MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

fraud

Guest post by Nick Ross

If you’re a fan of Edzard Ernst – and who with a rational mind would not be – then you will be a fan of HealthWatch.

Edzard is a distinguished supporter. Do join us. I can’t promise much in return except that you will be part of a small and noble organisation that campaigns for treatments that work – in other words for evidence based medicine. Oh, and you get a regular Newsletter, which is actually rather good.

HealthWatch was inspired 25 years ago by Professor Michael Baum, the breast cancer surgeon who was incandescent that so many women presented to his clinic late, doomed and with suppurating sores, because they had been persuaded to try ‘alternative treatment’ rather than the real thing.

But like Edzard (and indeed like Michael Baum), HealthWatch keeps an open mind. If there are reliable data to show that an apparently weirdo treatment works, hallelujah. If there is evidence that an orthodox one doesn’t then it deserves a raspberry. HealthWatch has worked to expose quacks and swindlers and to get the Advertising Standards Authority to do its job regulating against false claims and flimflam. It has fought the NHS to have women given fair and balanced advice about the perils of mass screening. It has campaigned with Sense About Science, English Pen and Index to protect whistleblowing scientists from vexatious libel laws, and it has joined the AllTrials battle for transparency in drug trials. It has an annual competition for medical and nursing students to encourage critical analysis of clinical research protocols, and it stages the annual HealthWatch Award and Lecture which has featured Edzard (in 2005) and a galaxy of other champions of scepticism and good evidence including Sir Iain Chalmers, Richard Smith, David Colquhoun, Tim Harford, John Diamond, Richard Doll, Peter Wilmshurst, Ray Tallis, Ben Goldacre, Fiona Godlee and, last year, Simon Singh. We are shortly to sponsor a national debate on Lord Saatchi’s controversial Medical innovation Bill.

But we need new blood. Do please check us out. Be careful, because since we first registered our name a host of brazen copycats have emerged, not least Her Majesty’s Government with ‘Healthwatch England’ which is part of the Care Quality Commission. We have had to put ‘uk’ at the end of our web address to retain our identity. So take the link to http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/, or better still take out a (very modestly priced) subscription.

As Edmund Burke might well have said, all it takes for quackery to flourish is that good men and women do nothing.

As promised, I will try with this post to explain my reservations regarding the new meta-analysis suggesting that individualised homeopathic remedies are superior to placebos. Before I start, however, I want to thank all those who have commented on various issues; it is well worth reading the numerous and diverse comments.

To remind us of the actual meta-analysis, it might be useful to re-publish its abstract (the full article is also available online):

BACKGROUND:

A rigorous and focused systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of individualised homeopathic treatment has not previously been undertaken. We tested the hypothesis that the outcome of an individualised homeopathic treatment approach using homeopathic medicines is distinguishable from that of placebos.

METHODS:

The review’s methods, including literature search strategy, data extraction, assessment of risk of bias and statistical analysis, were strictly protocol-based. Judgment in seven assessment domains enabled a trial’s risk of bias to be designated as low, unclear or high. A trial was judged to comprise ‘reliable evidence’ if its risk of bias was low or was unclear in one specified domain. ‘Effect size’ was reported as odds ratio (OR), with arithmetic transformation for continuous data carried out as required; OR > 1 signified an effect favouring homeopathy.

RESULTS:

Thirty-two eligible RCTs studied 24 different medical conditions in total. Twelve trials were classed ‘uncertain risk of bias’, three of which displayed relatively minor uncertainty and were designated reliable evidence; 20 trials were classed ‘high risk of bias’. Twenty-two trials had extractable data and were subjected to meta-analysis; OR = 1.53 (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.22 to 1.91). For the three trials with reliable evidence, sensitivity analysis revealed OR = 1.98 (95% CI 1.16 to 3.38).

CONCLUSIONS:

Medicines prescribed in individualised homeopathy may have small, specific treatment effects. Findings are consistent with sub-group data available in a previous ‘global’ systematic review. The low or unclear overall quality of the evidence prompts caution in interpreting the findings. New high-quality RCT research is necessary to enable more decisive interpretation.

Since my team had published an RCTs of individualised homeopathy, it seems only natural that my interest focussed on why the study (even though identified by Mathie et al) had not been included in the meta-analysis. Our study had provided no evidence that adjunctive homeopathic remedies, as prescribed by experienced homeopathic practitioners, are superior to placebo in improving the quality of life of children with mild to moderate asthma in addition to conventional treatment in primary care.

I was convinced that this trial had been rigorous and thus puzzled why, despite receiving ‘full marks’ from the reviewers, they had not included it in their meta-analysis. I thus wrote to Mathie, the lead author of the meta-analysis, and he explained: For your trial (White et al. 2003), under domain V of assessment, we were unable to extract data for meta-analysis, and so it was attributed high risk of bias, as specified by the Cochrane judgmental criteria. Our designated main outcome was the CAQ, for which we needed to know (or could at least estimate) a mean and SD for both the baseline and the end-point of the study. Since your paper reported only the change from baseline in Table 3 or in the main text, it is not possible to derive the necessary end-point for analysis.

It took a while and several further emails until I understood: our study did report both the primary (Table 2 quality of life) and secondary outcome measure (Table 3 severity of symptoms). The primary outcome measure was reported in full detail such that a meta-analysis would have been possible. The secondary outcome measure was also reported but not in full detail, and the data provided by us would not lend themselves to meta-analyses. By electing not our primary but our secondary outcome measure for their meta-analysis, Mathie et al were able to claim that they were unable to use our study and reject it for their meta-analysis.

Why did they do that?

The answer is simple: in their methods section, they specify that they used outcome measures “based on a pre-specified hierarchical list in order of greatest to least importance, recommended by the WHO“. This, I would argue is deeply flawed: the most important outcome measure of a study is usually the one for which the study was designed, not the one that some guys at the WHO feel might be important (incidentally, the WHO list was never meant to be applied to meta-analyses in that way).

By following rigidly their published protocol, the authors of the meta-analysis managed to exclude our negative trial. Thus they did everything right – or did they?

Well, I think they committed several serious mistakes.

  • Firstly, they wrote the protocol, which forced them to exclude our study. Following a protocol is not a virtue in itself; if the protocol is nonsensical it even is the opposite. Had they proceeded as is normal in such cases and used our primary outcome measure in their meta-analyses, it is most likely that their overall results would not have been in favour of homeopathy.
  • Secondly, they awarded our study a malus point for the criterium ‘selective outcome reporting’. This is clearly a wrong decision: we did report the severity-outcome, albeit not in sufficient detail for their meta-analysis. Had they not committed this misjudgment, our RCT would have been the only one with an ‘A’ rating. This would have very clearly highlighted the nonsense of excluding the best-rated trial from meta-analysis.

There are several other oddities as well. For instance, Mathie et al judge our study to be NOT free of vested interest. I asked Mathie why they had done this and was told it is because we accepted free trial medication from a homeopathic pharmacy. I would argue that my team was far less plagued by vested interest than the authors of their three best (and of course positive) trials who, as I happen to know, are consultants for homeopathic manufacturers.

And all of this is just in relation to our own study. Norbert Aust has uncovered similar irregularities with other trials and I take the liberty of quoting his comments posted previously again here:

I have reason to believe that this review and metaanalysis in biased in favor of homeopathy. To check this, I compared two studies (1) Jacobs 1994 about the treatment of childhood diarrhea in Nicaragua, (2) Walach 1997 about homeopathic threatment of headaches. The Jacobs study is one of the three that provided ‘reliable evidence’, Walach’s study earned a poor C2.2 rating and was not included in the meta-analyses. Jacobs’ results were in favour of homeopathy, Walach’s not.

For the domains where the rating of Walach’s study was less than that of the Jacobs study, please find citations from the original studies or my short summaries for the point in question.

Domain I: Sequence generation:
Walach:
“The remedy selected was then mailed to a notary public who held a stock of placebos. The notary threw a dice and mailed either the homeopathic remedy or an appropriate placebo. The notary was provided with a blank randomisation list.”
Rating: UNCLEAR (Medium risk of bias)

Jacobs:
“For each of these medications, there was a box of tubes in sequentially numbered order which had been previously randomized into treatment or control medication using a random numbers table in blocks of four”
Rating: YES (Low risk of bias)

Domain IIIb: Blinding of outcome assessor
Walach:
“The notary was provided with a blank randomization list which was an absolutely unique document. It was only handed out after the biometrician (WG) had deposited all coded original data as a printout at the notary’s office. (…) Data entry was performed blindly by personnel not involved in the study. ”
Rating: UNCLEAR (Medium risk of bias)

Jacobs:
“All statistical analyses were done before breaking the randomisation code, using the program …”
Rating: YES (Low risk of bias)

Domain V: Selective outcome reporting

Walach:
Study protocol was published in 1991 prior to enrollment of participants, all primary outcome variables were reported with respect to all participants and the endpoints.
Rating: NO (high risk of bias)

Jacobs:
No prior publication of protocol, but a pilot study exists. However this was published in 1993 only after the trial was performed in 1991. Primary outcome defined (duration of diarrhea), reported but table and graph do not match, secondary outcome (number of unformed stools on day 3) seems defined post hoc, for this is the only one point in time, this outcome yielded a significant result.
Rating: YES (low risk of bias)

Domain VI: Other sources of bias:

Walach:
Rating: NO (high risk of bias), no details given

Jacobs:
Imbalance of group properties (size, weight and age of children), that might have some impact on course of disease, high impact of parallel therapy (rehydration) by far exceeding effect size of homeopathic treatment
Rating: YES (low risk of bias), no details given

In a nutshell: I fail to see the basis for the different ratings in the studies themselves. I assume bias of the authors of the review.

Conclusion

So, what about the question posed in the title of this article? The meta-analysis is clearly not a ‘proof of concept’. But is it proof for misconduct? I asked Mathie and he answered as follows: No, your statement does not reflect the situation at all. As for each and every paper, we selected the main outcome measure for your trial using the objective WHO classification approach (in which quality of life is clearly of lower rank than severity). This is all clearly described in our prospective protocol. Under no circumstances did we approach this matter retrospectively, in the way you are implying. 

Some nasty sceptics might have assumed that the handful of rigorous studies with negative results were well-known to most researchers of homeopathy. In this situation, it would have been hugely tempting to write the protocol such that these studies must be excluded. I am thrilled to be told that the authors of the current new meta-analysis (who declared all sorts of vested interests at the end of the article) resisted this temptation.

Well, not everywhere actually; if you go on Medline, for instance, and search for ‘detox’, you hardly find anything at all on detox as used in alternative medicine. This is because there is no science behind it (for the purpose of this post, ‘detox’ means the alternative detox that is supposed to rid us from environmental poisons and, more relevant to the Christmas season, of the effects of over-indulgence). Notwithstanding this lack of science and evidence, detox is currently being heavily promoted in magazines, newspapers and, of course, via the Internet.

Take the heir to our thrown, Prince Charles, for instance; he famously marketed his Duchy Originals ‘DETOX TINCTURE’. And he has competition from thousands who also exploit the gullible with similar placebos. One website even claimed that “2014 was the year of the cleanse diet. Celebrities swear by them and more and more people have been getting in on the action, whether it’s to detox diet, brighten skin, lose weight, or get a fresh start. And nowhere is that more evident than in Yahoo’s Year in Review, where different health cleanses consistently topped the site’s most popular stories lists. Here, the year’s top 10 most popular cleanses.”

The author then continues by promoting 10 different forms of detox:

1. A Colon Cleanse.

2. A Liver Cleanse.

3. The Master Cleanse.

4. The 10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse.

5. A Juice Cleanse.

6. Detox Cleanse.

7. Slendera Garcinia and Natural Cleanse.

8. Dherbs Full Body Cleanse.

9. Blueprint Cleanse.

10. Isagenix Cleanse for Life.

These treatments seem diverse but they all have one thing in common: they do not work; they do not eliminate poisons from the body, they merely eliminate cash from your wallet.

But being so very negative is not the way forward, some might argue. Why does he not tell us which forms of detox do actually work?

Because it is Christmas, I will do just that and provide my readers with a full list of detox treatments that are effective. If you are looking for a specific type of detox and it is not on the list, it means you should spend your money on something else, stop over-indulging yourself and adopt a sensibly health lifestyle.

HERE WE GO – THIS IS MY COMPLETE LIST OF EFFECTIVE FORMS OF DETOX:

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE

One thing that has often irritated me – alright, I admit it: sometimes it even infuriated me – is the pseudoscientific language of authors writing about alternative medicine. Reading publications in this area often seems to me like being in the middle of a game of ‘bullshit bingo’ (I am afraid that some of the commentators on this blog have importantly contributed to this phenomenon). In an article of 2004, I once discussed this issue in some detail and concluded that “… pseudo-scientific language … can be seen as an attempt to present nonsense as science…this misleads patients and can thus endanger their health…” For this paper, I had focussed on examples from the ‘bioresonance’- literature – more by coincidence than by design, I should add. I could have selected any other alternative treatment or diagnostic method; the use of pseudoscientific language is truly endemic in alternative medicine.

To give you a little flavour, here is the section of my 2004 paper where I used 5 quotes from recent articles on bioresonance and added a brief comment after each of them.

Quote No. 1

The biophysical control processes are superordinate to the biochemical processes. In the same way as the atomic processes result in chemical compounds the ultrafine biocommunication results in the biochemical processes. Control signals have an electromagnetic quality. Disturbing signals or ‘disturbing energies’ also have an electromagnetic quality. This is the reason why they can, for example, be conducted through cables and transformed into therapy signals by means of sophisticated electronic devices. The purpose is to clear the pathological part of the signals.’

Here the author uses highly technical language which, at first, sounds very complicated and scientific. However, after a second read, one is bound to discover that the words hide more than they reveal. In particular, the scientific tone distracts from the lack of logic in the argument. The basic message, once the pseudoscientific veneer is stripped away, seems to be the following. Living systems display electromagnetic phenomena. The electromagnetic energies that they rely upon can make us ill. The energies can also be transferred into an electronic instrument where they can be changed so that they don’t cause any more harm.

Quote No. 2

A very important advantage of the BICOM device as compared to the original form of the MORA-therapy in paediatry is the possibility to reduce the oscillation, a fact which meets much better the reaction pattern of the child and gives better results’ [3].

This paragraph essentially states that the BICOM instrument can change (the frequency or amplitude of) some sort of (electromagnetic) wave. We are told that, for children, this is preferable because of the way children tend to react. This would then be more effective.

Quote No. 3

The question how causative the Bioresonanz-Therapy can be must be answered in a differentiated way. The BR is in the first place effective on the informative level, which means on the ultrafine biokybernetical regulation level of the organism. This also includes the time factor and with that the functional aspect, and thus it influences the material-biochemical area of the body. The BRT is in comparison to other therapy procedures very high on the scale of causativeness, but it still remains in the physical level, and does not reach into the spiritual area. The freeing of the patient from his diseases can self evidently also lead to a change and improvement of conduct and attitudes and to a general wellbeing of the patient’ [4].

This amazing statement is again not easy to understand. If my reading is correct, the author essentially wants to tell us that BR interferes with the flow of information within organisms. The process is time-dependent and therefore affects function, physical and biochemical properties. Compared to other treatments, BR is more causative without affecting our spiritual sphere. As BR cures a disease, it can also change behaviour, attitudes and wellbeing.

Quote No. 4

MORA therapy is an auto-iso-therapy using the patient’s own vibrations in a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Strictly speaking, we have hyperwaves in a six-dimensional cosmos with two hidden parameters (as predicted by Albert Einstein and others). Besides the physical plane there are six other planes of existence and the MORA therapy works in the biological plane, a region called the M-field, according to Sheldrake and Burkhard Heim’ [5].

Here we seem to be told that the MORA therapy is a selftreatment using the body’s own resources, namely a broad range of electromagnetic waves. These waves are hyperwaves in 6 dimensions and their existence has already been predicted by Einstein. Six (or 7?) planes of existence seem to have been discovered and the MORA therapy is operative in one of them.

Quote No. 5

The author presents an overall medical conception of the world between mass maximum and masslessness and completes it with the pair of concepts of subjectivity/objectivity. Three test procedures of the bioelectronic function diagnostics are presented and incorporated in addition to other procedures in this conception of the world. Therefore, in the sense of a holistic medicine, there is a useful indication for every medical procedure, because there are different objectives associated with each procedure. A one-sided assessment of the procedures does not do justice to the human being as a whole’ [6].

This author introduces a new concept of the world between maxima and minima of mass or objectivity. He has developed 3 tests of BR diagnosis that fit into the new concept. Therefore, holistically speaking, any therapy is good for something because each may have a different aim. One-sided assessments of such holistic treatments are too narrow bearing in mind the complexity of a human being.

The danger of pseudoscientific language in health care is obvious: it misleads patients, consumers, journalists, politicians, and everyone else (perhaps even some of the original authors?) into believing that nonsense is credible; to express it more bluntly: it is a method of cheating the unsuspecting public. Yes, the way I see it, it is a form of health fraud. Thus it leads to wrong therapeutic decisions and endangers public health.

I could easily get quite cross with the many authors who publish such drivel. But let’s not allow them to spoil our day; let’s take a different approach: let’s try to have some fun.

I herewith invite my readers to post quotes in the comments section of the most extraordinary excesses of pseudoscientific language that they have come across. If the result is sufficiently original, I might try to design a new BULLSHIT BINGO with it.

While the previous post was about seeing a traditional herbalist (who prescribe their own herbal mixtures, tailor-made for each individual patient), this post provides essential information for those consumers who are tempted to take a commercially available herbal remedy available in pharmacies, health food shops, over the Internet etc. These remedies are usually bought by consumers and then be self-administered, or (less frequently) they might be prescribed/recommended/sold by a clinician such as a doctor, naturopath, chiropractor etc. Typically, they contain just one (or relatively few) herbal extracts and are used under similar assumptions as conventional medicines: one (hopefully well-tested) remedy is employed for treating a defined condition, diagnosed according to validated and generally accepted criteria (for instance, St John’s Wort for depression or Devil’s claw for back pain). This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘rational phytotherapy’ – it is certainly more rational than the traditional herbalism referred to in my previous post. The manufacture, promotion and sale of commercial herbal remedies (in many countries marketed as ‘dietary supplements’) has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Here are a few essentials you ought to know before you decide to take such an herbal remedy:

  1. Many people claim that herbal medicine is effective because many of our modern drugs are based on plants. The latter part of this claim is true, of course, but this does not necessarily mean that herbal remedies are effective. The drugs derived from plants contain one single, well-defined, extensively researched molecule (by definition, this makes them conventional drugs and not herbal remedies), while herbal remedies are based on entire (parts of) plants; thus they contain many pharmacologically active molecules. This often means that it is difficult or impossible to tell what dose of which ingredient is being administered and what pharmacological actions can be expected.
  2. Even though national regulations differ greatly, herbal remedies generally do not have to be supported by evidence for efficacy in order to be legally available. This means that a given remedy might or might not have been tested in clinical trials to determine whether it works for the condition advertised. In fact, only very few (less than 30, I estimate) herbal remedies are supported by sound evidence for efficacy; thousands do not meet this criterion.
  3. The extremely wide-spread notion that herbal remedies are by definition natural and therefore safe is nothing but a promotional myth. Plants contain many chemicals which can have pharmacological activity. This means they might be therapeutic, but it also means that they might be toxic (traditionally the most powerful poisons originated from the plant kingdom). If anyone uses the ‘natural = safe fallacy’ remind him/her of hemlock, poison ivy etc.
  4. In addition to potential toxicity of an herbal ingredient, there are other important safety issues to be considered. Most importantly, herbal remedies can interact with prescribed medicines. For instance, St John’s Wort (one of the best-studied herbal remedies in this respect) powerfully interacts with about 50% of all prescription drugs – in fact, it lowers their level in the blood which means that a patient on anti-coagulants would lose her anti-coagulant protection and might suffer from a (potentially fatal) blood clot.
  5. In many countries, including the US, the regulation of herbal remedies is so lax, that there is no guarantee that an herbal remedy which is being legally sold is safe. The regulators are only allowed to intervene once there are reports of adverse effects. This means that the burden of proof of safety is effectively reversed which obviously exposes consumers to incalculable risks.
  6. The quality of the herbal product is equally poorly regulated in most countries. A plethora of investigations in the US, for instance, has shown that the dose of the herbal ingredient printed on the label of a commercial product can range virtually from 0 – 100%. Similarly there is little safe-guard that the ingredients listed on the label correspond to the ones in the preparation. This means that it is worth purchasing not just well-researched herbal remedies but also those marketed by high quality manufacturers via respectable outlets.
  7. Any regulation of herbal remedies, even the European one that is often praised as protecting consumers adequately, is null and void once consumers go on the Internet and purchase their herbal remedies from one of the many dubious sources found there in truly alarming profusion. Bogus claims, inferior quality and even outright dangerous products abound, and it is often impossible to tell the acceptable from the fraudulent product.

I know, I have written about this guy before – and I am likely to do so again – he is just too outstanding to pass by!

A few days ago, he was in the headlines again:  the Conservative health committee member David Tredinnick insisted that herbal medicine and even astrology should be given to patients in order to plug a growing hole in the NHS-budget: “I have referred to the fact that in some cultures astrology is part of healthcare because they need to have a voice and I’ve got up and said that,” he told Channel Four News. “But I also think we can reduce the bill by using a whole range of alternative medicine including herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy…We could probably save five per cent of the [NHS] budget.”

Unbelievably, a man with such views is a member of the science and technology committee! This really does instil trust in politics!!!

His track record regarding the promotion of quackery might even dwarf that of Prince Charles; earlier this year he told MPs that astrology should be used to replace some “conventional” medicines on the NHS: “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told the Commons. “I hope that in future we stop looking just at increasing the supply of drugs and consider the way that complementary and alternative medicine can reduce the demand for drugs, reduce pressures on the health service, increase patient satisfaction, and make everyone in this country happier.”

Speaking recently while thousands of NHS workers were on strike, he defended their pay freeze, stating that NHS’s budget was “finite”. However, asked whether he planned to take his own upcoming 9% pay rise, he refused to answer: “I’m not getting drawn on MPs pay… I’m not answering that question on this programme because we’re dealing with the health service.” Pushed further, he suggested that the rise was necessary in order to make MPs “good public servants… All members of parliament will be given a pay rise which is been set by an independent authority. Most of those members of parliament will take that pay rise because that is what is deemed necessary to have good public servants,” he insisted.

But is he really a “good public servant” ???

Addressing parliament about its ‘evidence check’ on homeopathy which came out squarely against it, Tredinnick once stated: “It is my belief that the advice the Clerks provided to the Science and Technology Committee Chairman was inadequate, in that the evidence taken by the Committee in its evidence check on homeopathy was biased, as they did not call representatives of the homeopathic profession and instead chose a professor who did not represent the alternative medicine world. They chose the one person who would give an answer that suited those who were in opposition.”  The professor he refers to is Edzard Ernst, I think! When I was invited to give evidence to the committee, Tredinnick was in the audience; I saw him as we were waiting to go in and even had a chat with him. So, he must remember that sitting next to me were several defenders of homeopathy, amongst them the Queen’s homeopath himself.

Perhaps Tredinnick just forgot!

He couldn’t be lying, could he?

No, a good public servant wouldn’t do that!

Many experts have warned us that, when we opt for dietary supplements, we might get more than we bargained for. A recent article reminded us that the increased availability and use of botanical dietary supplements and herbal remedies among consumers has been accompanied by an increased frequency of adulteration of these products with synthetic pharmaceuticals. Unscrupulous producers may add drugs and analogues of various classes, such as phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE-5) inhibitors, weight loss, hypoglycemic, antihypertensive and anti-inflammatory agents, or anabolic steroids, to develop or intensify biological effects of dietary supplements or herbal remedies. The presence of such adulterated products in the marketplace is a worldwide problem and their consumption poses health risks to consumers.

Other authors recently warned that these products are often ineffective, adulterated, mislabeled, or have unclear dosing recommendations, and consumers have suffered injury and death as a consequence. When Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, it stripped the Food and Drug Administration of its premarket authority, rendering regulatory controls too weak to adequately protect consumers. State government intervention is thus warranted. This article reviews studies reporting on Americans’ use of dietary supplements marketed for weight loss or muscle building, notes the particular dangers these products pose to the youth, and suggests that states can build on their historical enactment of regulatory controls for products with potential health consequences to protect the public and especially young people from unsafe and mislabeled dietary supplements.

A new study has shown that these problems are not just theoretical but are real and common.

Twenty-four products suspected of containing anabolic steroids and sold in fitness equipment shops in the UK were analyzed for their qualitative and semi-quantitative content using full scan gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), accurate mass liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), high pressure liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-DAD), UV-Vis, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. In addition, X-ray crystallography enabled the identification of one of the compounds, where reference standard was not available.

Of the 24 products tested, 23 contained steroids including known anabolic agents; 16 of these contained steroids that were different to those indicated on the packaging and one product contained no steroid at all. Overall, 13 different steroids were identified; 12 of these are controlled in the UK under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Several of the products contained steroids that may be considered to have considerable pharmacological activity, based on their chemical structures and the amounts present.

The authors concluded that such adulteration could unwittingly expose users to a significant risk to their health, which is of particular concern for naïve users.

The Internet offers thousands of supplements for sale; specifically for bodybuilders there are hundreds of supplements all claiming things that are untrue or untested. The lax regulations that exist in this area seem to be often ignored completely. I think it is important to inform customers that most supplements are a waste of money and some even a waste of health.

In 2004, I published an article rather boldly entitled ‘Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science’. Here is its summary:

Ear candles are hollow tubes coated in wax which are inserted into patients’ ears and then lit at the far end. The procedure is used as a complementary therapy for a wide range of conditions. A critical assessment of the evidence shows that its mode of action is implausible and demonstrably wrong. There are no data to suggest that it is effective for any condition. Furthermore, ear candles have been associated with ear injuries. The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good. Their use should be discouraged.

Sadly, since the publication of this paper, ear candles have not become less but more popular. There are about 3 000 000 websites on the subject; most are trying to sell products and make claims which are almost comically misguided; three examples have to suffice:

I said ALMOST comical because such nonsense has, of course a downside. Not only are consumers separated from their cash for no benefit whatsoever, but they are also exposed to danger; again, three examples from the medical literature might explain:

  • Otolaryngologists from London described a case of ear candling presenting as hearing loss, and they concluded that this useless therapy can actually cause damage to the ears.
  • A 50-year-old woman presented to her GP following an episode of ear candling. After 15 minutes, the person performing the candling burned herself while attempting to remove the candle and spilled candle wax into the patient’s right ear canal. On examination, a piece of candle wax was found in the patient’s ear, and she was referred to the local ear, nose, and throat department. Under general aesthetic, a large mass of solidified yellow candle wax was removed from the deep meatus of the ear. The patient had a small perforation in her right tympanic membrane. Results of a pure tone audiogram showed a mild conductive hearing loss on the right side. At a follow-up appointment 1 month later, the perforation was still there, and the patient’s hearing had not improved.
  • case report of a 4-year-old girl from New Zealand was published. The patient was diagnosed to suffer from otitis media. During the course of the ear examination white deposits were noticed on her eardrum; this was confirmed as being caused by ear candling.

I should stress that we do not know how often such events happen; there is no monitoring system, and one might expect that the vast majority of cases do not get published. Most consumers who experience such problems, I would guess, are far to embarrassed to admit that they have been taken in by this sort of quackery.

It was true 10 yeas ago and it is true today: ear candles are a triumph of ignorance over science. But also they are a victory of gullibility over common sense and the unethical exploitation of naive hope by greedy frauds.

When someone has completed a scientific project, it is customary to publish it [‘unpublished science is no science’, someone once told me many years ago]. To do so, he needs to write it up and submit it to a scientific journal. The editor of this journal will then submit it to a process called ‘peer review’.

What does ‘peer review’ entail? Well, it means that 2-3 experts are asked to critically assess the paper in question, make suggestions as to how it can be improved and submit a recommendation as to whether or not the article deserves to be published.

Peer review has many pitfalls but, so far, nobody has come up with a solution that is convincingly better. Many scientists are under pressure to publish [‘publish or perish’], and therefore some people resort to cheating. A most spectacular case of fraudulent peer review has been reported recently in this press release:

SAGE statement on Journal of Vibration and Control

London, UK (08 July 2014) – SAGE announces the retraction of 60 articles implicated in a peer review and citation ring at the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC). The full extent of the peer review ring has been uncovered following a 14 month SAGE-led investigation, and centres on the strongly suspected misconduct of Peter Chen, formerly of National Pingtung University of Education, Taiwan (NPUE) and possibly other authors at this institution.

In 2013 the then Editor-in-Chief of JVC, Professor Ali H. Nayfeh,and SAGE became aware of a potential peer review ring involving assumed and fabricated identities used to manipulate the online submission system SAGE Track powered by ScholarOne Manuscripts™. Immediate action was taken to prevent JVC from being exploited further, and a complex investigation throughout 2013 and 2014 was undertaken with the full cooperation of Professor Nayfeh and subsequently NPUE.

In total 60 articles have been retracted from JVC after evidence led to at least one author or reviewer being implicated in the peer review ring. Now that the investigation is complete, and the authors have been notified of the findings, we are in a position to make this statement.

While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

Unbelievable? Perhaps, but sadly it is true; some scientists seem to be criminally ingenious when it comes to getting their dodgy articles into peer-reviewed journals.

And what does this have to do with ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, you may well ask. The Journal of Vibration and Control is not even medical and certainly would never consider publishing articles on alternative medicine. Such papers go to one of the many [I estimate more that 1000] journals that cover either alternative medicine in general or any of the modalities that fall under this wide umbrella. Most of these journals, of course, pride themselves with being peer-reviewed – and, at least nominally, that is correct.

I have been on the editorial board of most of the more important journals in alternative medicine, and I cannot help thinking that their peer review process is not all that dissimilar from the fraudulent scheme set up by Peter Chen and disclosed above. What happens in alternative medicine is roughly as follows:

  • a researcher submits a paper for publication,
  • the editor sends it out for peer review,
  • the peer reviewers are either those suggested by the original author or members of the editorial board of the journal,
  • in either case, the reviewers are more than likely to be uncritical and recommend publication,
  • in the end, peer review turns out to be a farcical window dressing exercise with no consequence,
  • thus even very poor research and pseudo-research are being published abundantly.

The editorial boards of journals of alternative medicine tend to be devoid of experts who are critical about the subject at hand. If you think that I am exaggerating, have a look at the editorial board members of ‘HOMEOPATHY’ (or any other journal of alternative medicine) and tell me who might qualify as a critic of homeopathy. When the editor, Peter Fisher, recently fired me from his board because he felt I had tarnished the image of homeopathy, this panel lost the only person who understood the subject matter and, at the same time, was critical about it (the fact that the website still lists me as an editorial board member is merely a reflection of how slow things are in the world of homeopathy: Fisher fired me more than a year ago).

The point I am trying to make is simple: peer review is never a perfect method but when it is set up to be deliberately uncritical, it cannot possibly fulfil its function to prevent the publication of dodgy research. In this case, the quality of the science will be inadequate and generate false-positive messages that mislead the public.

‘THE HINKLEY TIMES’ is not a paper that I read often, I have to admit – but maybe I should! It was there that I found the following remarkable article:

Bosworth MP David Tredinnick has asked questions in the House of Commons about the growing problem of antibiotic resistance within hospitals, suggesting herbal remedies could be answer.

The Tory MP, who has a keen interest in alternative medicine particularly herbal curatives, asked Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, whether the problem was being discussed at the very top level.

He said: “Does my right honourable friend agree that a critical problem that A and E units will face in the future is antibiotic resistance? Is he aware that the science and technology committee, of which I am a member, has been looking at this issue and it also interests the health committee, of which I am also a member? Can he assure me that he is talking to the Prime Minister about how to stimulate new antibiotic research, and will he also remember that nature has its own remedies, such as tea tree oil?”

In reply Mr Hunt said: “My honourable friend is right about the seriousness of the issue of antimicrobial resistance. Some 25,000 people die in Europe every year as a result of the failure of antibiotics – more than die in road traffic accidents. I raised the issue at the World Health Assembly and I have discussed it closely with the Prime Minister.”

David Tredinnick is no stranger to strange ideas. Wikipedia (yes I know, many people do not like it as a source) sums it up quite succinctly:

He is a supporter of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). He has made supportive comments in Parliament on homeopathy, despite continued lack of evidence of its effectiveness. He has supported chiropractic and mentioned the influence of the Moon on blood clotting. In this same debate he characterised scientists as “racially prejudiced”. He has tabled several early day motions in support of homeopathy’s continued funding on the National Health Service.Tredinnick’s views continue to cause amused disbelief in some quarters and a spokesman for the Royal College of Surgeons of England said they would “laugh their heads off” at the suggestion they could not operate at the full moon.

At the 2010 general election, in addition to candidates from the two main parties, Tredinnick was opposed by New Scientist journalist Dr. Michael Brooks who objected to “Tredinnick’s outspoken promotion of complementary and alternative medicine.”During a hustings debate called by Brooks to “highlight the scientific literacy of the UK’s elected representatives” Brooks claimed that Tredinnick regarded homeopathy as a suitable treatment for Malaria and HIV, which Tredinnick did not deny. Tredinnick in turn argued that “alternative treatments are incredibly good value for money” and stated his belief that randomised controlled trials are not effective at evaluating very dilute preparations.

In March 2013 Tredinnick was ridiculed as “nonsensical” by the government’s outgoing chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, who said the MP had fallen for the “Galileo fallacy” (Galileo was laughed at but was right, therefore since I am laughed at I must be right).

In July 2013 Tredinnick sponsored an EDM congratulating a farmer on his decision to use homeopathy with what were claimed to be positive results.The motion was supported by one other MP but the British veterinary association says there is no evidence of any benefit.

Tredinnick is a supporter of astrology especially the use of it in medical practice.In November 2009, he spoke at a meeting organised by the Astrological Association of Great Britain, where he related his personal experience of astrology and illness, advocating that astrology be integrated into the NHS.

Tredinnick’s appointment to the Health committee in June 2010 was criticised in two science reports in the Guardian. Martin Robbins said his appointment was “an extremely disturbing development” even though “Tredinnick is a figure unlikely to be taken seriously by policymakers” whilst Nature‘s Adam Rutherford described Tredinnick as “misinformed about a great many things” and said that “giving [him] influence on medical policy ..is a bad move.”The Telegraph writer Ian Douglas also described it as “a problem.”

His appointment to the Science and technology committee also drew criticism. Andy McSmith in the Independent, cited his views that homeopathy could cure HIV, TB, malaria, urinary infections, diarrhoea, skin eruptions, diabetes, epilepsy, eye infections, intestinal parasites, cancer, and gangrene amongst others and quoted Imran Khan, head of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, as saying that “someone with such incredibly odd views is not helpful”. Tom Whipple in the Times said his appointment caused despair,whilst Elizabeth Gibney in the Times Higher Education quoted the Skeptical Voter website as saying that Tredinnick is “perhaps the worst example of scientific illiteracy in government”…

In 2009 Tredinnick attempted to claim the £125 cost of attending a course on “intimate relationships” through his Parliamentary expenses. He was also found to have used expenses to purchase astrology software, claiming it was for a debate on alternative medicine.

Compared to some of theses bizarre activities, the notion that herbal remedies might provide the solution for antibiotic resistance seems almost reasonable and clever.

ALMOST!!!

Tredinnick does not seem to know that:

  • many antibiotics originate from plants or other natural substances,
  • several large pharmaceutical companies are feverishly looking for more such substances from plants,
  • most plants do actually contain substances which have antibiotic activity,
  • however, most cannot be used as medicines, for instance, because they are far too toxic (tea tree oil is a good example for this),
  • once a pure compound has been isolated from a plant and is used therapeutically, it ceases to be herbal medicine (which is defined as the use of full plant extracts),
  • it is thus unlikely that full plant extracts, i. e. herbal medicine, will ever provide a solution to antibiotic resistance.

I have little doubt that Tredinnick will continue to mislead parliament and the public with his nonsensical views about alternative medicine. And even if it might have no effect whatsoever, I will continue to point out just how nonsensical they are.

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