MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

study design

If you want to scientifically investigate this question, it might be a good idea NOT to start with the following sentence: “Auricular acupuncture (AA) is effective in the treatment of preoperative anxiety”. Yet, this is exactly what the authors did in their recent publication.

The aim of this new study was to investigate whether AA can reduce exam anxiety as compared to placebo and no intervention. Forty-four medical students were randomized to receive AA, placebo, or no intervention in a crossover manner. Subsequently they completed three comparable oral anatomy exams with an interval of one month between the exams/interventions.

A licensed acupuncturist with more than five years of experience with this technique applied AA at the acupuncture points MA-IC1 (Lung), MA-TF1 (ear Shenmen), MA-SC (Kidney), MA-AT1 (Subcortex) and MA-TG (Adrenal gland) bilaterally. Indwelling fixed ‘New Pyonex’ needles embedded in a skin-coloured adhesive tape were used for AA. The participants were instructed by the acupuncturist to stimulate the auricular needles for 3–5 minutes, if they felt anxious. For the placebo procedure, ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles were attached to five sites on the helix of the auricle bilaterally. ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles have the same appearance as AA needles but consist of self-adhesive tape only. In order to avoid potential physiologic effects of acupressure, the participants were not instructed to stimulate the attached ‘New Pyonex’ placebo needles. AA and placebo needles were left in situ until the next day and were removed out of sight of the participants after the exam by the investigator, who was not involved in acupuncture procedure

Levels of anxiety were measured using a visual analogue scale before and after each intervention as well as before each exam. Additional measures included the State-Trait-Anxiety Inventory, duration of sleep at night, blood pressure, heart rate and the extent of participant blinding.

All included participants finished the study. Anxiety levels were reduced after AA and placebo intervention compared to baseline and the no intervention condition (p < 0.003). Moreover, AA was also better at reducing anxiety than placebo in the evening before the exam (p = 0.018). Participants were able to distinguish between AA and placebo intervention.

The authors concluded that both auricular acupuncture and placebo procedure were shown to be effective in reducing levels of exam anxiety in medical students. The superiority of verum AA over placebo AA and no intervention is considered to be due to stimulation of cranial nerves, but may have been increased in effect by insufficient participant blinding.

Here are just three of the major concerns I have about this study:

  • The trial design seems odd: a crossover study can only work well, if there is a stable baseline. This may not be the case with three consecutive exams; the anxiety experienced by students is bound to get less as time goes by. I think anyone who has passed a series of exams will confirm that there is a large degree of habituation.
  • It seems inadequate to employ just one acupuncturist; it means that the trial might end up testing not acupuncture per se but the skills of the therapist.
  • The placebo used for this study cannot possibly have fooled anyone into believing that it was real AA; volunteers were not even instructed to ‘stimulate’ the placebo devices. The difference to the ‘real thing’ must have been very clear to all involved. This means that the control for placebo-effects was woefully incomplete. In turn, this means that the observed outcomes are most likely due to residual bias.

In view of these concerns, allow me to re-phrase the authors’ conclusions:

THE RESULTS OF THIS POORLY-DESIGNED STUDY ARE DIFFICULT TO INTERPRET. MOST LIKELY THEY SHOW THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT EFFECTIVE BUT MERELY WORKS THROUGH A PLACEBO-RESPONSE.

Perhaps I have a weak spot for fish oil; more likely, however, I just like positive news – and, in alternative medicine, there is not much of it. That’s why I have written about the potential benefits of fish-oil again and again and again and again.

Reduced intake of fish oil, i.e. n−3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), may be a contributing factor to the increasing prevalence of asthma and other wheezing disorders. Yet the evidence is neither clear nor strong. This study was aimed at shedding more light on the issue; specifically, it tested the effect of supplementation with n−3 LCPUFAs in pregnant women on the risk of persistent wheeze and asthma in their offspring.

The investigators randomly assigned 736 pregnant women at 24 weeks of gestation to receive 2.4 g of n−3 LCPUFA (fish oil) or placebo (olive oil) per day. Their children were followed prospectively with extensive clinical phenotyping. Neither the investigators nor the participants were aware of group assignments during follow-up for the first 3 years of the children’s lives, after which there was a 2-year follow-up period during which only the investigators were unaware of group assignments. The primary end point was persistent wheeze or asthma, and the secondary end points included lower respiratory tract infections, asthma exacerbations, eczema, and allergic sensitization.

A total of 695 children were included in the trial, and 95.5% completed the 3-year, double-blind follow-up period. The risk of persistent wheeze or asthma in the treatment group was 16.9%, versus 23.7% in the control group (hazard ratio, 0.69; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.49 to 0.97; P=0.035), corresponding to a relative reduction of 30.7%. Prespecified subgroup analyses suggested that the effect was strongest in the children of women whose blood levels of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid were in the lowest third of the trial population at randomization: 17.5% versus 34.1% (hazard ratio, 0.46; 95% CI, 0.25 to 0.83; P=0.011). Analyses of secondary end points showed that supplementation with n−3 LCPUFA was associated with a reduced risk of infections of the lower respiratory tract (31.7% vs. 39.1%; hazard ratio, 0.75; 95% CI, 0.58 to 0.98; P=0.033), but there were no statistically significant associations between supplementation and asthma exacerbations, eczema, or allergic sensitization.

The authors concluded that supplementation with n−3 LCPUFA in the third trimester of pregnancy reduced the absolute risk of persistent wheeze or asthma and infections of the lower respiratory tract in offspring by approximately 7 percentage points, or one third.

The authors must be congratulated. This trial is stunning in many ways: it was carefully designed and executed; its results are clear and important; its write-up is excellent. The research was supported by private and public research funds, all of which are listed at www.copsac.com. The Lundbeck Foundation, the Danish Ministry of Health, the Danish Council for Strategic Research, the Danish Council for Independent Research, and the Capital Region Research Foundation provided core support.

It is debatable whether the intake of fish oil falls under the umbrella of alternative medicine. In a way, it reminds me of the famous saying: what do we call alternative medicine that works? We call it medicine. It also holds an important reminder for all who make claims about the benefit of alternative therapies: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Can these findings be translated into practical advice to consumers? The NEJM discussed this question in an accompanying article in which the case of a fictional pregnant woman (Ms. Franklin) was considered. Here is what they concluded: …there is benefit and little risk associated with n−3 LCPUFA supplementation. Even though we do not know Ms. Franklin’s EPA and DHA levels, there is likely to be a benefit for her child, at little risk, cost, or inconvenience. She should start taking n−3 LCPUFA supplements.

Despite my soft spot for fish oil, I might add that, while we give advice of this nature, we nevertheless need to insist on independent replications to have certainty.

The common cold is one of the indications for which homeopathy is deemed to be effective… by homeopaths that is! Non-homeopaths are understandably critical about this claim, not least because there is no good evidence for it. But, hold on, there is a new study which might change all this.

This study was recently published in COMPLEMENTARY THERAPIES IN MEDICINE which is supposed to be one of the better journals in this area. According to its authors, it was conducted “to determine if a homeopathic syrup was effective in treating cold symptoms in preschool children.” Children diagnosed with an upper respiratory tract infection were randomized to receive a commercial homeopathic cold syrup containing allium cepa 6X, hepar sulf calc 12X, natrum muriaticum 6X, phosphorous 12X, pulsatilla 6X, sulphur 12X, and hydrastasis 6X or placebo. Parents administered the study medication as needed for 3 days. The primary outcome was change in symptoms one hour after each dose. Parents also assessed the severity of each of the symptoms of runny nose, cough, congestion and sneezing at baseline and twice daily for 3 days, using a 4-point rating scale. A composite cold score was calculated by combining the values for each of the four symptoms. Among 261 eligible participants, data on 957 doses of study medication in 154 children were analyzed. There was no significant difference in improvement one hour after the dose for any symptom between the two groups. Analysis of twice daily data on the severity of cold symptoms compared to baseline values found that improvements in sneezing, cough and the composite cold score were significantly greater at both the first and second assessments among those receiving the cold syrup compared to placebo recipients.

The authors concluded that the homeopathic syrup appeared to be effective in reducing the severity of cold symptoms in the first day after beginning treatment.

Where to start? There are so many problems with this study that I find it difficult to chose the most crucial ones:

  • The study had a clearly defined primary endpoint; it was not affected by the homeopathic treatment which doubtlessly makes the study a negative trial. The only correct conclusion therefore is that THE HOMEOPATHIC SYRUP FAILED TO AFFECT THE PRIMARY OUTCOME MEASURE OF THIS STUDY. THEREFORE THE TRIAL DID NOT PRODUCE ANY EVIDENCE TO ASSUME THAT THE EXPERIMENTAL TREATMENT WAS EFFICACIOUS.
  • I don’t think that many of the primary or secondary outcome measures are validated or reliable.
  • All the positive results reported in the abstract and the article relate to secondary endpoints which are purely explanatory by nature. They should, in my view, not be mentioned in the conclusions at all.
  • The fact that some results turned out to be positive can be explained by the fact that the investigators ran dozens of tests for statistical significance which means that, by simple chance, some will turn out to produce a positive result.
  • A further explanation for the seemingly positive results might be the fact disclosed in the text of the article that the children in the homeopathy group received more conventional drugs than those in the placebo group.
  • Whatever the reason for these positive results, they certainly had nothing to do with the homeopathic syrup.
  • The study was funded by the company producing the syrup and for which one of the authors was employed as a consultant. This might be an explanation for the abominably poor science. In other words, this paper is not an exercise in testing a hypothesis but one in marketing.

While I might forgive the company for trying to maximise their sales figures, I do find it harder to forgive the authors, reviewers and editors for publishing such overtly false conclusions. In my view, they are all guilty of scientific misconduct.

Meniscus-injuries are common and there is no consensus as to how best treat them. Physiotherapists tend to advocate exercise, while surgeons tend to advise surgery.

Of course, exercise is not a typical alternative therapy but, as many alternative practitioners might disagree with this statement because they regularly recommend it to their patients, it makes sense to cover it on this blog. So, is exercise better than surgery for meniscus-problems?

The aim of this recent Norwegian study aimed to shed some light on this question. Specifically wanted to determine whether  exercise therapy is superior to arthroscopic partial meniscectomy for knee function in  patients with degenerative meniscal tears.

A total of 140 adults with degenerative medial meniscal tear verified by magnetic resonance imaging were randomised to either receiving 12 week supervised exercise therapy alone, or arthroscopic partial meniscectomy alone. Intention to treat analysis of between group difference in change in knee injury and osteoarthritis outcome score (KOOS4), defined a priori as the mean score for four of five KOOS subscale scores (pain, other symptoms, function in sport and recreation, and knee related quality of life) from baseline to two-year follow-up and change in thigh muscle strength from baseline to three months.

The results showed no clinically relevant difference between the two groups in change in KOOS4 at two years (0.9 points, 95% confidence interval −4.3 to 6.1; P=0.72). At three months, muscle strength had improved in the exercise group (P≤0.004). No serious adverse events occurred in either group during the two-year follow-up. 19% of the participants allocated to exercise therapy crossed over to surgery during the two-year follow-up, with no additional benefit.

The authors concluded that the observed difference in treatment effect was minute after two years of follow-up, and the trial’s inferential uncertainty was sufficiently small to exclude clinically relevant differences. Exercise therapy showed positive effects over surgery in improving thigh muscle strength, at least in the short-term. Our results should encourage clinicians and middle-aged patients with degenerative meniscal tear and no definitive radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis to consider supervised exercise therapy as a treatment option.

As I stated above, I mention this trial because exercise might be considered by some as an alternative therapy. The main reason for including it is, however, that it is in many ways an exemplary good study from which researchers in alternative medicine could learn.

Like so many alternative therapies, exercise is a treatment for which placebo-controlled studies are difficult, if not impossible. But that does not mean that rigorous tests of its value are impossible. The present study shows the way how it can be done.

Meaningful clinical research is no rocket science; it merely needs well-trained scientists who are willing to test the (rather than promote) their hypotheses. Sadly such individuals are as rare as gold dust in the realm of alternative medicine.

On 25 and 26 May of this year I wrote two posts about an acupuncture trial that, in my view, was dodgy. To refresh your memory, here is the relevant part of the 2nd post:

This new study was designed as a randomized, sham-controlled trial of acupuncture for persistent allergic rhinitis in adults investigated possible modulation of mucosal immune responses. A total of 151 individuals were randomized into real and sham acupuncture groups (who received twice-weekly treatments for 8 weeks) and a no acupuncture group. Various cytokines, neurotrophins, proinflammatory neuropeptides, and immunoglobulins were measured in saliva or plasma from baseline to 4-week follow-up.

Statistically significant reduction in allergen specific IgE for house dust mite was seen only in the real acupuncture group. A mean (SE) statistically significant down-regulation was also seen in pro-inflammatory neuropeptide substance P (SP) 18 to 24 hours after the first treatment. No significant changes were seen in the other neuropeptides, neurotrophins, or cytokines tested. Nasal obstruction, nasal itch, sneezing, runny nose, eye itch, and unrefreshed sleep improved significantly in the real acupuncture group (post-nasal drip and sinus pain did not) and continued to improve up to 4-week follow-up.

The authors concluded that acupuncture modulated mucosal immune response in the upper airway in adults with persistent allergic rhinitis. This modulation appears to be associated with down-regulation of allergen specific IgE for house dust mite, which this study is the first to report. Improvements in nasal itch, eye itch, and sneezing after acupuncture are suggestive of down-regulation of transient receptor potential vanilloid 1.

…the trial itself raises a number of questions:

  1. Which was the primary outcome measure of this trial?
  2. What was the power of the study, and how was it calculated?
  3. For which outcome measures was the power calculated?
  4. How were the subjective endpoints quantified?
  5. Were validated instruments used for the subjective endpoints?
  6. What type of sham was used?
  7. Are the reported results the findings of comparisons between verum and sham, or verum and no acupuncture, or intra-group changes in the verum group?
  8. What other treatments did each group of patients receive?
  9. Does anyone really think that this trial shows that “acupuncture is a safe, effective and cost-effective treatment for allergic rhinitis”?

In the comments section, the author wrote: “after you have read the full text and answered most of your questions for yourself, it might then be a more appropriate time to engage in any meaningful discussion, if that is in fact your intent”, and I asked him to send me his paper. As he does not seem to have the intention to do so, I will answer the questions myself and encourage everyone to have a close look at the full paper [which I can supply on request].

  1. The myriad of lab tests were defined as primary outcome measures.
  2. Two sentences are offered, but they do not allow me to reconstruct how this was done.
  3. No details are provided.
  4. Most were quantified with a 3 point scale.
  5. Mostly not.
  6. Needle insertion at non-acupoints.
  7. The results are a mixture of inter- and intra-group differences.
  8. Patients were allowed to use conventional treatments and the frequency of this use was reported in patient diaries.
  9. I don’t think so.

So, here is my interpretation of this study:

  • It lacked power for many outcome measures, certainly the clinical ones.
  • There were hardly any differences between the real and the sham acupuncture group.
  • Most of the relevant results were based on intra-group changes, rather than comparing sham with real acupuncture, a fact, which is obfuscated in the abstract.
  • In a controlled trial fluctuations within one group must never be interpreted as caused by the treatment.
  • There were dozens of tests for statistical significance, and there seems to be no correction for multiple testing.
  • Thus the few significant results that emerged when comparing sham with real acupuncture might easily be false positives.
  • Patient-blinding seems questionable.
  • McDonald as the only therapist of the study might be suspected to have influenced his patients through verbal and non-verbal communications.

I am sure there are many more flaws, particularly in the stats, and I leave it to others to identify them. The ones I found are, however, already serious enough, in my view, to call for a withdrawal of this paper. Essentially, the authors seem to have presented a study with largely negative findings as a trial with positive results showing that acupuncture is an effective therapy for allergic rhinitis. Subsequently, McDonald went on social media to inflate his findings even more. One might easily ask: is this scientific misconduct or just poor science?

END OF QUOTE

This and the previous post created lots of discussion and comments. However, the question whether the study in question amounted to scientific misconduct was never satisfactorily resolved. Therefore, I decided to write to the editor of ‘Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol‘ where the trial had been published. He answered by saying I would need to file an official complaint for him to address the issue. On 13 June, I therefore sent him the following email:

Thank you for your letter of 3/6/2016 suggesting I make a formal complaint about the paper entitled ‘EFFECT OF ACUPUNCTURE ON HOUSE DUST MITE…’ [ Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2016] by McDonald et al. I herewith wish to file such a complaint.

The article in question reports an RCT of acupuncture for persistent allergic rhinitis. It followed a parallel group design with 3 groups receiving the following interventions:

1.       Acupuncture

2.       Sham-acupuncture

3.       No treatment

There was a plethora of outcome measures and time points on which they were measured. A broad range of parameters was defined as primary endpoints.

The conclusion reached by the authors essentially was that acupuncture affected several outcome measures in a positive sense, thus supporting the notion that acupuncture is efficacious [“Symptoms and quality of life improved significantly and were still continuing to improve 4 weeks after treatment ceased.”] This conclusion, however, is misleading and needs correcting.

The main reasons for this are as follows:

·         Despite the fact that the authors did many dozens of statistical tests for significance, they did not correct for this multiplicity of tests. Consequently, some or most of the significant results are likely to be false positive.

·         Many of the positive results of this paper were not obtained by comparing one group to another but by doing before/after comparisons within one group. This approach defies the principle of a controlled clinical trial. For doing intra-group comparisons, we obviously do not need any control group at all. The findings from intra-group comparisons are prominently reported in the paper, for instance in the abstract, giving the impression that they originate from inter-group comparisons. One has to read the paper very carefully to find that, when inter-group comparisons were conducted, their results did NOT confirm the findings from the reported intra-group comparisons. As this is the case for most of the symptomatic endpoints, the impression given is seriously misleading and needs urgent correction.

On the whole, the article is a masterpiece of obfuscation and misrepresentation of the actual data. I urge you to consider the harm than can be done by such a misleading publication. In my view, the best way to address this problem is to withdraw the article.

I look forward to your decision.

Regards

E Ernst

END OF QUOTE

I had to send several reminders but my most recent one prompted the following response dated 7/11/ 2016:

Dear Professor Ernst,
Thank you for your patience while we worked through the process of considering your complaints levied on the article entitled ‘EFFECT OF ACUPUNCTURE ON HOUSE DUST MITE…’ [ Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2016] by McDonald et al. I considered the points that you made in your previous letter, sought input from our editorial team (including our biostatistics editor) , our publisher and the authors themselves. I sent the the  charges ( point by point) anonymously to the authors and allowed them time to respond which they did. I had their responses reviewed by selected editors and , as a result of this process, have decided not to pursue any corrective or punitive action based upon the following :
 
  1. Our editorial team recognizes that this is not the best clinical trial we have published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. However, neither is is the worst. As in most published research studies, there are always things that could have been done better to make it a stronger paper. Never-the-less, the criticism falls fall short of any sort of remedy that would include withdrawal of the manuscript.
  2. Regarding your accusation that the multiple positive endpoint resulted in the authors making specific therapeutic claims, our assessment is that no specific therapeutic claim was made but rather the authors maintained that the data support the value of acupuncture in improving symptoms and quality of life in patients with AR. We do not believe there was overreach in those statements.
  3. The authors’ stated intent was to show immune changes associated with clinical markers of improvement in the active acupuncture group compared to controls. The authors maintain (and our editors agree) that their data assessments were primarily based upon three statistical tests not “dozens” (as stated in your original letter of complaint).  The power analysis and sample size calculations were presented to us and deemed adequate , making the probability of a type I error quite low.
  4. The authors acknowledge in their paper that there could be limitations to their data interpretation based upon potential disparities between intra- and intergroup comparisons. The editors felt their transparency was adequately disclosed.
In summary, as editor-in-chief of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, I did not find sufficient merit in your charges to initiate any corrective or punitive action for this manuscript. I understand you will strongly disagree with this decision and I regret that. However, in the final analysis, my primary intent is to preserve the objectivity, fairness, and integrity of our journal and its review process. I believe I have accomplished that in this instance.
 
Sincerely
END OF QUOTE
This seems to settle the issue: the study in question does not involve scientific misconduct!
Or does it?
I would be grateful for the view of the readers of this post.

Stable angina is a symptom of coronary heart disease which, in turn, is amongst the most frequent causes of death in developed countries. It is an alarm bell to any responsible clinician and requires causal, often life-saving treatments of which we today have several options. The last thing a patient needs in this condition is ACUPUNCTURE, I would say.

Yet acupuncture is precisely the therapy such patients might be tempted to employ.

Why?

Because irresponsible or criminally naïve acupuncturists advertise it!

Take this website, for instance; it informs us that a meta-analysis of eight clinical trials conducted between 2000 and 2014 demonstrates the efficacy of acupuncture for the treatment of stable angina. In all eight clinical trials, patients treated with acupuncture experienced a greater rate of angina relief than those in the control group treated with conventional drug therapies (90.1% vs 75.7%)….

I imagine that this sounds very convincing to patients and I fear that many might opt for acupuncture instead of potentially invasive/unpleasant but life-saving intervention. The original meta-analysis to which the above promotion referred to is equally optimistic. Here is its abstract:

Angina pectoris is a common symptom imperiling patients’ life quality. The aim of this study is to evaluate the efficacy and safety of acupuncture for stable angina pectoris. Clinical randomized-controlled trials (RCTs) comparing the efficacy of acupuncture to conventional drugs in patients with stable angina pectoris were searched using the following database of PubMed, Medline, Wanfang and CNKI. Overall odds ratio (ORs) and weighted mean difference (MD) with their 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated by using fixed- or random-effect models depending on the heterogeneity of the included trials. Total 8 RCTs, including 640 angina pectoris cases with 372 patients received acupuncture therapy and 268 patients received conventional drugs, were included. Overall, our result showed that acupuncture significantly increased the clinical curative effects in the relief of angina symptoms (OR=2.89, 95% CI=1.87-4.47, P<0.00001) and improved the electrocardiography (OR=1.83, 95% CI=1.23-2.71, P=0.003), indicating that acupuncture therapy was superior to conventional drugs. Although there was no significant difference in overall effective rate relating reduction of nitroglycerin between two groups (OR=2.13, 95% CI=0.90-5.07, P=0.09), a significant reduction on nitroglycerin consumption in acupuncture group was found (MD=-0.44, 95% CI=-0.64, -0.24, P<0.0001). Furthermore, the time to onset of angina relief was longer for acupuncture therapy than for traditional medicines (MD=2.44, 95% CI=1.64-3.24, P<0.00001, min). No adverse effects associated with acupuncture therapy were found. Acupuncture may be an effective therapy for stable angina pectoris. More clinical trials are needed to systematically assess the role of acupuncture in angina pectoris.

In the discussion section of the full paper, the authors explain that their analysis has several weaknesses:

Several limitations were presented in this meta-analysis. Firstly, conventional drugs in control group were different, this may bring some deviation. Secondly, for outcome of the time to onset of angina relief with acupuncture, only one trial included. Thirdly, the result of some outcomes presented in different expression method such as nitroglycerin consumption. Fourthly, acupuncture combined with traditional medicines or other factors may play a role in angina pectoris.

However, this does not deter them to conclude on a positive note:

In conclusion, we found that acupuncture therapy was superior to the conventional drugs in increasing the clinical curative effects of angina relief, improving the electrocardiography, and reducing the nitroglycerin consumption, indicating that acupuncture therapy may be effective and safe for treating stable angina pectoris. However, further clinical trials are needed to systematically and comprehensively evaluate acupuncture therapy in angina pectoris.

So, why do I find this irresponsibly and dangerously misleading?

Here a just a few reasons why this meta-analysis should not be trusted:

  • There was no systematic attempt to evaluate the methodological rigor of the primary studies; any meta-analysis MUST include such an assessment, or else it is not worth the paper it was printed on.
  • The primary studies all look extremely weak; this means they are likely to be false-positive.
  • They often assessed not acupuncture alone but in combination with other treatments; consequently the findings cannot be attributed to acupuncture.
  • All the primary studies originate from China; we have seen previously (see here and here) that Chinese acupuncture trials deliver nothing but positive results which means that their results cannot be trusted: they are false-positive.

My conclusion: the authors, editors and reviewers responsible for this article should be ashamed; they committed or allowed scientific misconduct, mislead the public and endangered patients’ lives.

Antrodia cinnamomea (AC) is a fungus which is used in Taiwan as a remedy for cancer, hypertension, hangover and other conditions. There are several commercial AC products and the annual market is worth over $100 million in Taiwan alone.

Several studies have suggested anti-cancer properties in vitro but few clinical trials have been reported. Now Taiwanese researchers published a double-blind, randomized clinical study to investigate whether AC had acceptable safety and efficacy in advanced cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

Patients with advanced and/or metastatic adenocarcinoma, performance status (PS) 0-2, and adequate organ function who had previously been treated with standard chemotherapy were randomly assigned to receive routine chemotherapy regimens with AC (20 ml twice daily) orally for 30 days or placebo. The primary endpoint was 6-month overall survival (OS); the secondary endpoints were disease control rate (DCR), quality of life (QoL), adverse event (AE), and biochemical features within 30 days of treatment.

A total of 37 subjects with gastric, lung, liver, breast, and colorectal cancer (17 in the AC group, 20 in the placebo group) were enrolled in the study. Disease progression was the primary cause of death in 4 (33.3 %) AC and 8 (66.7 %) placebo recipients. Mean OSs were 5.4 months for the AC group and 5.0 months for the placebo group (p = 0.340), and the DCRs were 41.2 and 55 %, respectively (p = 0.33). Most hematologic, liver, or kidney functions did not differ significantly between the two groups, but platelet counts were lower in the AC group than in the placebo group (p = 0.02). QoL assessments were similar in the two groups, except that the AC group showed significant improvements in quality of sleep (p = 0.04).

12906_2016_1312_fig2_html

The above figure shows the survival curves for both groups.

The authors concluded as follows: Although we found a lower mortality rate and longer mean OS in the AC group than in the control group, AC combined with chemotherapy was not shown to improve the outcome of advanced cancer patients, possibly due to the small sample size. In fact, the combination may present a potential risk of lowered platelet counts. Adequately powered clinical trials will be necessary to address this question.

I agree, the survival curve looks promising. But we must not get carried away: this was a tiny sample size and a relatively short treatment period. Thus the difference could be a coincidence or an artefact.

The investigators are sufficiently cautious in the interpretation of their findings, and most of us would probably agree that it is necessary to submit such traditional remedies to proper scientific tests. Yet, I feel a sense of unease when I read such articles.

On the one hand, it is possible that such investigations meaningfully contribute to progress. On the other hand, I wonder whether they merely end up providing a significant boost to the trade of bogus remedies sold at high prices to desperate patients. Do the benefits really out-weigh the risks? We will probably never know.

But to minimize the risk, the authors should now swiftly conduct a more definitive trial and create some clarity about the value or otherwise of this traditional cancer remedy.

A new study tested the efficacy of chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy (CSMT) for migraine. It was designed as a three-armed, single-blinded, placebo -controlled RCT of 17 months duration including 104 migraineurs with at least one migraine attack per month. Active treatment consisted of CSMT (group 1) and the placebo was a sham push manoeuvre of the lateral edge of the scapula and/or the gluteal region (group 2). The control group continued their usual pharmacological management (group 3).

The RCT began with a one-month run-in followed by three months intervention. The outcome measures were quantified at the end of the intervention and at 3, 6 and 12 months of follow-up. The primary end-point was the number of migraine days per month. Secondary end-points were migraine duration, migraine intensity and headache index, and medicine consumption.

The results show that migraine days were significantly reduced within all three groups from baseline to post-treatment (P < 0.001). The effect continued in the CSMT and placebo groups at all follow-up time points (groups 1 and 2), whereas the control group (group 3) returned to baseline. The reduction in migraine days was not significantly different between the groups. Migraine duration and headache index were reduced significantly more in the CSMT than in group 3 towards the end of follow-up. Adverse events were few, mild and transient. Blinding was strongly sustained throughout the RCT.

The authors concluded that it is possible to conduct a manual-therapy RCT with concealed placebo. The effect of CSMT observed in our study is probably due to a placebo response.

Chiropractors often cite clinical trials which suggest that CSMT might be effective. The effects sizes are rarely impressive, and it is tempting to suspect that the outcomes are mostly due to bias. Chiropractors, of course, deny such an explanation. Yet, to me, it seems fairly obvious: trials of CSMT are not blind, and therefore the expectation of the patient is likely to have major influence on the outcome.

Because of this phenomenon (and several others, of course), sceptics are usually unconvinced of the value of chiropractic. Chiropractors often respond by claiming that blind studies of physical intervention such as CSMT are not possible. This, however, is clearly not true; there have been several trials that employed sham treatments which adequately mimic CSMT. As these frequently fail to show what chiropractors had hoped, the methodology is intensely disliked by chiropractors.

The above study is yet another trial that adequately controls for patients’ expectation, and it shows that the apparent efficacy of CSMT disappears when this source of bias is properly accounted for. To me, such findings make a lot of sense, and I suspect that most, if not all the ‘positive’ studies of CSMT would turn out to be false positive, once such residual bias is eliminated.

This new study is amazing in several respects. It was conducted in Spain by otolaryngologists, and one of its authors is an employee of Boiron, the world’s biggest manufacturer of homeopathic products. It was designed as a double blind, placebo-controlled RCT. Patients aged 2 months to 12 years suffering from otitis media with effusion (OME), as diagnosed by pneumatic otoscopy (PNO) and tympanometry, were randomized into two groups. Both groups received aerosol therapy (mucolytics and corticosteroids). In addition, the experimental group received a homeopathic remedy of Agraphis nutans 5CH, Thuya Occidentalis 5CH, Kalium muriaticum 9CH and Arsenicum iodatum. The placebo group received placebos instead. Both of the treatments were continued for 3 months. Patients were evaluated by PNO examination and tympanometry at baseline, at 45 and 90 days.

A total of 97 patients were enrolled in this study. In the homeopathy group, 61.9% of individuals were cured according to PNO results by the 3rd visit compared with 56.8% of patients treated with placebo. 4.8% of patients in the homeopathy group suffered a recurrence (positive PNO in the 2nd visit changed to negative in the 3rd visit), while 11.4% did in the placebo group. These inter-group differences were not statistically significant. Adverse events were distributed similarly, except in the case of upper respiratory tract infections, which were less frequent in homeopathic group.

The authors of this new RCT concluded that the homeopathic scheme used as adjuvant treatment cannot be claimed to be an effective treatment in children with OME.

No surprises then – we already know that homeopathic remedies are placebos!

Sure, but at least two amazing features need to be pointed out:

  • I am delighted that the authors did not try to spin the results such that they appear to be positive. Some investigators might have emphasised the fact that there was a (non-significant) trend in favour of homeopathy, and that, for a secondary outcome measure (upper respiratory infections), it even reached the level of statistical significance.
  • Considering that this study was obviously Boiron-sponsored and its list of authors included an employee of this firm, such honesty can’t have been easy to maintain.
  • The design of this RCT is also worth a mention: most alt med proponents seem to think that ‘adjunctive’ use of alt med needs to be tested via the infamous ‘A+B vs B’ design which fails to control for placebo effects and therefore invariably produces false positive findings. The authors of this trial did the right thing by randomising their patients into usual care + homeopathy vs usual care + placebo. This is very simple and has the advantage to actually provide a meaningful result.

In view of all this, I raise my hat to the Spanish researchers: very well done!!!

If all trials of homeopathy were conducted and reported in this honourable fashion, the collective evidence would be in a much better state and far less confusing.

After > 200 years of existence, homeopathy still remains unproven – in fact, most rational thinkers would call it disproven. Today only homeopaths doubt this statement; they work hard to find a water-tight proof that might show the doubters to be wrong.

What is better suited for this purpose than a few rigorous animal experiments?

Engystol® is a popular homeopathic product promoted as an anti-viral agent manufactured by Heel GmbH, Baden-Baden, Germany. In several in vivo and in vitro studies, it apparently affected an immune response. This new study was to “evaluate the innate and adaptive immuno-modulatory effects of oral Engystol® (1 or 10 tablets/L water consumed), prior to and post antigenic challenge in a mouse model with a well-characterized and clinically measureable immune system.”

The investigators first evaluated the murine immune response when oral Engystol® was given alone for 28 days. to mice. The animals were then challenged with an antigen-specific H5N1 HA vaccine while on Engystol® for an additional 33 days. Serum and supernatants from cultured splenic lymphocytes were collected and screened with a 32-cytokine panel. Serum vaccine epitope-specific IgG titers plus T cell and B cell phenotypes from splenic tissue were also evaluated.

The results showed that Engystol® alone did not alter immunity. However, upon vaccine challenge, Engystol® decreased CD4+/CD8+ ratios, altered select cytokines/chemokines, and anti-H5N1 HA IgG titers were increased in the group of mice receiving 10 tablet/L.

The authors concluded that “these data suggest that Engystol® can modulate immunity upon antigenic challenge.”

Engystol is being advertised as “a homeopathic preparation which has been scientifically proven to significantly reduce the duration and severity of symptoms during an acute viral infection and help protect from subsequent infections.” I was unable find good evidence for this claim and therefore have to assume that it is bogus. The only human trial I was able to locate was this one:

OBJECTIVE:

To compare the effects of a complex homeopathic preparation (Engystol; Heel GmbH, Baden-Baden, Germany) with those of conventional therapies with antihistamines, antitussives, and nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs on upper respiratory symptoms of the common cold in a setting closely related to everyday clinical practice.

DESIGN:

Nonrandomized, observational study over a treatment period of maximally two weeks.

SETTING:

Eighty-five general and homeopathic practices in Germany.

PARTICIPANTS:

Three hundred ninety-seven patients with upper respiratory symptoms of the common cold.

INTERVENTIONS:

Engystol-based therapy or common over-the-counter treatments for the common cold. Patients receiving this homeopathic treatment were allowed other short-term medications, but long-term use of analgesics, antibiotics, and antiinflammatory agents was not permitted. Patients were allowed nonpharmacological therapies such as vitamins, thermotherapies, and others.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES:

The effects of treatment were evaluated on the variables fatigue, sensation of illness, chill/tremor, aching joints, overall severity of illness, sum of all clinical variables, temperature, and time to symptomatic improvement.

RESULTS:

Both treatment regimens provided significant symptomatic relief, and this homeopathic treatment was noninferior in a noninferiority analysis. Significantly more patients (P < .05) using Engystol-based therapy reported improvement within 3 days (77.1% vs 61.7% for the control group). No adverse events were reported in any of the treatment groups.

CONCLUSION:

This homeopathic treatment may be a useful component of an integrated symptomatic therapy for the common cold in patients and practitioners choosing an integrative approach to medical care.

Let me comment on the human study first. It is an excellent example of the bias that can be introduced by non-randomization. The patients in the homeopathic group obviously were those who chose to be treated homeopathically. Consequently they had high expectations in this therapy. Consequently they reported better results than the control group. In other words the reported outcomes have nothing to do with the homeopathic remedy.

But what about the animal study? Animals, we hear so often, do not exhibit a placebo response. Does that render this investigation any more reliable?

The answer, I am afraid is no.

The animal study in question had no control group at all. Therefore a myriad of factors could have caused the observed result. This study is very far from a poof of homeopathy!

But even if the findings of the two studies had not been the result of bias and confounding, I would be more than cautious about viewing them as anything near conclusive. The reason lies in the nature of this particular homeopathic remedy.

Engystol® contains Vincetoxicum hirundinaria (D6), Vincetoxicum hirundinaria (D10), Vincetoxicum hirundinaria (D30), sulphur (D4) and sulphur (D10). In other words, it is one of those combination remedies which are not sufficiently dilute to be devoid of active molecules. Sulphur D4, for instance, means that the remedy contains one part of sulphur in 10 000 parts of diluent. It is conceivable, even likely that such a concentration might affect certain immune parameters, I think.

And my conclusion from all this?

The proof of homeopathy – if it ever came – would need to be based on investigations that are more rigorous than these two rather pathetic studies.

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