MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Monthly Archives: August 2016

As predicted, thanks to its high visibility in Rio, to the journalists, editors, photographers, numerous ‘experts’ crawling out of the woodwork, and last but not least the gullible public, cupping has fast become fashionable, ‘cool’ and ‘en vogue’.

Yes! Literally ‘en vogue’!

It has conquered the pages of ‘VOGUE’ (and any quackery that achieves this feast must have a bright future!) where Dr. Alex Moroz, director of the Integrative Sports Medicine program at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Rehabilitation, offers some extraordinary ‘explanations’. Dr Moroz (yes, he does exist; I looked him up) claims that he uses cupping at home on himself and his family. He believes there’s wisdom in the ancient practice, as well as common sense. Cupping’s effect, he says, is “mechanical, much like a massage,” and though Moroz has not treated professional athletes personally, he says, “It makes sense that it would work for that group of muscular skeletal injuries and problems.”

Moroz believes, furthermore, that cupping’s benefits reach far beyond sports. “For people with muscle-based pain, tightness, spasms, or chronic pain of any sort, it’s a great modality to use. Like other short-term modalities, there’s a curve where you have a small number of people who have rather dramatic results, and then you have a group of people who will not be helped at all,” he says. “Everyone else will fall somewhere in between.”

Dr Moroz has opinions but seems to be remarkably short on the ‘common sense’ he praises and a bit under-developed in the area of evidence.

This is regrettable!

Where on earth can we find some reliable information?

Surely, with all the hype about cupping, there must be someone who is just a trifle more science-based. Of course there is. The ‘London Cupping Clinic’ seems serious enough; they even employ real GPs who explain the SCIENCE OF CUPPING’ as follows:

“[Cupping]… involves, as the name suggests, a series of glass or plastic cups being placed on the recipient’s skin. The cups are heated and come into effect upon cooling; the air trapped between the cup and skin contracts, creating a suction-like effect that pulls the skin upwards, drawing blood to the surface to increase blood flow and give the resulting marks their deep crimson-purple colour. At times, vacuum pumps can be used along with the cups to aid the process of suction.”

Drawing blood to the surface to increase blood flow? Really?

In my quest to find some factual information I stumble across the website of HOLISTIC LIVING TIPS. Yes, I know, ‘holistic living’ does not sound like factual information. Yet I read on and find that…

“…along with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is closely linked to a stressed digestive tract, cupping has been used for stomach pains, diarrhea, gastritis and other common digestive issues. Flowing the energy to help release tension in and around the digestive tract, while aiding the abdomen with added nutrients and oxygen can help stimulate a healthier digestive tract… The most common skin issues cupping has been used for is acne, skinflammation and even herpes. Your capillaries are expanded by cupping and the addition flow of blood helps tone your skin and clear unwanted toxins from the skin to help get rid of acne. Also, wet cupping, where a small cut is made before the cup is applied can reduce acne better because with the incision the therapy can extract more of the toxins from your body. Cupping has also been used for cellulite and varicose veins. An increased flow of blood throughout the skin will help tone and tighten the skin. Also, cupping stimulates and improves the flow of blood, helping reduce varicose veins…  Mainly, cupping increases the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid throughout the body. Both of these help your body protect itself from illnesses and toxins. Additionally, cupping can help extract and remove phlegm and congestion from your body. The purpose of cupping is to enhance circulation, help relieve pain, remove heat and pull out the toxins that linger in your body’s tissues. It is not something that everyone is aware of, but just like other Chinese Medicine practices, like acupuncture, it can be an effective and most importantly a natural way, to help treat several conditions and help improve your body’s overall health and function.”

Even considering that we are in the realm of alternative medicine, the claims and explanations currently made for cupping seem impressive. With such a solid base in holistic anatomy and New Age physiology, the future of cupping ought to be delightful.

I can see all sorts of profitable options for those who want to jump on the vacuum-driven bandwagon:

  • courses for aspiring cupping therapists [a safe career, as demand is bound to soar]
  • DIY books for amateur cuppers
  • car seats that give you a love bite while you are driving home from work [very practical for the less than faithful alt med fan]
  • vacuum suckers for the dental patient [cupping kills pain and reduces anxiety, they say]
  • similar devices for Indian restaurants who offer it for customers to control the well-known digestive problems after a good Vindaloo chicken [Charles’ Dutchy Originals might already be planning the launch]
  • cupping walk-in centres for every-day emergencies
  • cupping clinics for those who fear the effects of ageing [cupping ‘tightens the skin’, you know]
  • a face mask with integrated vacuum cups for teenagers suffering from acne
  • shoes that produce a sucking action on the sole of the feet as you walk [thus ingeniously combining cupping with reflexology]
  • a 24-hours cupping helpline for the less experienced DIY-cuppers…

There really are no limits (neither to profit nor to fantasy) – the future of cupping is bright!

A new Cochrane review evaluated the effectiveness and safety of Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) in the treatment of menopausal symptoms. Its authors conducted a thorough search for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing the effectiveness of CHM with placebo, hormone therapy (HT), pharmaceutical drugs, acupuncture, or another CHM formula in women suffering from menopausal symptoms.

Two review authors independently assessed 864 studies for eligibility. Data extractions were performed by them with disagreements resolved through group discussion and clarification of data or direct contact with the study authors. Data analyses were performed in accordance with Cochrane Collaboration guidelines.

In total, 22 RCTs (2902 women) could be included. When CHM was compared with placebo (8 RCTs), there was little or no evidence of a difference between the groups for the following outcomes: hot flushes per day (MD 0.00, 95% CI -0.88 to 0.89; 2 trials, 199 women; moderate quality evidence); hot flushes per day assessed by an overall hot flush score in which a difference of one point equates to one mild hot flush per day (MD -0.81 points, 95% CI -2.08 to 0.45; 3 RCTs, 263 women; low quality evidence); and overall vasomotor symptoms per month measured by the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life questionnaire (MENQOL, scale 0 to 6) (MD -0.42 points; 95% CI -1.52 to 0.68; 3 RCTs, 256 women; low quality evidence). In addition, results from individual studies suggested there was no evidence of a difference between the groups for daily hot flushes assessed by severity (MD -0.70 points, 95% CI -1.00, -0.40; 1 RCT, 108 women; moderate quality evidence); or overall monthly hot flushes scores (MD -2.80 points, 95% CI -8.93 to 3.33; 1 RCT, 84 women; very low quality evidence); or overall daily night sweats scores (MD 0.07 points, 95% CI -0.19 to 0.33, 1 RCT, 64 women; low quality evidence); or overall monthly night sweats scores (MD 1.30 points, 95% CI -1.76 to 4.36, 1 RCT, 84 women; very low quality evidence). However, one study reported that overall monthly vasomotor symptom scores were lower in the CHM group (MD -4.79 points, 95% CI -5.52 to -4.06; 1 RCT, 69 women; low quality evidence).

When CHM was compared with HT (10 RCTs), only two RCTs reported monthly vasomotor symptoms using MENQOL. It was uncertain whether CHM reduces vasomotor symptoms (MD 0.47 points, 95% CI -0.50 to 1.44; 2 RCTs, 127 women; very low quality evidence).

Adverse effects were not fully reported in the included studies. Adverse events reported by women taking CHM included mild diarrhoea, breast tenderness, gastric discomfort and an unpleasant taste. Effects were inconclusive because of imprecise estimates of effects: CHM versus placebo (RR 1.51; 95% CI 0.69 to 3.33; 7 trials, 705 women; I² = 40%); CHM versus HT (RR 0.96; 95% CI 0.66 to 1.39; 2 RCTs, 864 women; I² = 0%); and CHM versus specific conventional medications (such as Fluoxetine and Estazolam) (RR 0.20; 95% CI 0.03 to 1.17; 2 RCTs, 139 women; I² = 61%).

The authors concluded: We found insufficient evidence that Chinese herbal medicines were any more or less effective than placebo or HT for the relief of vasomotor symptoms. Effects on safety were inconclusive. The quality of the evidence ranged from very low to moderate; there is a need for well-designed randomised controlled studies.

This review seems well done and reports clear findings. The fact that there was insufficient evidence for CHM is probably no surprise to most readers of this blog. However, I would like to draw your attention to a finding that could easily be missed: most of the primary studies failed to mention adverse effects; to be perfectly clear: they did not state “there were no adverse effects”, but they simply did not mention the subject of adverse effects at all.

In my view, this is a breach of research ethics. I have been banging on about this phenomenon for some time now, because I think it is important. Many if not most clinical trials in this area neglect reporting adverse effects. This means that we get an entirely misleading impression about the safety of the treatments in question. Reviewers of such studies are bound to conclude that they seem to be safe, while, in fact, researchers have only been withholding crucial information from us.

The solution to this fast-growing problem would be simple: trialists must be forced to fully report adverse effects. This is less complicated that it might seem: journal editors must insist that all authors fully report adverse effects of alternative treatments. Even if there were none at all – a very unlikely proposition if you think about it – they must disclose this fact.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to enjoy food and drink to one’s heart content and, once the pounds are piling up, simply swallow a pill and the weight goes down to normal? There are plenty of such pills on the market, but here I advise you to avoid them – mainly for two reasons.

The first is that they do not work. On this blog, we have discussed this before. The claims made for weight loss supplements are bogus. The manufacturers promise substantial body weight reductions not because their product is effective but because they want your money. So, unless you want to donate your cash to quacks, don’t buy such rubbish.

The second reason is probably even more compelling: weight-loss supplements endanger your health. A new paper tells us more about their risks. This investigation was aimed at identifying banned and discouraged-use ingredients, such as ephedra, 1,3-dimethylamylamine, and beta-methyl-phenylethylamine, in readily available weight loss dietary supplements within a 10-mile radius of Regis University.

A list of banned and discouraged-use ingredients was compiled with the use of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dietary supplement website which provides information on supplement ingredients that are no longer legal or are advised against owing to adverse event reporting. Investigators visited all retail outlet stores within a 10-mile radius of Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Retail chains were not duplicated and only one of each chain was evaluated.

A total of 51 weight loss supplement products from retail stores were found with banned or discouraged-use substances listed on their labels. At least one banned ingredient was found to be listed on the product labels in 17 of the 51 studied supplements (33%). At least one discouraged-use ingredient was found in 46 of the 51 products (90%). Retail outlet stores dedicated to supplements and sports nutrition alone were found to have the greatest number of weight loss supplements that included banned and discouraged-use ingredients.

The authors of this paper draw the following conclusions: the FDA has taken action to remove some weight loss supplements from the market that contain banned ingredients. Unfortunately, based on the findings of this study, it is evident that products containing these ingredients remain on the market today.

You might think that these findings apply only to the US, however, I am afraid, you would be mistaken. People buy such bogus supplements on the Internet where national regulations can easily be circumvented. Thus the trade in weight-loss supplements is thriving regardless of what the FDA or any other regulatory agency might do about them.

The solution is simple: avoid such products!

“THERE IS A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE” – this quote is commonly attributed to P.T.Barnum. If he really coined the sentence, he certainly did not think of the little cups sucking in the skin of patients undergoing cupping therapy. Yet, the recent media coverage of cupping made me think of this quote. The suckers here are not the therapeutic devices employed for cupping but the athletes, the journalists and the general public.

In my experience, athletes are often very worried about their body. This is perhaps understandable but, at the same time, it makes them the ideal victims of all types of charlatans. I am therefore not really surprised to see that some Olympic athletes fell for cupping. They want to use every means allowed by the doping rules to enhance their performance. Cupping therapists claim all sorts of strange and unwarranted things, and some athletes seem to be gullible enough to believe them. Belief can perhaps not move mountains, but it might give you the edge in an Olympic competition.

The ‘beauty’ of cupping when applied to an athlete’s body is that its traces are so publicly visible. During Olympic games, this means that the entire world knows within hours about the cupping-habit of an athlete. What could be more exciting for journalists than these odd cupping marks decorating the muscular bodies of some Olympic athletes? If they are not worth a good story, what is?

There is hardly a newspaper on the planet that did not jump on this band-waggon full of snake oil – there is a sucker born every minute! Nothing wrong with reporting what is happening at the Olympic games, of course. But what has sometimes been reported in the press about cupping beggars belief. Rarely have I read so much nonsense about an alternative therapy in such a short time.

Do you need an example? The DAILY MAIL is as good – or rather bad? – as most; this is what the DM published yesterday on the subject: Chinese media have been cheering cupping’s appearance at the Olympics as proof of the value of traditional culture, with both the official Xinhua news agency and Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily touting the soft-power benefits. “Chinese traditions and products proliferate Olympic village”, read one headline on the People’s Daily website. Ding Hui, manager of the Lily Spring Health & Spa in Beijing, said she has seen a 30 percent jump in clients asking for cupping treatment since the Olympics started. “Even though Chinese people have known about it for a long time, they see a great athlete does it and see it really works,” Ding said. “For athletes, they build up harmful lactic acid in the body and cupping can help relieve it.”

You might think that, when reporting about a weird therapy, journalists have little options but to interview weird ‘experts’ relating cupping to even weirder ‘energies’, ‘life forces’, ‘meridians’, yin and yang, TCM, etc. But you would be wrong. They do of course have other options; they would only have needed to log on Medline to find hundreds of references related to the subject. If they had done that, they would even have found an abstract of mine that might have answered many of their question and would have clarified many of the questions about the scientific evidence for or against cupping. Here it is:

The objective of this study was to assess the evidence for or against the effectiveness of cupping as a treatment option for pain. Fourteen databases were searched. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) testing cupping in patients with pain of any origin were considered. Trials using cupping with or without drawing blood were included, while trials comparing cupping with other treatments of unproven efficacy were excluded. Trials with cupping as concomitant treatment together with other treatments of unproven efficacy were excluded. Trials were also excluded if pain was not a central symptom of the condition. The selection of studies, data extraction and validation were performed independently by three reviewers. Seven RCTs met all the inclusion criteria. Two RCTs suggested significant pain reduction for cupping in low back pain compared with usual care (P < .01) and analgesia (P < .001). Another two RCTs also showed positive effects of cupping in cancer pain (P < .05) and trigeminal neuralgia (P < .01) compared with anticancer drugs and analgesics, respectively. Two RCTs reported favorable effects of cupping on pain in brachialgia compared with usual care (P = .03) or heat pad (P < .001). The other RCT failed to show superior effects of cupping on pain in herpes zoster compared with anti-viral medication (P = .065). Currently there are few RCTs testing the effectiveness of cupping in the management of pain. Most of the existing trials are of poor quality. Therefore, more rigorous studies are required before the effectiveness of cupping for the treatment of pain can be determined.

With just one further click on their keyboard, they would have been able to read the full text of my article which cautioned in no uncertain terms: The number of trials and the total sample size are too small to distinguish between any nonspecific or specific effects, which preclude any firm conclusions. Moreover, the methodological quality was often poor.

Sadly, few journalists seemed to have bothered to do this tiny bit of research. Why? Surely, journalists are trained to investigate their subject before putting pen to paper! Yes, most of them are, but a headline like THE EVIDENCE FOR CUPPING IS FLIMSY does not sell newspapers. The public wants something much more interesting – there is a sucker born every minute!

And what should be wrong with that? People deserve a bit of an entertaining story about their Olympic idols! Perhaps, but there is a downside, of course. The media-hype of the last week will create a demand. The general public will now want the very therapy that helped athletes win gold medals (never mind that it didn’t). Thanks to the media, cupping is now destined to become the alternative therapy of the future.

And what is wrong with that? Quite a lot, I think!

For one, quacks will jump on this fast-moving band-waggon filled with snake oil and try to divert as much cash as they can from their victims’ into their own bank accounts. Perhaps that would not be the worst effect. The worst would be, if some people believe what some quacks will undoubtedly tell them, that cupping is effective (“they see a great athlete does it and see it really works”) for all sorts of conditions, including serious diseases (“Cupping has also been used by some as an alternative treatment for cancer.”) – THERE IS A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE (and some might even die sucking)!

No, I don’t want to put you off your breakfast… but you probably have seen so many pictures of attractive athletes with cupping marks and read articles about the virtues of this ancient therapy, that I feel I have to put this into perspective:

Cupping burnsI am sure you agree that this is slightly less attractive. But, undeniably, these are also cupping marks. So, if you read somewhere that this treatment is entirely harmless, take it with a pinch of salt.

Cupping has existed for centuries in most cultures, and there are several variations of the theme. We differentiate between wet and dry cupping. The above picture is of wet cupping gone wrong. What the US Olympic athletes currently seem to be so fond of is dry cupping.

The principles of both forms are similar. In dry cupping, a vacuum cup is placed over the skin which provides enough suction to create a circular bruise. Eventually the vacuum diminishes, and the cup falls off; what is left is the mark. In wet cupping, the procedure is much the same, except that the skin is injured before the cup is placed. The suction then pulls out a small amount of blood. Obviously the superficial injury can get infected, and that is what we see on the above picture.

In the homeopathic hospital where I worked ~40 years ago, we did a lot of both types of cupping. We used it mostly for musculoskeletal pain. Our patients responded well.

But why? How does cupping work?

The answer is probably more complex than you expect. It clearly has a significant placebo effect. Athletes are obviously very focussed on their body, and they are therefore the ideal placebo-responders. Evidently, my patients 40 years ago also responded to all types of placebos, even to the homeopathic placebos which they received ‘en masse’.

But there might be other mechanisms as well. A TCM practitioner will probably tell you that cupping unblocks the energy flow in our body. This might sound very attractive to athletes or consumers, and therefore could even enhance the placebo response, but it is nevertheless nonsense.

The most plausible mode of action is ‘counter-irritation’: if you have a pain somewhere, a second pain elsewhere in your body can erase the original pain. You might have a headache, for instance, and if you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, the headache is gone, at least for a while. Cupping too would cause mild to moderate pain, and this is a distraction from the muscular pain the athletes aim to alleviate.

When I employed cupping 40 years ago, there was no scientific evidence testing its effects. Since a few years, however, clinical trials have started appearing. Many are from China, and I should mention that TCM studies from China almost never report a negative result. According to the Chinese, TCM (including cupping) works for everything. More recently,also some trials from other parts of the world have emerged. They have in common with the Chinese studies that they tend to report positive findings and that they are of very poor quality. (One such trial has been discussed previously on this blog.) In essence, this means that we should not rely on their conclusions.

A further problem with clinical trails of cupping is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to control for the significant placebo effects that this treatment undoubtedly generates. There is no placebo that could mimic all the features of real cupping in clinical trials; and there is no easy way to blind either the patient or the therapist.

So, we are left with an ancient treatment backed by a host of recent but flimsy studies and a growing craze for cupping fuelled by the Olympic games. What can one conclude in such a situation?

Personally, I would, whenever possible, recommend treatments that work beyond a placebo effect, because the placebo response tends to be unreliable and is usually of short duration – and I am not at all sure that cupping belongs into this category. I would also avoid wet cupping, because it can cause substantial harm. Finally, I would try to keep healthcare costs down; cupping itself is cheap but the therapist’s time might be expensive.

In a nutshell: would I recommend cupping? No, not any more than using a hammer for counter irritation! Will the Olympic athletes care a hoot about my recommendations? No, probably not!

 

When a leading paper like the FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG (FAZ) publishes in its science pages (!!!) a long article on homeopathy, this is bound to raise some eyebrows, particularly when the article in question was written by the chair of the German Association of Homeopaths (Deutscher Zentralverein homöopathischer Ärzte) and turns out to be a completely one-sided and misleading white-wash of homeopathy. The article (entitled DIE ZEIT DES GEGENEINANDERS IST VORBEI which roughly translates into THE DAYS OF FIGHTING ARE OVER)  is in German, of course, so I will translate the conclusions for you here:

The critics [of homeopathy] … view the current insights of conventional pharmacology as some type of dogma. For them it is unthinkable that a high potency can cause a self-regulatory and thus healing effect on a sick person. Homeopathic doctors are in their eyes “liars”. Based on this single argument, the critics affirm further that therefore no positive studies can exist which prove the efficacy of homeopathy beyond placebo. After all, high potencies “contain nothing”. The big success of homeopathy is a sore point for them, because efficacious high potencies contradict their seemingly rational-materialistic world view. Research into homeopathy should be stopped, the critics say. This tune is played unisono today by critics who formerly claimed that homeopaths block the research into their therapy. The fact is: homeopathic doctors are today in favour of research, even with their own funds, whenever possible. Critics meanwhile demand a ban.

In the final analysis, homeopathic doctors do not want a fight but a co-operation of the methods. Homeopathy creates new therapeutic options for the management of acute to serious chronic diseases. In this, homeopathy is self-evidently not a panacea: the physician decides with every patient individually, whether homeopathy is to be employed as an alternative, as an adjunct, or not at all. Conventional diagnostic techniques are always part of the therapy.

END OF QUOTE

[For those readers who read German, here is the German original:

Die Kritiker … betrachten die heutigen Erkenntnisse der konventionellen Pharmakologie als eine Art Dogma. Für sie ist es undenkbar, dass eine Hochpotenz einen selbstregulativen und damit heilenden Effekt bei einem kranken Menschen auslösen kann. Homöopathische Ärzte sind in ihren Augen “Lügner”. Von diesem einen Argument ausgehend, wird dann weiter behauptet, dass es deshalb gar keine positiven Studien geben könne, die eine Wirksamkeit der Homöopathie über einen Placebo-Effekt hinaus belegen. Schließlich sei in Hochpotenzen “nichts drin”. Der große Erfolg der Homöopathie ist ihnen ein Dorn im Auge, weil wirksame Hochpotenzen ihrem vermeintlich rational-materialistischen Weltbild widersprechen. Die Erforschung der Homöopathie solle gestoppt werden, heißt es. Unisono wird diese Melodie von Kritikern heute gespielt, von ebenjenen Kritikern, die früher behaupteten, die homöopathischen Ärzte sperrten sich gegen die Erforschung ihrer Heilmethode. Fakt ist: Heute setzen sich homöopathische Ärzte für die Forschung ein, auch mit eigenen Mitteln, soweit es ihnen möglich ist. Kritiker fordern mittlerweile das Verbot.

Letztlich geht es homöopathischen Ärzten allerdings nicht um ein Gegeneinander, sondern um ein Miteinander der Methoden. Durch die Homöopathie entstehen neue Therapieoptionen bei der Behandlung von akuten bis hin zu schweren chronischen Erkrankungen. Dabei ist die ärztliche Homöopathie selbstverständlich kein Allheilmittel: Bei jedem erkrankten Patienten entscheidet der Arzt individuell, ob er die Homöopathie alternativ oder ergänzend zur konventionellen Medizin einsetzt – oder eben gar nicht. Die konventionelle Diagnostik ist stets Teil der Behandlung.]

While translating this short text, I had to smile; here are some of the reasons why:

  • ‘conventional pharmacology’ is a funny term; do homeopaths think that there also is an unconventional pharmacology?
  • ‘dogma’… who is dogmatic, conventional medicine which changes almost every month, or homeopathy which has remained essentially unchanged since 200 years?
  • ‘liars’ – yes, that’s a correct term for people who use untruths for promoting their business!
  • ‘Based on this single argument’… oh, I know quite a few more!
  • ‘doctors are today in favour of research’ – I have recently blogged about the research activity of homeopaths.
  • ‘co-operation of the methods’ – I have also blogged repeatedly about the dangerous nonsense of ‘integrative medicine’ and called it ‘one of the most colossal deceptions of healthcare today’. Hahnemann would have ex-communicated the author for this suggestion, he called homeopaths who combined the two methods ‘traitors’!!!
  • ‘new therapeutic options’… neither new nor therapeutic, I would counter; to be accepted as ‘therapeutic’, one would need a solid proof of efficacy.
  • ’employed as an alternative’ – would this be ethical?
  • ‘Conventional diagnostic techniques are always part of the therapy’… really? I was taught that diagnosis and treatment are two separate things.

There were many comments  by readers of the FAZ. Their vast majority expressed bewilderment at the idea that the chair of the German Association of Homeopaths has been given such a platform to dangerously mislead the public. I have to say that I fully agree with this view: the promotion of bogus treatments can only be a disservice to public health.

According to an article in DER SPIEGEL, 4 patients of an alternative medicine centre died, while several other websites reported that the figure amounted to ‘just’ three. The centre in question is the Klaus Ross clinic in the German town of Bruggen-Bracht on the border with the Netherlands.

In addition to these fatalities, several further patients are being treated in hospital and German prosecutors in the town of Moenchengladbach have urged other patients showing any symptoms to “urgently seek medical advice.” Dutch police, who are supporting the inquiry, appealed for information from other patients, as newspapers reported the clinic had been using an experimental transfusion.

Concern was first raised when a 43-year-old Dutch woman with breast cancer complained of headaches and became confused after being treated at the clinic on July 25. She later lost the ability to speak, and died on July 30. The “cause of her death remains unclear,” the German prosecutors said in a statement earlier this week. Many Dutch people are known to have visited the clinic and while “it is not yet known exactly what happened, there is a health risk to patients who have undergone treatment at this clinic”, according to a statement by Dutch police.

Klaus Ross was cited saying that “one of our patients unexpectedly has passed away… We regret this seriously and are in shock as we heard the news. Our thoughts and deep condolences are with her family, friends and loved ones… we regret the suspicion set in the media that alternative medicine, and our clinic especially, could be held responsible…. Alternative medicine is always an extra tool to battle diseases.” Allegedly, Ross always advised patients to be monitored by their own doctors.

The centre in question specialised in ‘biological’ cancer therapies and beauty treatments; it has now been closed and Ross has reportedly been charged with manslaughter. The interventions on offer include a wide range of unproven therapies, including detox, oxygen therapy, various supplements, immunotherapy and hyperthermia. According to some reports, the therapy implicated in the fatalities was 3- bromopyruvate (3BP). 3BP is an experimental cancer treatment which is currently attracting much, mostly pre-clinical research. One review article summarized the evidence such:

Although the “Warburg effect”, i.e., elevated glucose metabolism to lactic acid (glycolysis) even in the presence of oxygen, has been recognized as the most common biochemical phenotype of cancer for over 80 years, its biochemical and genetic basis remained unknown for over 50 years. Work focused on elucidating the underlying mechanism(s) of the “Warburg effect” commenced in the author’s laboratory in 1969. By 1985 among the novel findings made two related most directly to the basis of the “Warburg effect”, the first that the mitochondrial content of tumors exhibiting this phenotype is markedly decreased relative to the tissue of origin, and the second that such mitochondria have markedly elevated amounts of the enzyme hexokinase-2 (HK2) bound to their outer membrane. HK2 is the first of a number of enzymes in cancer cells involved in metabolizing the sugar glucose to lactic acid. At its mitochondrial location HK2 binds at/near the protein VDAC (voltage dependent anion channel), escapes inhibition by its product glucose-6-phosphate, and gains access to mitochondrial produced ATP. As shown by others, it also helps immortalize cancer cells, i.e., prevents cell death. Based on these studies, the author’s laboratory commenced experiments to elucidate the gene basis for the overexpression of HK2 in cancer. These studies led to both the discovery of a unique HK2 promoter region markedly activated by both hypoxic conditions and moderately activated by several metabolites (e.g., glucose), Also discovered was the promoter’s regulation by epigenetic events (i.e., methylation, demethylation). Finally, the author’s laboratory turned to the most important objective. Could they selectively and completely destroy cancerous tumors in animals? This led to the discovery in an experiment conceived, designed, and conducted by Young Ko that the small molecule 3-bromopyruvate (3BP), the subject of this mini-review series, is an incredibly powerful and swift acting anticancer agent. Significantly, in subsequent experiments with rodents (19 animals with advanced cancer) Ko led a project in which 3BP was shown in a short treatment period to eradicate all (100%). Ko’s and co-author’s findings once published attracted global attention leading world-wide to many other studies and publications related to 3BP and its potent anti-cancer effect. This Issue of the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes (JOBB 44-1) captures only a sampling of research conducted to date on 3BP as an anticancer agent, and includes also a Case Report on the first human patient known to the author to be treated with specially formulated 3BP. Suffice it to say in this bottom line, “3BP, a small molecule, results in a remarkable therapeutic effect when it comes to treating cancers exhibiting a “Warburg effect”. This includes most cancer types.

While 3BP seems to show some promise, clinical trials have not yet been published and another review correctly cautioned that clinical trials using 3BP are needed to further support its anticancer efficacy against multiple cancer types… 

The person in charge of the centre, Klaus Ross, has no medical qualifications but claims to have studied naturopathy and was a ‘Heilpraktiker’. As such, he is probably not licenced to administer 3BP to cancer patients.

A standard series of out-patient cancer treatments at Mr Ross’ clinic was reported to cost around 10 000 Euros.

The aim of a new meta-analysis was to estimate the clinical effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for amnestic mild cognitive impairment (AMCI), the transitional stage between the normal memory loss of aging and dementia. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture versus medical treatment for AMCI were identified using six electronic databases.

Five RCTs involving a total of 568 subjects were included. The methodological quality of the RCTs was generally poor. Participants receiving acupuncture had better outcomes than those receiving nimodipine with greater clinical efficacy rates (odds ratio (OR) 1.78, 95% CI 1.19 to 2.65; p<0.01), mini-mental state examination (MMSE) scores (mean difference (MD) 0.99, 95% CI 0.71 to 1.28; p<0.01), and picture recognition score (MD 2.12, 95% CI 1.48 to 2.75; p<0.01). Acupuncture used in conjunction with nimodipine significantly improved MMSE scores (MD 1.09, 95% CI 0.29 to 1.89; p<0.01) compared to nimodipine alone. Three trials reported adverse events.

The authors concluded that acupuncture appears effective for AMCI when used as an alternative or adjunctive treatment; however, caution must be exercised given the low methodological quality of included trials. Further, more rigorously designed studies are needed.

Meta-analyses like this one are, in my view, perfect examples for the ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ principle of systematic reviews. This may seem like an unfair statement, so let me justify it by explaining the shortfalls of this specific paper.

The authors try to tell us that their aim was “to estimate the clinical effectiveness and safety of acupuncture…” While it might be possible to estimate the effectiveness of a therapy by pooling the data of a few RCTs, it is never possible to estimate its safety on such a basis. To conduct an assessment of therapeutic safety, one would need sample sizes that go two or three dimensions beyond those of RCTs. Thus safety assessments are best done by evaluating the evidence from all the available evidence, including case-reports, epidemiological investigations and observational studies.

The authors tell us that “two studies did not report whether any adverse events or side effects had occurred in the experimental or control groups.” This is a common and serious flaw of many acupuncture trials, and another important reason why RCTs cannot be used for evaluating the risks of acupuncture. Too many such studies simply don’t mention adverse effects at all. If they are then submitted to systematic reviews, they must generate a false positive picture about the safety of acupuncture. The absence of adverse effects reporting is a serious breach of research ethics. In the realm of acupuncture, it is so common, that many reviewers do not even bother to discuss this violation of medical ethics as a major issue.

The authors conclude that acupuncture is more effective than nimodipine. This sounds impressive – unless you happen to know that nimodipine is not supported by good evidence either. A Cochrane review provided no convincing evidence that nimodipine is a useful treatment for the symptoms of dementia, either unclassified or according to the major subtypes – Alzheimer’s disease, vascular, or mixed Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

The authors also conclude that acupuncture used in conjunction with nimodipine is better than nimodipine alone. This too might sound impressive – unless you realise that all the RCTs in question failed to control for the effects of placebo and the added attention given to the patients. This means that the findings reported here are consistent with acupuncture itself being totally devoid of therapeutic effects.

The authors are quite open about the paucity of RCTs and their mostly dismal methodological quality. Yet they arrive at fairly definitive conclusions regarding the therapeutic value of acupuncture. This is, in my view, a serious mistake: on the basis of a few poorly designed and poorly reported RCTs, one should never arrive at even tentatively positive conclusion. Any decent journal would not have published such misleading phraseology, and it is noteworthy that the paper in question appeared in a journal that has a long history of being hopelessly biased in favour of acupuncture.

Any of the above-mentioned flaws could already be fatal, but I have kept the most serious one for last. All the 5 RCTs that were included in the analyses were conducted in China by Chinese researchers and published in Chinese journals. It has been shown repeatedly that such studies hardly ever report anything other than positive results; no matter what conditions is being investigated, acupuncture turns out to be effective in the hands of Chinese trialists. This means that the result of such a study is clear even before the first patient has been recruited. Little wonder then that virtually all reviews of such trials – and there are dozens of then – arrive at conclusions similar to those formulated in the paper before us.

As I already said: rubbish in, rubbish out!

We have discussed the subject of urine therapy before. And, as I did then, I again apologise for the vulgar title of my post – but it describes urine therapy just perfectly. My new post is based on what I recently found on a website that is entirely devoted to this strange form of treatment:

Around 4 am, workers at the Keeshav Shrusti Go Shaala at Bhayander, in India, head to the tabelas (cow sheds) to collect the first urine of their 230 cows. They collect 200 litres of gomutra (cow urine), which is then sent to a production unit where it is filtered, bottled and then shipped across the country to be sold at high prices.

The popularity of alternative medicine and a back-to-nature rush has meant that those seeking gomutra as the cure for all ailments — it is touted as a cure for cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, psoriasis among others — has spurred a rise of gomutra products in the Indian market.

A year ago the Indian ‘Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’ even initiated projects to study the anti-cancer and anti-infection properties of various cow products including cow urine and dung. Last September, Maa Gou Products (MGP) approached BigBasket to distribute its range of cow-urine based products, ranging from floor cleaner, tooth powder, balm and face pack.

ARK1

Today there are several sites that have been set up specifically to sell cow products. For instance, the one-year-old vendor portal www.gaukranti.org. The site, which retails a range of products, gets 40 per cent of its revenue from cow urine.

ARK2
But, not all cow urine bottles are the same or tout the same solutions. Some are used as cleansers; Mumbaikars will recall the Kandivli ccorporator who suggested that KEM Hospital be cleansed daily with cow urine. Some others are meant specifically for weight loss.

ARK3

GoArk, for instance, is a weight loss product made by boiling cow urine in an iron pot to which a vapour condensing device is attached. The main difference lies in the source of the cows. Goseva GoArk is prepared from the GIR cow’s urine and GouGanga is from mixed Indian breeds. Bos Indicus, the breed indigenous to the subcontinent, is to be preferred. One expert explains: “foreign breeds such as the Jersey cow have been subjected to genetic modification.” He says that once the gomutra is collected it is filtered around eight times through a piece of cotton cloth. The distillation process, he says, helps ensure that there is no ammonia so that the shelf life is increased. Typically, it’s good to be used up to two years after bottling. The demand for gomutra — whether as a medicine, a face pack or a floor cleanser — is now rising beyond India. There even have been inquiries from the UK, US, Australia and even Arabic countries.

So, watch this space!

 

This is a post that I wanted to write for a while (I had done something similar on acupuncture moths ago); but I had to wait, and wait, and wait…until finally there were the awaited 100 Medline listed articles on homeopathy with a publication date of 2016. It took until the beginning of August to reach the 100 mark. To put this into perspective with other areas of alternative medicine, let me give you the figures for 3 other therapies:

  • there are currently  1 413 articles from 2016 on herbal medicine;
  • 875 on acupuncture;
  • and 256 on chiropractic.

And to give you a flavour of the research activity in some areas of conventional medicine:

  • there are currently almost 100 000 articles from 2016 on surgery;
  • 1 410 on statins;
  • and 33 033 on psychotherapy.

This suggests quite strongly, I think, that the research activity in homeopathy is relatively low (to put it mildly).

So, what do the first 100 Medline articles on homeopathy cover? Here are some of the findings of my mini-survey:

  • there were 4 RCTs;
  • 3 systematic reviews;
  • 8 papers on observational-type data (case series, observational studies etc.);
  • 9 animal studies;
  • 14 other pre-clinical or basic research studies;
  • 1 pilot study;
  • 14 investigations of the quality of homeopathic preparations;
  • 15 surveys;
  • 2 investigations into the adverse effects of homeopathic treatments;
  • 49 other papers (e. g. comments, opinion pieces, letters, perspective articles, editorials).

I should mention that, because I assessed 100 papers, the above numbers can be read both as absolute as well as percentage figures.

How should we interpret my findings?

As with my previous evaluation, I must caution not to draw generalizable conclusions from them. What follows should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt (or two):

  1. The research activity into homeopathy is currently very subdued.
  2. Arguably the main research question of efficacy does not seem to concern researchers of homeopathy all that much.
  3. There is an almost irritating abundance of papers that are data-free and thrive on opinion (my category of ‘other papers’).
  4. Given all this, I find it hard to imagine that this area of investigation is going to generate much relevant new knowledge or clinical progress.
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