MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Samueli Institute

It has been announced that Susan and Henry Samueli have given US$ 200 million to medical research at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Surely this is a generous and most laudable gift! How could anyone doubt it?

As with any gift, one ought to ask what precisely it is for. If someone made a donation to research aimed at showing that climate change is a hoax, that white supremacy is justified, or that Brexit is going to give Brits their country back, I doubt that it would be a commendable thing. My point is that research must always be aimed at finding the truth and discovering facts. Research that is guided by creed, belief or misinformation is bound to be counter-productive, and a donation to such activities is likely to be detrimental.

Back to the Samuelis! The story goes that Susan once had a cold, took a homeopathic remedy, and subsequently the cold went away. Ever since, the two Samuelis have been supporters not just of homeopathy but all sorts of other alternative therapies. I have previously called this strikingly common phenomenon an ‘epiphany‘. And the Samuelis’ latest gift is clearly aimed at promoting alternative medicine in the US. We only need to look at what their other major donation in this area has achieved, and we can guess what is now going to happen at UCI. David Gorski has eloquently written about the UCI donation, and I will therefore not repeat the whole, sad story.

Instead I want to briefly comment on what, in my view, should happen, if a wealthy benefactor donates a large sum of money to medical research. How can one maximise the effects of such a donation? Which areas of research should one consider? I think the concept of prior probability can be put to good use in such a situation. If I were the donor, I would convene a panel of recognised experts and let them advise me where there are the greatest chances of generating important breakthroughs. If one followed this path, alternative medicine would not appear anywhere near the top preferences, I dare to predict.

But often, like in the case of the Samuelis, the donors have concrete ideas about the area of research they want to invest in. So, what could be done with a large sum in the field of alternative medicine? I believe that plenty of good could come it. All one needs to do is to make absolutely sure that a few safeguards are in place:

  • believers in alternative medicine must be kept out of any decisions processes;
  • people with a solid background in science and a track-record in critical thinking must be put in charge;
  • the influence of the donor on the direction of the research must be minimised as much as possible;
  • a research agenda must be defined that is meaningful and productive (this could include research into the risks of alternative therapies, the ethical standards in alternative medicine, the fallacious thinking of promoters of alternative medicine, the educational deficits of alternative practitioners, the wide-spread misinformation of the public about alternative medicine, etc., etc.)

Under all circumstances, one needs to avoid that the many pseudo-scientists who populate the field of alternative or integrative medicine get appointed. This, I fear, will not be an easy task. They will say that one needs experts who know all about the subtleties of acupuncture, homeopathy, energy-healing etc. But such notions are merely smoke-screens aimed at getting the believers into key positions. My advice is to vet all candidates using my concept of the ‘trustworthiness index’.

How can I be so sure? Because I have been there, and I have seen it all. I have researched this area for 25 years and published more about it than any of the untrustworthy believers. During this time I trained about 90 co-workers, and I have witnessed one thing over and over again: someone who starts out as a believer, will hardly ever become a decent scientist and therefore never produce any worthwhile research; but a good scientist will always be able to acquire the necessary knowledge in this or that alternative therapy to conduct rigorous and meaningful research.

So, how should the UCI spend the $ 200 million? Apparently the bulk of the money will be to appoint 15 faculty chairs across medicine, nursing, pharmacy and population health disciplines. They envisage that these posts will go to people with expertise in integrative medicine. This sounds extremely ominous to me. If this project is to be successful, these posts should go to scientists who are sceptical about alternative medicine and their main remit should be to rigorously test hypotheses. Remember: testing a hypothesis means trying everything to show that it is wrong. Only when all attempts to do so have failed can one assume that perhaps the hypothesis was correct.

My experience tells me that experts in integrative medicine are quite simply intellectually and emotionally incapable of making serious attempts showing that their beliefs are wrong. If the UCI does, in fact, appoint people with expertise in integrative medicine, it is, I fear, unavoidable that we will see:

  • research that fails to address relevant questions;
  • research that is of low quality;
  • promotion masquerading as research;
  • more and more misleading findings of the type we regularly discuss on this blog;
  • a further boost of the fallacious concept of integrative medicine;
  • a watering down of evidence-based medicine;
  • irreversible damage to the reputation of the UCI.

In a nutshell, instead of making progress, we will take decisive steps back towards the dark ages.

The ‘Samueli Institute’ might be known to many readers of this blog; it is a wealthy institution that is almost entirely dedicated to promoting the more implausible fringe of alternative medicine. The official aim is “to create a flourishing society through the scientific exploration of wellness and whole-person healing“. Much of its activity seems to be focused on military medical research. Its co-workers include Harald Walach who recently was awarded a rare distinction for his relentless efforts in introducing esoteric pseudo-science into academia.

Now researchers from the Californian branch of the Samueli Institute have published an articles whic, in my view, is another landmark in nonsense.

Jain and colleagues conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine whether Healing Touch with Guided Imagery [HT+GI] reduced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to treatment as usual (TAU) in “returning combat-exposed active duty military with significant PTSD symptoms“. HT is a popular form of para-normal healing where the therapist channels “energy” into the patient’s body; GI is a self-hypnotic from of relaxation-therapy. While the latter approach might be seen as plausible and, at least to some degree, evidence-based, the former cannot.

123 soldiers were randomized to 6 sessions of HT+GI, while the control group had no such therapies. All patients also received standard conventional therapies, and the treatment period was three weeks. The results showed significant reductions in PTSD symptoms as well as depression for HT+GI compared to controls. HT+GI also showed significant improvements in mental quality of life and cynicism.

The authors concluded that HT+GI resulted in a clinically significant reduction in PTSD and related symptoms, and that further investigations of biofield therapies for mitigating PTSD in military populations are warranted.

The Samueli Institute claims to “support science grounded in observation, investigation, and analysis, and [to have] the courage to ask challenging questions within a framework of systematic, high-quality, research methods and the peer-review process“. I do not think that the above-named paper lives up to these standards.

As discussed in some detail in a previous post, this type of study-design is next to useless for determining whether any intervention does any good at all: A+B is always more than B alone! Moreover, if we test HT+GI as a package, how can we conclude about the effectiveness of one of the two interventions? Thus this trial tells us next to nothing about the effectiveness of HT, nor about the effectiveness of HT+GI.

Previously, I have argued that conducting a trial for which the result is already clear before the first patient has been recruited, is not ethical. Samueli Institute, however, claims that it “acts with the highest respect for the public it serves by ensuring transparency, responsible management and ethical practices from discovery to policy and application“. Am I the only one who senses a contradiction here?

Perhaps other research in this area might be more informative? Even the most superficial Medline-search brings to light a flurry of articles on HT and other biofield therapies that are relevant.

Several trials have indeed produces promissing evidence suggesting positive effects of such treatments on anxiety and other symptoms. But the data are far from uniform, and most investigations are wide open to bias. The more rigorous studies seem to suggest that these interventions are not effective beyond placebo. Our review demonstrated that “the evidence is insufficient” to suggest that reiki, another biofield therapy, is an effective treatment for any condition.

Another study showed that tactile touch led to significantly lower levels of anxiety. Conventional massage may even be better than HT, according to some trials. The conclusion from this body of evidence is, I think, fairly obvious: touch can be helpful (most clinicians knew that anyway) but this has nothing to do with energy, biofields, healing energy or any of the other implausible assumptions these treatments are based on.

I therefore disagree with the authors’ conclusion that “further investigation into biofield therapies… is warranted“. If we really want to help patients, let’s find out more about the benefits of touch and let’s not mislead the public about some mystical energies and implausible quackery. And if we truly want to improve heath care, as the Samueli Institute claims, let’s use our limited resources for research which meaningfully contributes to our knowledge.

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