Edzard Ernst


Last Friday, it was announced in Vienna that Prof Harald Walach is the recipient of a prestigious award. The Austrian ‘Society for Critical Thinking’ wanted to officially recognise Walach for his “unique effort to introduce science-free theories into academia“.

Walach is professor at the Europa-Universitaet Viadrina where he investigates alternative medicine as well as much more exotic subjects. During recent months, Walach made  headlines because he had published research allegedly showing that, with the use of a “Kozyrev mirror“, one can open channels of time and space and make telepathy a reality.

In the laudatio, it was pointed out that Walach’s claim to fame is his attempt to render bullshit more respectable by pressing it through the channels of his university. The end result, the speaker stressed, is not that bullshit becomes non-bullshit, but that the university stinks.

Most of Walach’s research is in the area of the more implausible end of the alternative medicine spectrum, e.g. homeopathy and spiritual healing. He also is the editor in chief of a journal specialised in alternative medicine which virtually never publishes a negative result and where he frequently promotes his bizarrely irrational concepts.

Crucially, Walach is a member of the scientific advisory board of CAM-media-watch a blog run by Claus Fritzsche and sponsored by the homeopathic manufacturer Heel who also happens to be the donor for Walach’s university chair. Fritzsche and Walach have many things in common, not just the sponsor or the obsession with irrationality but also the fact that they frequently and unfairly attack me and my work.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Walach for this remarkable award — they could not have found a more deserving pseudo-scientist!

We all remember the libel case of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against Simon Singh, I’m sure. The BCA lost, and the chiropractic profession was left in disarray.

One would have thought that chiropractors have learnt a lesson from this experience which, after all, resulted in a third of all UK chiropractors facing disciplinary proceedings. One would have thought that chiropractors had enough of their attempts to pursue others when, in fact, they themselves were clearly in the wrong. One would have thought that chiropractors would eventually focus on providing us with some sound evidence about their treatments. One would have thought that chiropractors might now try to get their act together.

Yet it seems that such hopes are being sorely disappointed. In particular, chiropractors continue to attack those who have the courage to publicly criticise them. The proof for this statement is that, during the last few months, chiropractors took direct or indirect actions against me on three different occasions.

The first complaint was made by a chiropractor to the PRESS COMPLAINTS COMMISSION (PCC). The GUARDIAN had commented on a paper that I had just published which demonstrated that many trials of chiropractic fail to mention adverse effects. If nothing else, this omission amounts to a serious breach of publication ethics and is thus not a trivial matter. However, the chiropractor felt that the GUARDIAN and I were essentially waging a war against chiropractors in order to tarnish the reputation and public image of chiropractors. The PCC considered the case and promptly dismissed it.

The second complaint was made by a local chiropractor to my university. He alleged that I had been generally unfair in my publications on the subject and, specifically, he claimed that, in a recent systematic review of deaths after chiropractic treatments, I had committed what he called “research misconduct”. My university considered the case and promptly dismissed it.

The third and probably most significant complaint was also made by a chiropractor directly to my university. This time, the allegation was that I had fabricated data in an article published as long ago as 1996. The chiropractor in question had previously already tried three times to attack me through complaints and through his publications. Crucially, several years ago he had filed a formal complaint with the General Medical Council (GMC) claiming that, in my published articles, I systematically and wilfully misquoted the chiropractic literature. At the time, the GMC had ruled that his accusation had been unfounded.

Presumably to increase his chances of success for his fourth attempt, his new complaint to my university was backed up by a supporting letter from the WORLD FEDERATION OF CHIROPRACTIC. This document stated that my publications relating to the risks of chiropractic had “serious scientific shortcomings” and suggested that Exeter University “publicly distance itself from Prof Ernst’s publications on chiropractic, to enhance the reputation of the university”. My university peers considered the case and promptly dismissed it.

At this point, I should perhaps explain that my university has, in the past, been less than protective towards me. During the last decade or so, complaints angainst me had become a fairly regular occurrence, and invariably, my peers have taken them very seriously. When the first private secretary of Charles Windsor filed one, they even deemed it appropriate to conduct an official 13 month long investigation into my alleged wrong-doings. Thus my peers’ dismissal of the two chiropractors’ claims indicates to me that their two recent complaints must have been truly and utterly devoid of substance.

The three deplorable episodes summarised here speak for themselves, I think. I will therefore abstain from further comments and am delighted to leave this task to the readers of this blog.

Cancer patients are understandably desperate to try every treatment that promises a cure. They often turn to the Internet where they find thousands of “alternative” cancer cures being sold often for exorbitant cost. One of them is Ukrain.

Ukrain is based on two natural substances: alkaloids from the Greater Celandine and Thiotepa. It was developed by Dr Wassil Nowicky who allegedly cured his brother’s testicular cancer with his invention. Despite its high cost of about £50 per injection, Ukrain has become popular in the UK and elsewhere.

Ukrain has its name from the fact that the brothers Nowicky originate from the Ukraine, where also much of the research on this drug was conducted. When I say much, I should stress that I use this word in relative terms. In the realm of “alternative” cancer cures, we often find no clinical studies at all. For Ukrain, however, the situation is refreshingly different; there are a number of trials, and the question is, what do they really tell us?

In 2005, we decided to review all the clinical studies which had tested the efficacy of Ukrain. Somewhat to our surprise, we found 7 randomised clinical trials. Even more surprising, we thought, was the fact that all of them reported baffling cure rates. So, were we excited to have identified a cure for even the most incurable cancers? The short answer to this question is NO.

All of the trials were methodologically weak; but, as this is not uncommon in the area of alternative medicine, it did not irritate us all that much. Far more remarkable was the fact that these studies seemed to be odd in several other ways.

Their results seemed too good to be true; all but one trial came from the Ukraine where research governance might have been less than adequate. The authors of the studies seemed to overlap and often included Nowicky himself. They were published in only two different journals of little impact. The only non-Ukrainian trial came from Germany and was not much better: its lead author happened to be the editor of the journal where it was published; more importantly, the paper lacked crucial methodological details, which rendered the findings difficult to interpret, and the trial had a tiny sample size.

Collectively, these circumstances were enough for us to be very cautious. Consequently, we stated that “numerous caveats prevent a positive conclusion”.

Despite our caution, this article became much cited, and cancer centres around the world began to wonder whether they should take Ukrain more seriously; many integrative cancer clinics even started using the drug in their clinical routine. Dr Nowicky, who meanwhile had established his base in Vienna from where he marketed his drug, must have been delighted.

Soon, numerous websites sprang up praising Ukrain: “It is the first medicament in the world that accumulates in the cores of cancer cells very quickly after administration and kills only cancer cells while leaving healthy cells undamaged. Its inventor and patent holder Dr Wassil Nowicky was nominated for the Nobel Prize for this medicament in 2005…”  .

Somehow, I doubt this thing with the Nobel Prize. What I do not question for a minute, however, is this press release by the Austrian police: since January, the Viennese police have been investigating Dr Nowicky. During a “major raid” on 4 September 2012, he and his accomplices were arrested under the suspicion of commercial fraud. Nowicky was accused of illegally producing and selling the unlicensed drug Ukrain. The financial damage was estimated to be in the region of 5 million Euros.

I fear, however, that the damage done on desperate cancer patients across the world might be much greater. Generally speaking, “alternative” cancer cures are not just a menace, they are a contradiction in terms: there is no such a thing and there will never be one. If tomorrow this or that alternative remedy shows some promise as a cancer cure, it will be investigated by mainstream oncology with some urgency; and if the findings turn out to be positive, the eventual result would be a new cancer treatment. To assume that oncologists might ignore a promising treatment simply because it originates from the realm of alternative medicine is idiotic and supposes that oncologists are mean bastards who do not care about their patients – and this, of course, is an accusation which one might rather direct towards the irresponsible purveyors of “alternative” cancer cures.

Why another blog offering critical analyses of the weird and wonderful stuff that is going on in the world of alternative medicine? The answer is simple: compared to the plethora of uncritical misinformation on this topic, the few blogs that do try to convey more reflected, sceptical views are much needed; and the more we have of them, the better.

But my blog is not going to provide just another critique of alternative medicine; it is going to be different, I hope. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: I have researched alternative medicine for two decades. My team and I have conducted about 40 clinical trials and published more than 100 systematic reviews of alternative medicine. We were by far the most productive research unit in this area. For 14 years, we hosted an annual international conference for researchers in this field. I know many of the leading investigators personally, and I understand their way of thinking. I have rehearsed every possible argument for or against alternative medicine dozens of times.

In a nutshell, I am not someone who judges alternative medicine from the outside; I come from within the field. Arguably, I am the only researcher in this area who is willing [or capable?] to state publicly what is wrong with alternative medicine. This is perhaps one of the advantages of being an emeritus professor!

People who have criticised this or that alternative therapy without first-hand experience of it have always been dismissed by believers as ill-informed; the argument usually is “this guy does not know what he is talking about”. Thus criticism from the outside was hardly ever taken seriously by those who needed it most. Yet it would be difficult to dismiss my arguments on such grounds: I can demonstrate that I have first-hand experience and know what I am talking about. I am clearly not an outsider.

People who criticise alternative medicine tend to claim that all of it is unscientific rubbish which we should discard. However, I  am not convinced that this opinion is correct. I aim to adhere to the principles of evidence-based medicine and know that they can be applied to alternative medicine as much as to any other area of healthcare. This means that I will not dismiss everything that comes under the umbrella of alternative medicine. Our research has shown some treatments to work for some conditions, and where this is the case, I will always say so.

What follows is, I think, quite simple: this blog will differ from other blogs on the subject. It will provide critical evaluation because, in my view, this is what is needed. But it will not engage in wholesale alternative medicine-bashing. Most importantly, it will provide comments and perspectives that are based on many years of conducting and publishing research in this area.

Since first writing these lines, it has occurred to me that it might be nice to welcome a few guest-bloggers to express their opinions. Anyone who feels like contributing should therefore contact me, and we will see what we can work out.

Before we start discussing some of the the issues around alternative medicine, let me establish a few ground rules for the debates on this blog. I do like clearly expressed views and intend to be as outspoken as politeness allows. I hope that commentators will do the same, no matter whether they agree or disagree with me. Yet a few, simple, principles should be observed by everyone commenting on my blog.

Libellous statements are not allowed.

Comments must be on topic.

Nothing published here should be taken as medical advice.

All my statements are comments in a legal sense.

Conflicts of interest should always be disclosed.

I will take the liberty of stopping the discussion on any particular topic, if I feel that enough has been said and things are getting boring or repetitive.

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