. He’s made large sums of money by telling HIV-infected patients that antiretroviral drugs are killing them, and that they should instead cure themselves with vitamin supplements purchased from, yes, Dr. Rath. His rants about the pharmaceutical industry are contemptible – Rath claims, naturally, that we’re a gang of evil poisoners, which is at least a field that he knows something about. He’s one of those people that you’re ashamed to share DNA homology with.

To be scrupulously fair, Rath appears to have distributed his supplements for free to the poorest patients in places like South Africa, which has surely brought down his average profit-per-suffering-death. But he’s been happy to tell wealthier customers in the US and Europe that he can not only cure HIV infection, but various cancers and other fatal ailments, with no convincing data of any kind to back up such claims.

Ben Goldacre, the estimable Bad Science columnist for the Guardian newspaper, ran a column in early 2007 on Rath and his work in South Africa, and followed that up with two more containing disparaging references. Not caring for this sort of publicity, the Dr. Rath Foundation sued for libel. (Goldacre is no stranger to threats of legal action, it seems). I am happy to report that the suit has now been dropped, and that Rath has been ordered to pay legal costs, which are gratifyingly extensive.

It now seems that the Dr. Rath Foundation is moving on to the profitable Russian market – with plenty of bad health and plenty of money sloshing around, it would seem a natural feeding ground for a creature of his type. I hope that the Guardian is able to collect its money in short order, and that Ben Goldacre gets a cut.

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December 11, 2006

Torcetrapib: The Foil-Lined Hat Perspective

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Posted by Derek

Since I've been getting some more less-than-friendly email from Kevin Trudeau fans recently, I thought I'd take a minute to point out something that may not have been generally appreciated. What does the complete failure of a drug like Pfizer's torcetrapib say about the evil-pharma conspiracy theories that Trudeau and his type like to spin?

I mean, think it through: Pfizer spends hundreds of millions of dollars, only to find that their drug has unexpected toxicity. Not the horrible, chemical-weapon toxicity that the conspiracy mongers talk about, mind you: 11 deaths per thousand versus 6 deaths per thousand. But development stops immediately, as it should, the very day that Pfizer's executives get the news. Two days after trumpeting the compound as the biggest thing in their pipeline, they pull it and walk away from the billions of dollars that could have been.

How, exactly, does this fit the Evil Conspiracy worldview? Isn't this, according to Trudeau, exactly the same as all the other drugs already on the market? Why would a company walk away from all that cash just because of a measly little figure like 5 excess patient deaths per thousand? If you believe Kevin Trudeau, everyone who takes anything is being poisoned already.

I know I'm going to regret making this offer, but here goes: I'd be interested in hearing a Trudeau-ite explain this one to me. If you buy into his story, why any drug ever fails in the clinic must be a real head-scratcher, since you'd think that the Evil Pharma Overlords would be able to hocus the data enough to make any sort of toxic junk look good. And this one must seem especially weird.

So tell me, you folks who are convinced that I and all my colleagues in the drug industry are poisoning the world: why did torcetrapib fail? Ground rules: you have to know what torcetrapib is, and you have to have some basic understanding of what it was (in theory) supposed to do. ("Improve cholesterol to try to prevent heart attacks" is enough of an answer for that one - there's a free one for you). And you have to be able to spell Pfizer, and to have read at least one news story about the drug's demise. Have at it in the comments section.

Comments (55) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Cardiovascular Disease | Clinical Trials | Snake Oil

August 15, 2006

Kevin Trudeau Was Born in 1963

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Posted by Derek

I've taken a few good swings at Kevin Trudeau around here, naturally enough, since he's going around telling everyone that my industry is poisoning them. I get some Google traffic from people searching for information about him, which makes me happy, since what they read here might possibly prevent them from giving this sleazy scam artist their money.

But I've noticed some odd search phrases turning up, things like "How old is Kevin Trudeau" and "Kevin Trudeau real age". Some looking around confirmed my fears. Yes, it seems that Trudeau is going around telling people that he only looks like he's in his forties - when, according to him, he's actually seventy years old. This statement seems to be confined to his personal appearances, because it's hard to track down in print. But it's out there. And it's a lie, as numerous legal records (such as his convictions for credit card fraud) will verify. This shows a combination of greed and contempt for his own audience that you don't come across very often. I'd want to get my clothes dry-cleaned if I brushed up against him by mistake, but you have to admit, he's quite a specimen.

So, for anyone who comes across this page by a Google search, here's the short answer: Kevin Trudeau is not seventy years old. This is an outrageous lie, being told to your face by an equally outrageous excuse for a human being. Trudeau is telling you this whopper for one reason: because he wants your money. Don't give it to him. Too many people have already.

Meanwhile, the marketing practices I spoke about last year continue - he's still slamming phone customers for his book with unwanted subscriptions to his $71 newsletter, for example. Here's one of the many folks who've found that getting Kevin Trudeau's hands off your credit card is next to impossible - and here's another. That applies to the poor suckers who pay $100 each to see him live, too - refunds are mighty slow in coming. And it appears that at least one of his front companies, Media Planet, has officially "gone out of business" in an effort to strand as many people as possible.

Naturally, he has another book out. And naturally, it's accompanied by a mudslide of lies and arrogant nonsense, such as the repeated claims that the FTC "censored" his first book, and that this one has all the good stuff in it that was cut out. (His real interactions with the FTC are considerably more complicated). This is merely a ploy to extract more money from his audience, even the ones who felt ripped off when they paid for his first book only to find it virtually content-free. This one is, naturally, full of the same vacuous gibberish as the first one. Naturally, it's $29.95.

Reputable publishers, though, are looking at the stacks of money that Trudeau is hauling away and wondering how to get some of that health-conspiracy mongering action. And what is this benefactor of humanity doing with some of the cash? Why, bankrolling a professional pool tournament. Where? Las Vegas. Naturally.

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March 30, 2006

Give The People What They Want

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Posted by Derek

I get emails every so often from people who are looking for more information about treatments for cancer or other diseases. More often than not, they've come across some Keven Trudeau-like "now the truth can be told" stuff and want to know what I think about it. I should note that almost all of these are non-hostile messages - they're just questions from people who haven't had a chance to learn much chemistry or biology, and want to hear some opinions from someone who has. I answer all of them as best I can.

A common theme in the miracle-cure claims is that such-and-such herb/supplement/device/mystic vibrational ripsnorter "boosts the immune system". If I had a dime for every time that claim is made, I'd be writing this from the conservatory of my mansion, right next to the orchid-hybridizing greenhouse and the frog pond. Who doesn't wish that their immune system worked better, tuned up to where it zapped every virus and cancer cell?

But, as Abel Pharmboy of Terra Sigillata pointed out, you should think twice about asking for that boost:

"Even if such a remedy existed, the immune system is far too complex to regulate with a single, myopic approach due to its multiple checks and balances, feedback loops, and other regulatory process that normally keep us from attacking our own tissue while recognizing and mounting responses against invading organisms. Even the most clever cancer immunologists have only made incremental headway in harnessing immune responses to treat cancer."

He goes on to mention that the notorious TGN1412 antibody was nothing if not an immune booster extraordinaire, and look what happened to the people that were exposed to it. My guess is that most people aren't aware that the immune system can attack a person's own tissues - they figure that there's an infallible friend-or-foe decoder built in or something. No such luck, though, when you consider the number of autoimmune diseases (and the number that might eventually be added to that list).

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March 1, 2006

Deception Begins at Home

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Posted by Derek

I recently had an opportunity to look into some self-described autism treatments on behalf of a friend. There are huge numbers of desperate and hopeful parents out there, and there are some desperate and hopeful people selling things to them, too. The stuff I looked at was not, as far as I could tell, a cold-hearted scam, and considering the things you find in such disease areas, that's saying something. I think that the person involved believes, and wants to believe, that he's doing good in the world, and I'm sure his customers want to believe the same things.

At the same time, unfortunately, I don' t think much good is being done, but I can't get as enraged about it as I can some other situations. Take vitamin fraudster Matthia Rath, for example. He has recently withdrawn his lawsuits against a number of people and organizations in South Africa, in a sudden and unexpected move. Among them are the Health-e News Service, the group that broke the story of how some of Rath's alleged anti-HIV success stories involved patients who were taking antiretroviral drugs the whole time. Also off the hook is Dr. Eric Goemare of Medicines sans Frontieres, sued for defamation after characterizing Rath as a liar and a killer (which descriptions I find perfectly fitting, myself).

Says Goemare: "We are pleased that this phenomenal waste of time has ended." Dr. Rath is, of course, an expert at wasting things: people's time, their money, their hopes, their lives. I'd extend that list to include the oxygen he consumes by continuing to walk among us, but perhaps that's just me.

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November 21, 2005

Run, Do Not Walk, To The Nearest Exit

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Posted by Derek

This Volokh post (via Instapundit) about a former gang member who's been "nominated for a Nobel Prize" prompted me to leave a comment there, which I'll expand over here. It would seem that many people don't realize where Nobel Prizes come from.

The Peace and Literature prizes have a comparatively open nomination process, which makes for what I'm sure is a pretty poor signal/noise for whoever handles their mail. (Of course, the signal/noise of the list of eventual winners for those two isn't so great, either). But the science prizes are run in a tighter fashion. Here's the nominating committee for the Physiology/Medicine prize, for example, and it's very similar for the Physics and Chemistry Prizes.

The various Scandinavian professors involved are notoriously quiet about their choices, as are most prior laureates. The committees never say who these "other scientists from whom the Academy may see fit to invite proposals" might be, and I'm sure that identifying oneself would be a sure way to be dropped from the list. That's not to say that there are no controversies, just that we don't get to hear about them in detail for fifty years or so. That link will let you search older Medcine prizes. It's interesting that the corresponding database searches for Physics and Chemistry aren't even available.

What this means in practice is that no scientist, in theory, is able to be identified as a "Nobel Prize nominee." That doesn't keep it from happening, though. In fact, that link will take you to the story of someone who is claimed to have been nominated five times. A Google search for "five-time Nobel Prize nominee" turns the same person up all over the place. It's almost as if he hasn't done anything to discourage the practice.

One of most notorious recent examples was a neurologist, William Hammesfahr, who was all over the media during the Terri Schiavo case. He was invariably referred to by his supporters as a Nobel prize nominee, but this was another whopper. At least he only claimed to be nominated one time, but anyone who claims to be nominated at all should be under suspicion.

Searching for "N-time Nobel Prize nominee" for various values of N will net you all kinds of stuff. Excluding the Literature and Peace candidates, you find Nigerian crank physicists (more here, medical quacks, and Dr. Johanna Budwig herself, the current record holder in this doofus category. She's usually described by her acolytes as a "seven-time Nobel Prize nominee", which wouldn't be good news even if it were true, wouldn't you think? I note with amusement that in she was being called merely a six-time nominee back in 2002. Things have clearly advanced since those days, which is remarkable since I don't believe that Dr. Budwig is actually still with us.

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October 16, 2005

Matthias Rath, Pioneer

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Posted by Derek

It's been a little while since we checked in on Dr. Matthias Rath, vitamin entrepreneur and scourge of my chosen field of work. But there have been some wonderful developments that I'd like to share with everyone. A note from a reader brought him to mind:

"Your education may not be serving you in a changing world. From some of what I have read you remind me of the physics professor who is still teaching the Bohr atom, sure that the quantum madness will go away. I highly recommend, before uttering another "sure" word on medical cures, you find and interview 10 patients whose HIV has been arrested by alternative treatment and 10 cancer patients who were diagnosed terminally ill and whose condition was reversed under Dr Rath's methodologies. I have followed them, in awe, watching as they were liberated from the naivete of the modern medicine you hold high. . ."

As I pointed out in a reply, it would do Doctor Rath a world of good for him to humiliate the medical establishment in a clinical trial showdown. You'd think that that we should be able to get the World Health Organization or some other worthy organization to referee, and if Rath's treatments are that good, he'd have nothing to fear. Think of it - the drug companies would have to eat dirt and Dr. Rath would be an instant hero for his amazing medical advances. No more nasty comments from snide onlookers like me, no more threats of arrest. . .why doesn't he come and settle our hash already?

I think we already know the answer to that question, don't we? But in case you've any doubt, take a look at the latest news from South Africa, where Dr. Rath has been parading patients who he claims have been fighting off HIV infection by taking his vitamins. As it turns out, they seem to have been supplementing the supplements:

Two HIV-positive women presented to the media in June by the Dr Rath Health Foundation as examples of how its vitamins can reverse Aids have admitted that they were on antiretroviral (ARVs) drugs all along. A third woman, a high profile Rath Foundation agent who has been promoting the vitamins in Gugulethu, died a few months after rejecting ARVs. . ."

Well, that's one way to do it. Dr. Rath, once again, is on the cutting edge of clinical practice. Think of the power of this technique! You could probably show that chocolate ice cream is an effective cholesterol-lowering agent, as long as you dosed people with a statin on the sly. Imagine how much proprietary-recipe chocolate ice cream you could move that way. . .and at twenty dollars a bowl, most likely. Oh, I'm in the wrong business, I tell you. If I could just cut every bit of human conscience out of my psyche, to the point that I could deceive terminally ill people into forsaking their only chance of survival and spending the last of their money on my worthless crap instead - I could be down there with Dr. Rath, wallowing around in the hundred-dollar bills like a pig in a trough. Doesn't he look happy, though. . .

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August 29, 2005

pHooey

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Posted by Derek

One of the things that came up in regard to that last post was the idea about blood being acidic or alkaline. I don't think that most people outside the medical sciences realize how much effort the human body expends on these matters. Those of us who keep up with these topics could do some good by letting people know how robust this stuff is.

To listen to most quack nutritionists, your body is in perpetual danger of flying apart. This thing is out of balance, that thing over there is running low, all these other things are set totally wrong. You need. . .herbal supplements! Of the kind that I happen to sell! Fix you right up! Of course, if you stop taking them, your physiology might well just start wobbling around again, so you'd better play it safe. . .and it so happens that we offer discounts on a yearly supply. . .

Now, it's not like things can never get out of whack, but a lot of metabolic energy goes into keeping that from happening. Biologists, MDs, and medicinal chemists are always getting surprised at just what sorts of abuse a living system is capable of absorbing without breaking down. Homeostasis is what I'm talking about. That concept applies to a huge number of living processes, but we'll stick with one dear to Kevin Trudeau's alleged heart: acidity and alkalinity.

The pH of the blood is held steady around pH 7.4 by several systems, not all of them well characterized, but all acting at the same time. The amount of carbon dioxide that the lungs exhale (or retain), the actions of the kidneys, and the circulating blood proteins are all involved. (Buy why it's pH 7.4 and not some other value is one of those very good questions that no one has a very good answer for.)

One of the main places that your body can go acidic is in muscle tissue during exercise. That's due largely to the buildup of lactic acid from anaerobic metabolism, and can send the interstitial fluid between muscle cells down to pH 7, much lower than blood gets under the same conditions. (There seems to be something about the capillary wall that excludes the excess acid, which is yet another control mechanism.)

Going alkaline is usually a sign that something's off with your breathing or with your kidneys. (You'd better hope that it's the former, because you can stop hyperventilating a lot easier than you can stop kidney trouble.) In either case, it takes a lot to overload the various pH controls, and if you do manage to - in either direction - you can be headed for serious trouble and even death.

This should illustrate why the "alkalinity causes cancer" theories from the likes of Kevin Trudeau are nonsense. The blood of people who get cancer is at pH 7.4, like everyone else, and that number (if it fluctuates at all) moves around according to whether or not that person just took the stairs, rather than whether they're drinking "coral calcium water" or whatever damn thing. pH changes in your stomach aren't reflected in the blood - if they were, we'd be dead as soon as we smelled lunch.

But all you have to do is Google any combination of "blood" "acid" and/or "alkaline", and you'll step off into a swamp of people who are trying to convince you otherwise. It's a simple, appealing theory, which if it were true it would explain a lot and immediately suggest ideas for treatment. But it's wrong, and it's been known to be wrong for a very long time. The only utility it has is as a prybar to separate people from their money.

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August 28, 2005

Kevin Trudeau's Snake Oil Empire

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Posted by Derek

The time has come to take up the case of Kevin Trudeau. His pernicious book has hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list, a fact that the paper itself seems to find surprising. This 570-page doorstop is an ax job on my industry and my field of research, and accuses my peers and me of complicity in terrible amounts of human suffering. ("The drug industry does not want people to get healthy" is one of his favorite lines.)

How, you wonder, do people like me accomplish such awful things? Why, by denying consumers wonderful all-natural cures for just about everything that could possibly be wrong with them. And how do you find out about these wonders? By forking out for Trudeau's book, naturally. And when you find out that there's hardly a paragraph of specific information in the whole thing, then you can go pay him more money to get access to the untold amounts of crap on his web site. $499, according to the Times, will buy you a lifetime membership. This from a man who says "I changed my priority from making money to positively impacting people."

The medical rationales Trudeau offers are hardly worth even discussing, and make me feel like positively impacting the man with a spiked club. Readers who know some biochemistry might be forgiven if they haven't heard that "If your body is alkaline, you cannot get cancer. . .and if you have cancer, it goes away." I would be interested to hear what on earth he means by a person's body being alkaline - last I heard, my blood was at pH 7.4. But there's really no sense in arguing with the sort of person who can get things like this out with a straight face.

This is someone who spins tales of herbal clinics that cure cancer, every time. Of wonderful all-natural cures that will reverse type I diabetes. Of simple cures for multiple sclerosis, for heart disease. These are not harmless ideas - these are lies that can kill people, and given the number of books Trudeau has sold, they probably have. Perhaps his next book will detail the story of his consciencectomy. No doubt Kevin Trudeau moves around from mansion to mansion, but how he can sleep at night in any of them escapes me.

Update: Longtime reader Don Hertzog sends along this recent demolition of Trudeau in Salon (free registration required.) If you have some time on your hands, the Amazon review pages for the book are worth a look, too - there are over 800 reviews there, and most of them are from some pretty ticked-off customers.

Update 2: Ha!

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June 9, 2005

Dr. Rath Does What He Can

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Posted by Derek

There's a doctor named Matthias Rath who for some years has been taking out big ads in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Rath is a big proponent of megavitamin therapy for just about everything, and by some cosmic coincidence he also has a line of vitamins for sale. No doubt he has a web site and a half, but damned if I'll link to it.

His ads are thunderous, paranoid denunciations of the pharmaceutical industry, the likes of which I haven't seen since the Church of Scientology took off after Eli Lilly and Prozac in the early 1990s. If you want some Instant Rath, take those and add some Lyndon Larouche-level conspiracy theories (for a while there, Rath was all but blaming drug companies for 9/11), and mix well. Season to taste, but if you've really got a taste for this stuff stuff, there's no hope for you.

His latest manifestos have been targeted to South Africa, and they're just what that country doesn't need. Rath rants about antiretroviral drugs being sinister poisons, while apparently everyone could be cured of HIV if they'd just guzzle his multivitamins without pause. The South African activist groups demanding free retroviral drugs are, according to him, tools of the "international drug cartel" that exists in the fevered reaches of his head.

It's hard to know how to answer such otherworldly accusations. Try, for example, the idea of drug companies funding groups who are screaming for their patents to be abrogated and their profits confiscated. I'm having a hard time making the connection. All in all, I'd rather be stuck in an elevator for three days with a dozen Intelligent Design advocates than spend five minutes with Matthias Rath.

South Africa's attitudes and policies toward HIV are enough of a mess already, as those who remember former president Mbeki's handling of the epidemic know. According to an article in Nature Medicine, the South African Traditional Healer's Association has sided with Rath, and a recent press conference from health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang featured one of her many endorsements of garlic, lemon peel, and beets instead of antiretrovirals. Meanwhile Rath is lobbying South Africa's parliament directly, amid accusations that he's planning to set up a factory to sell his own vitamin pills.

And meanwhile, at least 20% of South Africa's adult population is infected with HIV. What could be a great nation is threatened with an ugly slide back into the third world, while wastes of good carbon like Matthias Rath spend their time fighting the only known treatments. It makes you wish you could just avert your eyes.

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October 3, 2002

Am I Blue?

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Posted by Derek

Most of you have probably seen this link by now, but for those who haven't, here's Montana's blue Senate candidate. The picture would seem to do a reasonable job of rendering his color, but I suspect that he's more gray than blue. Still, no doubt the effect is quite striking in person.

Colloidal silver (very fine particles of the metal suspended in water) is to blame. Actually, let me rephrase that: this guy is to blame, because he drank hefty amounts of the stuff for an extended period. The silver just did what silver does; you can't blame an element for acting the way it has to act.

And why, one asks, did this man do all these silver shots? Well, if you go to Google and run the phrase "colloidal silver" through it, you'll be assaulted with come-ons for so much of the stuff that you could start your own currency. It's been around for a long time (turn of the century, at least) and was a common ingredient in nose drops up until the 1950s or so. Here's a rundown on it from Quackwatch.

While it does have antibiotic properties, it's not effective enough (and its side effects are too great) to be of much use. The only modern application of it that I know of is in some kinds of burn salves, where it's at least applied topically.

Unfortunately, it's not a metal that the body handles very well. Silver doesn't have any known endogenous use, and there aren't any clearance mechanisms for it. So it just tends to pile up, which is the general problem with ingested metals. And, for reasons that aren't well understood, many people end up depositing fine particles of the metal in their skin, eyes, fingernails, and so on. It wouldn't surprise me if the metal were present in a number of internal organs, too (I'd start with the liver.) The condition's called argyria, from the Latin.

It's there to stay, too. There is absolutely no way to get it out. Here's an unfortunate woman who was given the nose drops for a period in the 1950s and ended up with argyria for the rest of her life. She's in a rather testy mood about all the latter-day silver promoters, and who can blame her? I'll link to a particularly clueless (and poorly written) example to give you the flavor of the field.

Our metallized Montanan made the stuff at home with a similar kit (probably generously laced with silver salts, depending on what kind of water he used,) because he feared antibiotic shortages after Y2K. And the hucksters told him, you know, that if he took this wonderful silver that he wouldn't have to worry about that sort of thing. How was he to know?

By using his brain, perhaps? By doing a half-hour's research on the web or in any good library? Apparently not. Actually, I shouldn't be making fun of his Senate candidacy. Come to think of it, he'd fit right in.

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June 23, 2002

Stupidity, But Not the Dangerous Kind

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Posted by Derek

After going off on the Weekly Standardon the 11th about the ridiculous miracle-cancer-cure ad they accepted, I see that there's one nearly as stupid in the latest National Review.Fortunately, it's not a particularly dangerous one.

It's for a book that touts a zillion uses for hydrogen peroxide, that wonder chemical that apparently will do everything except housebreak your dog. The good part is that it doesn't actually say that you should drink the stuff to cure cancer, and that's enough for me to hold my fire. If someone gets ripped off because of curiosity about new ways to simultaneously clean their refrigerator and soak their feet, I won't lose much sleep over it.

Of course, there have been various oxygen-therapy yahoots promoting peroxide and worse for years, and many of them claim to cure cancer (and whatever else you've got, though they don't seem to do much for the Heartbreak of Gullibility.) I once saw a come-on that impressed me greatly, promoting some sort of superoxygenated water as a way to get rid of free radicals in your body. That's kind of like selling gasoline-filled fire extinguishers, chemically speaking.

There's not too much good you can do with household hydrogen peroxide, but (fortunately,) not much harm, either. But I worked in a lab once where we had fairly good quantities of the 90% stuff, back in the days when it was more widely available. Now that material could be a real agent for change in your life. We had a spiffy chain-mail glove set that we used to pick it up, and donning those tended to concentrate your mind on the task at hand. . .

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June 13, 2002

The Company You Keep

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Posted by Derek

Here's more info on the "Dr. Burton" mentioned in the egregious Weekly Standard advertisement (see the Tuesday, 6/11 post below.) This is courtesy of the invaluable Quackwatch. This is surely the same person. As far as Burton's methods go, what the book that the advertisement is selling is supposed to do for you, other than tell you more stories about his miracle cures, is hard to imagine. It's not something you're going to whip up at home (although stuff you could whip up at home would do just as much good, it seems, and cost less, too.)

As for Johanna Budwig, a Google search of that name will give you hours of reading, if not of reading pleasure. Flax seed oil and cottage cheese seem to the the two constituents of her miracle diet - there, I've saved you the $19.95 that those slimeballs were charging for their book.

I've had opportunity to study the effects of various lipid constituents on biological targets in the body, and I'd certainly not deny that you can effect a lot of interesting biology by varying the lipid profile of your diet. But keep cancer from even happening? I think not.

No response from the Weekly Standard folks yet (I sent them the first article below.) I'll be quite interested to hear what they have to say, if anything.

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June 11, 2002

And All For a Little Money

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Posted by Derek

Today I wanted to cover a particular intersection of medicine, commerce, and politics in the June 10th issue of The Weekly Standard.I've read the magazine on and off since its inception, and enjoyed it. I often agree with its editorial stance, and when I don't, I can usually see what the writers are up to, and how a reasonable person would come to their conclusions.

What caught my attention this time was something I disagreed with most strongly, but it wasn't an article. It was an advertisement on page 15, titled "Black Listed Cancer Treatment Could Save Your Life." Well, I earn my living by trying to find treatments that could potentially save people's lives, so headlines like that catch my eye.

But not in a positive fashion: for many years, I've kept an eye on all sorts of medical quackery, of which there is an inexhaustible supply. I'm pretty sure that I've seen this ad before, actually. For all I know, I've seen it before in The Weekly Standard.But I'd had a long day at the lab when I picked up this issue, and I was in a mood to read the whole thing.

It repays inspection. I found that in 1966, the "senior oncologist at a prominent New York hospital" developed some miracle serum that "shrank cancer tumors in 45 minutes!" And after another 45 minutes, "they were gone." (How this was determined using 1966 technology is left as an exercise for the reader, I suppose.) Who is this wonder-worker, and at which hospital did he work? The ad glancingly refers to him as "Dr. Burton," but goes on to relate that he was shut down by the FDA and forced - yes, forced - to leave the country, "where others benefited from his discovery." After their checks cleared, presumably.

We then switch to one Dr. Johanna Budwig, a "six-time Nobel Award nominee." Now an instant sign of fakery, as if another one were really needed after that first paragraph. No one knows who's really up for the science Nobels; the Academy isn't telling. When someone brags about being nominated for a Nobel in one of the hard sciences, it's time to head for the exits. I might as well say that I'm a six-time nominee for the NBA slam-dunk championship - hey, if I'd sent them postcards every year asking to be included, then why not?

"Dr. Budwig's" story is similar to Dr. Burton's, only she found a miracle diet that prevents cancer from even occuring. But (and you knew this was coming) she was "blocked by manufacturers with heavy financial stakes!" Hey, did they check Dr. Burton out? Seems like he'd have a reason to keep this competitor off the market. . .

Well, the ad goes on and on, and if you've seen one of these, in some ways you've seen them all. The whole thing is selling a book called "How to Fight Cancer and Win." Natural healing, miracle cures, secret breakthroughs they don't want you to know, all backed up by testimonials from people with initials for last names. One "Molly G" says that the book "has information I've never heard about before," and I find that statement the most believable thing on the whole page.

It's just another cheesy scam, another rip-off aimed at people who are scared of getting cancer, people scared that they might have it. . .or at people who really do have it and are scared that they're going to die. A fine group of customers to remove cash from. The publisher gets the money and a live mailing address (well, for a while), to sell to every other quack who needs a fresh group of the desperate and frightened.

So, what I'd like to know is, what is the Weekly Standard doing profiting from this slimy business? Now, I know that opinion journals need ads, and they never have enough. There are 44 numbered pages in this issue of the Standard, and there are only five pages of advertisements. That's probably about enough to pay for the coated paper. But I also know, as does everyone else, where the money is coming from: Rupert Murdoch, who felt it worth the inevitable steady losses to promote political views he agrees with.

More power to him, I say. But how are those views advanced by their proximity to sleazy ads for amazing cancer cures? I'm sure the advertising manager for the Standard would rather fill the issue up with ads for BMWs and single-malt whiskey. Does the magazine really hit the miracle-cure demographic? And does it really want to look like that's the one it reaches? Does News Corp. need the money this badly?

There's the practical argument. The impractical one is that taking money in exchange for giving these snake-oil merchants space is very close to immoral. I'm well aware of the precedent set (for example) by David Horowitz, trying to get his anti-slavery reparations ad placed in college newspapers. As was pointed out at the time, though, a newspaper or magazine is free to accept or reject any advertisements it feels like. (And a rejected advertiser is free to say what he thinks about the refusal!)

But this sort of ad isn't selling an argument - it purports to be selling scientific facts that will save your life. And these "facts" are, as far as I'm concerned, life-threatening bullshit. Would the Standard take an ad from the Scientologists? Would it take an ad from a throw-away-your-crutches faith healer? After this one, why not?

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April 9, 2002

And Another Thing

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Posted by Derek

That Fitzgerald reference is, of course, the quote about the sign of a first-rate mind being the ability to hold two contradictory statements at the same time. Like several of his other quotes, that one has the germ of spectacular error in it - similar to his line about there being no second acts in American lives. That one gets trotted out with great regularity, as we prove that some lives are made up of nothing but second acts.

Anyway, I'd say that that ability is as often the sign of a third-rate mind or lower. Another example of these contradictions came to mind after I read my mail about the last couple of postings. One correspondent pointed out that we have people watching for every food additive that might be shown to cause cancer, but thanks to Hatch-Waxman we're also letting people swallow almost anything as long as it's labeled as a "nutritional supplement." Some of these are the same people, actually.

Tropical leaves that starving tapirs wouldn't touch, roots whose previous function was to sterilize unwary nematodes, seeds and kernals that would give a buzzard the trots. . .grind it up; it's all fine. You don't really have to test anything for safety, and you don't have to prove it does anything (costs money to do that, anyway.) Just be sure to say that it's "not intended to treat, cure, or affect any disease" and you're rolling.

The latest issue of the fine review journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolismhas an article detailing cases where imported traditional "herbal preparations" have turned out to be laced with actual pharmaceuticals. While that reminds me of is the story of W.C. Fields spitting out the contents of his on-set swigging flask, which he always maintained was full of pineapple juice. Someone put him to the test, and his shout was "Who put pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?"

Imagine a traditional preparation of herbal goodies that turns out to be cut with man-made antihistamines or sulfonylureas, rather than Nature's own bounty of alkaloids and cardiac glycosides. Here you are, expecting the usual gut-bomb of all-natural ephedrine, caffeine, or hepatotoxic enzyme inducers, and you get something scraped out of a vat instead. The nerve!

The problem is, it's not just that some fly-by-nighters are slipping pharmaceuticals in. The article also includes harrowing cases of preparations that contained whacking loads of mercury or arsenic, for reasons unknown. Why people swallow the ads for these things, much less swallow the pills, is a mystery to me.

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April 8, 2002

F. Scott Fitzgerald Had Something to Say About This

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Posted by Derek

Not much time to post tonight, since our 22-month-old came down with a sudden fever. She's fine otherwise, though, in case anyone's wondering. I'm sure that, as a blog-baby, she'd play well with "Gnat" Lileks.

I've already had several e-mails about my snake-oil outburst in the previous post. No one's come out for the pro-snake-oil position yet; I guess that audience doesn't read me, which is something I can certainly live with.

It was probably the contrast between the ads I mentioned and what I know that medicine can accomplish (see 4/4 and 4/2 postings below.) I've noticed that Sydney Smith over at Medpundit takes issue with both the degree of my gloom and the degree of my optimism. He's got a point about some of the things we can do now (vaccinations are always a good example to adduce,) but I wonder about the popular perception of medical treatment. Large groups of people are worse than I am, in both directions.

There are two mutually exclusive wrong ideas that the general public has about medicine, I think. The first is that there's nothing useful out there, they're just going to mess around with you and waste your time and money, you're going to get what you're going to get, why fight it, etc.

Contrast that weltanschaungwith the second major group: the ones who feel entitled to have everything that goes wrong with them fixed. If one doctor doesn't give them the satisfaction they're after, they go to another. If one medication doesn't cut it, then there's another that will. Generally, there's a sense among this population that any condition can also be traced back to its cause, that person, action, or thing that made them sick. After all, the default setting is perfect health, so something must have happened!

There's a subset of people who manage to believe both of these things at once: these are the big-conspiracy types, who are sure that the doctors and the evil drug companies are ganged up against everyone. (It's an odd viewpoint, when you consider that those two groups - although they need each other - don't always get along very well.) I've had people seriously explain to me that "they" have cures for all these terrible diseases already lined up - "they're" just waiting until everyone's sick enough to make the market really huge.

I give those folks my standard answer to all conspiracy buffs: "Yeah. . .that's what they want you to think. . ."

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April 7, 2002

Get Your Miracle Elixir

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Posted by Derek

For Monday, I'm just going to send everyone to a wonderful article from the Washington Monthly. (I came across this one over at Arts and Letters Daily.)

It's a strongly worded look at the alternative/holistic medicine area, with particular emphasis on the recent attempts to subject these treatments to clinical proof. Many of the practicioners are simply ignoring the studies if they don't give them the answers they want to hear (which, as you can well imagine, they generally don't.)

I can tell you that my blood heats up when I hear the radio ads for potions - excuse me, dietary supplements - to "cleanse your liver" or "sharpen your memory." Not to mention all the miracle weight-loss or hair-growing pills. I feel like I've slipped through some wormhole and ended up in 1910.

Just look at the ancient shucks that are still in business: magnet therapy, iridology, reflexology...you can read all about this stuff in Martin Gardner's first "Fads and Fallacies" book, which is nearly 50 years old. The true and inescapable mark of a pseudoscience is that it doesn't learn a thing. It never changes; the theory is never overthrown; it just keeps on plugging away obliviously. Who cares about facts?

And while I'm on the subject of pedigreed nonsense: if I see another gaudy display of homeopathic dishwater near the checkout of a pharmacy again, I may do something quite reckless. I can only imagine what my medical colleague over at Medpundit thinks about that stuff; I know the herbal supplements really get on his nerves. As they should.

I'll come back later to the subject of the Hatch-Waxman Act, which is one of the things that got us into this fix. For now, check out that article link for a table-pounding good time.

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