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

Chinese studies

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At present, we see a wave of promotion of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a treatment of corona-virus infections. In this context, we should perhaps bear in mind that much of the Chinese data seem to be less than reliable. Moreover, I find it important to alert people to a stern warning recently published by two Australian experts. Here is the crucial passage from their paper:

We wish to highlight significant concerns regarding the association between traditional herbal medicines and severe, non-infective interstitial pneumonitis and other aggressive pulmonary syndromes, such as diffuse alveolar haemorrhage and ARDS which have emerged from Chinese and Japanese studies particularly during the period 2017−2019. Initially the association between traditional herbal therapies and pneumonitis was based on isolated case reports. These included hypersensitivity pneumonitis associated with the use of traditional Chinese or Japanese medicines such as Sai-rei-to, Oren-gedoku-to, Seisin-renshi-in and Otsu-ji-to (9 references in supplemental file). Larger cohorts and greater numbers now support this crucial relationship. In a Japanese cohort of 73 patients, pneumonitis development occurred within 3 months of commencing traditional medicine in the majority of patients [], while a large report from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, described more than 1000 cases of lung injury secondary to traditional medications, the overwhelming majority of which (852 reports) were described as ‘interstitial lung disease [].

Currently the constituent of traditional herbal medicines which is considered most likely to underlie causation of lung disease is Scutellariae Radix also known as Skullcap or ou-gon, which has been implicated through immunological evidence of hypersensitivity as well as circumstantial evidence, being present in all of those medicines outlined above []. Notably, skullcap is a constituent of QPD as used and described in the paper by Ren et al. relating to COVID-19 []. Scutellariae Radix-induced ARDS and COVID-19 disease share the same characteristic chest CT changes such as ground-glass opacities and airspace consolidation, therefore distinguishing between lung injury due to SARS-CoV-2 and that secondary to TCM may be very challenging. The potential for iatrogenic lung injury with TCM needs to be acknowledged []…

Morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 are almost entirely related to lung pathology []. Factors which impose a burden on lung function such as chronic lung disease and smoking are associated with increased risk for a poor outcome. Severe COVID-19 may be associated with a hypersensitivity pneumonitis component responsive to corticosteroid therapy []. Against this background the use of agents with little or no evidence of clinical efficacy and which have been significantly implicated in causing interstitial pneumonitis that could complicate SARS-CoV-2 infection, should be considered with extreme caution.

In conclusion, the benefits of TCM in the treatment of COVID-19 remain unproven and may be potentially deleterious. We recognise that there is currently insufficient evidence to prove the role of TCM in the causation of interstitial pneumonitis, however the circumstantial data is powerful and it would seem prudent to avoid these therapies in patients with known or suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection, until the evidence supports their use.

Declaration of Competing Interest: There are no conflicts to declare.

Yesterday, I received a tweet from a guy called Bart Huisman (“teacher beekeeping, nature, biology, classical homeopathy, agriculture, health science, social science”). I don’t know him and cannot remember whether I had previous contact with him. His tweet read as follows:

“Why should anyone believe what Professor Edzard Ernst says, after he put his name to a BBC programme, he now describes as “deception”.”

This refers to a story that I had almost forgotten. It’s a nice one with a ‘happy ending’, so let me recount it here briefly.

In 2005, the BBC had hired me as an advisor for their 4-part TV series on alternative medicine.

The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Prof Kathy Sykes presented the opening scene taking place in a Chinese operation theatre. In it a Chinese women was having open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. Kathy’s was visibly impressed and said on camera that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.”  However, the images clearly revealed that the patient was receiving all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines. So, Prof Sykes was telling the UK public a bunch of porkies. This was bound to confuse many viewers.

One of them was Simon Singh. At the time, I did not know Simon (to be honest, I did not even know of him) and was surprised to receive a phone call from him. He politely asked me to confirm that I had been the adviser of the BBC on this production. I was happy to confirm this fact. Then he asked why I had missed such a grave error. I replied that I could not possibly have spotted it, because all I had been asked to do was to review and correct the text of the programme which the BBC had sent to me by email. Before it was broadcast, I had not seen a single passage of the film.

Correcting the text had already led to several problems (not so much regarding the acupuncture part but mostly the other sections), because the BBC was reluctant to change several of the mistakes I had identified. When I told them that, in this case, I would quit, they finally found a way to alter them. But the cooperation had been far from easy. I explained all this to Simon and eventually he asked me whether I would be willing to support the official complaint he was about to file with the BBC. I agreed. This is probably where I used the term ‘deception’ that Mr Huisman mentioned in his tweet.

So, Simon submitted his complaint and eventually won the case.

But this is not the happy ending I was referring to.

During the course of the complaint, Simon and I realised that we were thinking alike and were getting on well. A few months later, he suggested that the two of us write a book together about alternative medicine. At first, I was hesitant. Simon said, “let’s try just one chapter, and see how it works out.” So we did. It turned out to be fun and instructive for both of us. So we did the other chapters as well. The book was published in 2008 and is called TRICK OR TREATMENT. It was published in about 20 different languages and the German version became ‘science book of the year in 2011 (I think).

And that’s not the happy ending either (in fact, it caused a lot of hardship for Simon who was sued by the BCA; luckily, he won that case too).

The real happy ending is the fact that Simon and I became friends for life.

Thank you Bart Huisman for reminding me of this rather lovely story.

 

By guest blogger Loretta Marron

If scientists were fearful of a clinical trial’s producing negative results, would they even pursue it? A draft Chinese regulation issued in late May aims to criminalise individual scientists and organisations whom China claims damage the reputation of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Beijing has a reputation for reprimanding those who decry TCM. Such criticism is blocked on Chinese Internet. Silencing doctors is becoming the norm.

In January 2018, former anaesthetist, Tan Qindong, was arrested and spent more than three months in detention after criticising a widely advertised, best-selling ‘medicinal’ TCM liquor. Claiming that it was a ‘poison’, he believed that he was protecting the elderly and vulnerable patients with high blood pressure. Police claimed that a post on social media damaged the reputation of the TCM ‘liquor’ and of the company making it. Shortly after release, he suffered post-traumatic stress and was hospitalised.

On 30 December 2019, Chinese ophthalmologist, the late Dr Li Wenliang, was one of the first to recognise the outbreak of COVD-19. He posted a private warning to a group of fellow doctors about a possible outbreak of an illness resembling severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). He encouraged them to protect themselves from infection. Days later, after his post when viral, he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan and forced to “admit to lying about the existence of a worrying new virus”. Li was accused of violating the provisions of the “People’s Republic of China Public Order Management and Punishment Law” for spreading “unlawful spreading of untruthful topics on the internet” and of disturbing the social order. He was made to sign a statement that he would “halt this unlawful behaviour”.

In April 2020, Chinese physician Yu Xiangdong, a senior medico who worked on the front line battling COVID-19, posted on Weibo, a Twitter-like site, a criticism of the use of antibiotics and TCM to treat COVID-19. He was demoted from his positions as assistant dean at the Central Hospital in the central city of Huangshi and director of quality management for the city’s Edong Healthcare Group. Well known for promoting modern medicine amongst the Chinese, Yu had almost a million followers on social media. All his postings vanished.

Beijing insists that TCM has been playing a crucial role in COVID-19 prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. Claims continue to be made for “effective TCM recipes”. However, no randomised clinical trial has been published in any reputable journal.

TCM needs proper scrutiny, but criticising it could land you years in prison. If the benefits of suggested herbal remedies are to be realised, good clinical studies must be encouraged. For TCM, this might never be permitted.

Don’t think for a moment that you are safe in Australia.

Article 8.25 of the Free Trade Agreement Between the Government of Australia and the Government of the People’s Republic of China reads:

Traditional Chinese Medicine Services (“TCM”)

  1. Within the relevant committees to be established in accordance with this Agreement, and subject to available resources, Australia and China shall cooperate on matters relating to trade in TCM services.
  2. Cooperation identified in paragraph 2 shall:

(a)    include exchanging information, where appropriate, and discussing policies, regulations and actions related to TCM services; and

(b)   encourage future collaboration between regulators, registration authorities and relevant professional bodies of the Parties to facilitate trade in TCM and complementary medicines, in a manner consistent with all relevant regulatory frameworks. Such collaboration, involving the competent authorities of both Parties – for Australia, notably the Department of Health, and for China the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine – will foster concrete cooperation and exchanges relating to TCM.

By guest blogger Loretta Marron

Although assumed to be traditional, what we know today as ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ (TCM) was invented in the 1950s for political reasons by then Chairman Mao. It has since been proclaimed by Xi Jinping, now life-President of the People’s Republic of China, as the “jewel” in the millennia of Chinese civilization.

In May this year, Xi “announced plans to criminalise criticism of traditional Chinese medicine”. Speaking out against TCM could land you years in prison, prosecuted for “picking fights to disturb public order” and “defaming” the practice.

With the industry expected to earn $420 billion by the end of 2020, covid-19 has provided Xi with a platform to promote unproven, potentially harmful TCM. To keep these profits filling Chinese coffers, the World Health Organization (WHO) remains silent and those challenging TCM are silenced.

In January, the late Dr Li Wenliang was arrested and gaoled for warning China about covid-19. Li was one of up to nine people who were disciplined for spreading rumours about it. As the virus silently spread around the world, Beijing told the WHO that there was ‘no clear evidence’ of spread between humans.

As their death toll passed 1,000, Beijing’s response was to remove senior officials and to sack hundreds over their handling of the outbreak. With the support of the WHO, claims continue to be made that TCM “has been proved effective in improving the cure rate”, denying the simple fact that “patients would have recovered even if they hadn’t taken the Chinese medicine”.

With cases now heading for 8 million, and over four hundred thousand people confirmed dead world-wide and with economies in free-fall, Beijing continues, “to protect its interests and people overseas; to gain leadership of international governance”,for financial gain, to aggressively use its national power. Under the guise of ‘International Aid’, during the pandemic, Beijing promoted treatments based on unproven traditional medicine, sending TCM practitioners to countries including Italy, France and Iran.

Countries challenging Beijing can expect claims of racism and financial retaliation.

Back in 2016, the Chinese State Council released a “Strategic Development Plan for Chinese Medicine (2016-2030)”, seeking to spread ‘knowledge’ into campuses, homes and abroad.

In July 2017, a law promising equal status for TCM and western medicine came into effect. Provisions included encouragement to China’s hospitals to set up TCM centres. “The new law on traditional Chinese medicine will improve global TCM influence, and give a boost to China’s soft power”.

In 2019, after strong lobbying by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), WHO added a chapter on TCM to their official International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).  In China, doctors are now instructed to prescribe traditional medicine to most patients.

While Chinese herbs might have exotic names, they are, once translated, often the same as western herbs, many of which might have significant interactions. WHO fails to acknowledge any drug interactions.

In 1967, Mao launched Project 523 to find a cure for chloroquine-resistant malaria. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested and none had worked. Trained in pharmacology and modern western methods, Tu Youyou used the scientific method to test sweet wormwood, a herb traditionally used in China for fever, where she developed a useful artemisinin derivative for resistant malaria. The drug has saved millions of lives. In 2015 she won the Nobel Prize for her work. However, Tu’s work is not a blanket endorsement of TCM: without the years of research, she would not have been successful.

TCM is commercially driven. Criticism of remedies is often blocked on the Internet in China, and critics have been jailed.  The majority of TCM’s are not tested for efficacy in randomized clinical trials. Clinical trials are usually of poor quality and serious side effects are underreported.   China has even rolled back regulations as Beijing forcefully promotes TCM’s as an alternative to proven western medicine. An increasing number of prestigious research hospitals now prescribe and dispense herbs that may cause drug interactions alongside western medicine for major illness patients.

TCM’s are not safe. Most systematic reviews suggest that there is no good or consistent evidence for effectiveness, negative results aren’t published, research data are fabricated and TCM-exports are of dubious quality.

If the benefits of herbal remedies are to be realised, good clinical studies must be encouraged.

TCM is not medicine. It’s little more than a philosophy or a set of traditional beliefs, about various concoctions and interventions and their alleged effect on health and diseases.

To stop misleading the world with what Mao himself saw as nonsense, and to mitigate future pandemics, WHO can and should remove all mention of TCM other than to state that it is unproven and could be dangerous.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if we had a treatment that reduces the risk of getting infected with the corona-virus? Well, this paper claims that there is one. Here is its abstract:

Since December 2019, an outbreak of corona virus disease 2019 (COVID-19) occurred in Wuhan, and rapidly spread to almost all parts of China. This was followed by prevention programs recommending Chinese medicine (CM) for the prevention. In order to provide evidence for CM recommendations, we reviewed ancient classics and human studies.

Methods

Historical records on prevention and treatment of infections in CM classics, clinical evidence of CM on the prevention of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and H1N1 influenza, and CM prevention programs issued by health authorities in China since the COVID-19 outbreak were retrieved from different databases and websites till 12 February, 2020. Research evidence included data from clinical trials, cohort or other population studies using CM for preventing contagious respiratory virus diseases.

Results

The use of CM to prevent epidemics of infectious diseases was traced back to ancient Chinese practice cited in Huangdi’s Internal Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing) where preventive effects were recorded. There were 3 studies using CM for prevention of SARS and 4 studies for H1N1 influenza. None of the participants who took CM contracted SARS in the 3 studies. The infection rate of H1N1 influenza in the CM group was significantly lower than the non-CM group (relative risk 0.36, 95% confidence interval 0.24–0.52; n=4). For prevention of COVID-19, 23 provinces in China issued CM programs. The main principles of CM use were to tonify qi to protect from external pathogens, disperse wind and discharge heat, and resolve dampness. The most frequently used herbs included Radix astragali (Huangqi), Radix glycyrrhizae (Gancao), Radix saposhnikoviae (Fangfeng), Rhizoma Atractylodis Macrocephalae (Baizhu), Lonicerae Japonicae Flos (Jinyinhua), and Fructus forsythia (Lianqiao).

Conclusions

Based on historical records and human evidence of SARS and H1N1 influenza prevention, Chinese herbal formula could be an alternative approach for prevention of COVID-19 in high-risk population. Prospective, rigorous population studies are warranted to confirm the potential preventive effect of CM.

So, what should we make of this conclusion?

To provide an evidence-based answer, I tried to look up the original studies cited in the article. The links provided by the authors seem to be all dead except one which leads to a paper published in the infamous JCAM. Here is its abstract:

Objectives: To investigate the efficacy of an herbal formula in the prevention of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) transmission among health care workers. The secondary objectives are to investigate quality of life (QOL) and symptomology changes among supplement users, and to evaluate the safety of this formula.

Design: Controlled clinical trial.

Settings: Hong Kong during epidemic of SARS.

Subjects: Two cohorts of health care workers from 11 hospitals in Hong Kong, 1 using an herbal supplement for a 2-week period (n = 1063) and a control cohort comprising all other health care workers who did not receive the supplement (n = 36,111) were compared prospectively.

Interventions: Taking an herbal supplement for a 2-week period.

Outcome measures: SARS attack rates and changes in quality of life and influenza-like symptoms were also examined at three timepoints among herbal supplement users.

Results: None of the health care workers who used the supplement subsequently contracted SARS compared to 0.4% of the health care workers who did not use the supplement (p = 0.014). Improvements in influenza-like symptoms and quality of life measurements were also observed among herbal supplement users. Less than 2% reported minor adverse events.

Conclusion: The results of this pilot study suggest that there is a good potential of using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) supplements to prevent the spread of SARS.

How can I be polite and still say what I think about this article? Perhaps by stating this: THIS STUDY WAS INCAPABLE OF INVESTIGATING THE ‘EFFICACY’ OF ANYTHING AND ITS RESULTS ARE NOT CONVINCING.

So, are the Chinese authors correct when concluding that Chinese herbal formula could be an alternative approach for prevention of COVID-19 in high-risk population?

No, I don’t think so! And I even feel that it is irresponsible in the current situation to misguide consumers, patients, scientists and decision-makers into believing that TCM offers an answer to the pandemic.

 

The objective of this trial, just published in the BMJ, was to assess the efficacy of manual acupuncture as prophylactic treatment for acupuncture naive patients with episodic migraine without aura. The study was designed as a multi-centre, randomised, controlled clinical trial with blinded participants, outcome assessment, and statistician. It was conducted in 7 hospitals in China with 150 acupuncture naive patients with episodic migraine without aura.

They were given the following treatments:

  • 20 sessions of manual acupuncture at true acupuncture points plus usual care,
  • 20 sessions of non-penetrating sham acupuncture at heterosegmental non-acupuncture points plus usual care,
  • usual care alone over 8 weeks.

The main outcome measures  were change in migraine days and migraine attacks per 4 weeks during weeks 1-20 after randomisation compared with baseline (4 weeks before randomisation).

A total of 147 were included in the final analyses. Compared with sham acupuncture, manual acupuncture resulted in a significantly greater reduction in migraine days at weeks 13 to 20 and a significantly greater reduction in migraine attacks at weeks 17 to 20. The reduction in mean number of migraine days was 3.5 (SD 2.5) for manual versus 2.4 (3.4) for sham at weeks 13 to 16 and 3.9 (3.0) for manual versus 2.2 (3.2) for sham at weeks 17 to 20. At weeks 17 to 20, the reduction in mean number of attacks was 2.3 (1.7) for manual versus 1.6 (2.5) for sham. No severe adverse events were reported. No significant difference was seen in the proportion of patients perceiving needle penetration between manual acupuncture and sham acupuncture (79% v 75%).

The authors concluded that twenty sessions of manual acupuncture was superior to sham acupuncture and usual care for the prophylaxis of episodic migraine without aura. These results support the use of manual acupuncture in patients who are reluctant to use prophylactic drugs or when prophylactic drugs are ineffective, and it should be considered in future guidelines.

Considering the many flaws in most acupuncture studies discussed ad nauseam on this blog, this is a relatively rigorous trial. Yet, before we accept the conclusions, we ought to evaluate it critically.

The first thing that struck me was the very last sentence of its abstract. I do not think that a single trial can ever be a sufficient reason for changing existing guidelines. The current Cochrance review concludes that the available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Thus, one could perhaps argue that, together with the existing data, this new study might strengthen its conclusion.

In the methods section, the authors state that at the end of the study, we determined the maintenance of blinding of patients by asking them whether they thought the needles had penetrated the skin. And in the results section, they report that they found no significant difference between the manual acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups for patients’ ability to correctly guess their allocation status.

I find this puzzling, since the authors also state that they tried to elicit acupuncture de-qi sensation by the manual manipulation of needles. They fail to report data on this but this attempt is usually successful in the majority of patients. In the control group, where non-penetrating needles were used, no de-qi could be generated. This means that the two groups must have been at least partly de-blinded. Yet, we learn from the paper that patients were not able to guess to which group they were randomised. Which statement is correct?

This may sound like a trivial matter, but I fear it is not.

Like this new study, acupuncture trials frequently originate from China. We and others have shown that Chinese trials of acupuncture hardly ever produce a negative finding. If that is so, one does not need to read the paper, one already knows that it is positive before one has even seen it. Neither do the researchers need to conduct the study, one already knows the result before the trial has started.

You don’t believe the findings of my research nor those of others?

Excellent! It’s always good to be sceptical!

But in this case, do you believe Chinese researchers?

In this systematic review, all RCTs of acupuncture published in Chinese journals were identified by a team of Chinese scientists. An impressive total of 840 trials were found. Among them, 838 studies (99.8%) reported positive results from primary outcomes and two trials (0.2%) reported negative results. The authors concluded that publication bias might be major issue in RCTs on acupuncture published in Chinese journals reported, which is related to high risk of bias. We suggest that all trials should be prospectively registered in international trial registry in future.

So, at least three independent reviews have found that Chinese acupuncture trials report virtually nothing but positive findings. Is that enough evidence to distrust Chinese TCM studies?

Perhaps not!

But there are  even more compelling reasons for taking evidence from China with a pinch of salt:

A survey of clinical trials in China has revealed fraudulent practice on a massive scale. China’s food and drug regulator carried out a one-year review of clinical trials. They concluded that more than 80 percent of clinical data is “fabricated“. The review evaluated data from 1,622 clinical trial programs of new pharmaceutical drugs awaiting regulator approval for mass production. According to the report, much of the data gathered in clinical trials are incomplete, failed to meet analysis requirements or were untraceable. Some companies were suspected of deliberately hiding or deleting records of adverse effects, and tampering with data that did not meet expectations. “Clinical data fabrication was an open secret even before the inspection,” the paper quoted an unnamed hospital chief as saying. Chinese research organisations seem have become “accomplices in data fabrication due to cutthroat competition and economic motivation.”

So, am I claiming the new acupuncture study just published in the BMJ is a fake?

No!

Am I saying that it would be wise to be sceptical?

Yes.

Sadly, my scepticism is not shared by the BMJ’s editorial writer who concludes that the new study helps to move acupuncture from having an unproven status in complementary medicine to an acceptable evidence based treatment.

Call me a sceptic, but that statement is, in my view, hard to justify!

 

It has been reported that, in China, patients affected by the coronavirus are being treated with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Treatments in Wuhan hospitals combine TCM and western medicines, said Wang Hesheng, the new health commission head in Hubei, the province at the centre of the epidemy. He said TCM was applied on more than half of confirmed cases in Hubei. “Our efforts have shown some good result,” Wang said at a press conference on Saturday. Top TCM-experts have been sent to Hubei for “research and treatment,” he said. Some 2,200 TCM workers have been sent to Hubei, Wang said.

Another website confirmed that TCM has been applied to more than half of the confirmed patients of corona or COVID-19 infection in Hubei. It’s also used in the prevention and control of COVID-19 at the community level. “Since the beginning of the outbreak, the government has attached importance to both TCM and Western medicine by mobilizing the strongest scientific research and medical forces in both fields to treat the patients,” said Wang Hesheng. “By coordinating the resources of traditional Chinese and Western medicine, we strive to improve the cure rate and reduce fatalities by the greatest possible amount to effectively safeguard the safety and health of the people,” Wang noted.

China Daily added that many of the medical workers also have participated in the fight against the SARS outbreak in 2003, said Huang Luqi, president of China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences. Three national-level TCM teams, organized by the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, also have been dispatched to Hubei, said Huang, head of the TCM team at Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital.

The TCM workers have treated 248 confirmed and suspected novel coronavirus patients, and 159 of them have shown improvement and 51 have been discharged from the hospital, Huang said at a daily news conference in Wuhan. More than 75 percent of novel coronavirus patients in Hubei, and more than 90 percent of patients in other regions of the country, have received TCM treatment, he said. “We hope that Hubei province and Wuhan city can increase the use of TCM in treating confirmed and suspected novel coronavirus patients,” Huang said. TCM can shorten the course of disease for patients with severe symptoms, reduce the possibility of mild infections becoming severe, help with patient recovery and disease prevention and offer psychological support to patients, he noted.

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No information is available on the nature of the TCM treatments used. Moreover, the reported response rate (159 of 248) sounds far from encouraging to me. In fact, it could reflect merely the natural history of the disease or might even hide a detrimental effect of TCM on the infection. What we need are controlled studies, without them, reports like the ones above are mere useless and potentially harmful propaganda for boosting China’s TCM-trade.

Yesterday, we discussed a paper concluding (amongst other things) that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for cancer‐related pain. Today, we are looking at one that overtly contradicts this verdict.

This systematic review (published in JAMA Oncology) evaluated the existing randomized clinical trials (RCTs) for evidence of the association of acupuncture and acupressure with reduction in cancer pain. Randomized clinical trials that compared acupuncture and acupressure with a sham control, analgesic therapy, or usual care for managing cancer pain were included. The primary outcome was pain intensity measured by the Brief Pain Inventory, Numerical Rating Scale, Visual Analog Scale, or Verbal Rating Scale.

A total of 17 RCTs (with 1111 patients) were included, and data from 14 RCTs (with 920 patients) were used in the meta-analysis. Seven sham-controlled RCTs (35%) were notable for their high quality, being judged to have a low risk of bias for all of their domains, and showed that real (compared with sham) acupuncture was associated with reduced pain intensity. A favourable association was also seen when acupuncture and acupressure were combined with analgesic therapy in 6 RCTs for reducing pain intensity and in 2 RCTs for reducing opioid dose. The evidence grade was moderate because of the substantial heterogeneity among studies.

The authors concluded that this systematic review and meta-analysis found that acupuncture and/or acupressure was significantly associated with reduced cancer pain and decreased use of analgesics, although the evidence level was moderate. This finding suggests that more rigorous trials are needed to identify the association of acupuncture and acupressure with specific types of cancer pain and to integrate such evidence into clinical care to reduce opioid use.

So, which of the two conclusions should we trust?

Personally, I find the JAMA paper unimpressive to the point of being suspect. Here are some of my reasons:

  • About half of the primary studies are Chinese; and we have seen repeatedly that they are unreliable and report only positive results.
  • Many of the trials are published in Chinese and can thus not be checked by non-Chinese readers (nor, presumably, by the experts who acted as peer-reviewers for JAMA Oncology).
  • I have my doubts about the rigor of the peer-review of some of the journals that published the primary studies included in the review.
  • One paper included in the review is even a mere doctoral thesis which usually is not peer-reviewed in the usual sense.
  • The authors state that they included only clinical trials that compared acupuncture and acupressure with a sham control, analgesic therapy, or usual care. However, this is evidently not true; many of the studies had the infamous A+B versus B design comparing acupuncture plus a conventional therapy against the conventional therapy. As we have discussed ad nauseam on this blog, such trials cannot produce a negative finding even if ‘A’ is a placebo.
  • Contrary to what the authors claim, the quality of most of the included studies was extremely poor, as far as I can see.
  • One included paper which I cannot access is entitled ‘Clinical observation on 30 cases of moderate and severe cancer pain of bone metastasis treated by auricular acupressure‘. Are the review authors seriously claiming that this is an RCT?

The more I study the details of the JAMA Oncology paper, the more I feel it might be worth a complaint to the editor with a view of initiating a thorough investigation and a possible retraction.

 

Radiation-induced xerostomia (RIX) is a common, often debilitating, adverse effect of radiation therapy among patients with head and neck cancer. Quality of life can be severely affected, and current treatments have limited benefit. Acupuncture is often recommended, but does it work? This study was aimed at finding out whether acupuncture can prevent RIX in patients with head and neck cancer undergoing radiation therapy.

The 2-center, phase 3, randomized clinical trial compared a standard care control (SCC) with true acupuncture (TA) and sham acupuncture (SA) among patients with oropharyngeal or nasopharyngeal carcinoma who were undergoing radiation therapy in comprehensive cancer centres in the United States and China. Patients were enrolled between December 16, 2011, and July 7, 2015. Final follow-up was August 15, 2016. Analyses were conducted February 1 through 28, 2019. Either TA or SA using a validated acupuncture placebo device were performed 3 times per week during a 6- to 7-week course of radiation therapy. The primary end point was RIX, as determined by the Xerostomia Questionnaire in which a higher score indicates worse RIX, for combined institutions 1 year after radiation therapy ended. Secondary outcomes included incidence of clinically significant xerostomia (score >30), salivary flow, quality of life, salivary constituents, and role of baseline expectancy related to acupuncture on outcomes.

Of 399 patients randomized, 339 were included in the final analysis, including 112 patients in the TA group, 115 patients in the SA group, and 112 patients in the SCC group. For the primary aim, the adjusted least square mean (SD) xerostomia score in the TA group (26.6 [17.7]) was significantly lower than in the SCC group (34.8 [18.7]) (P = .001; effect size = -0.44) and marginally lower but not statistically significant different from the SA group (31.3 [18.6]) (P = .06; effect size = -0.26). Incidence of clinically significant xerostomia 1 year after radiation therapy ended followed a similar pattern, with 38 patients in the TA group (34.6%), 54 patients in the SA group (47.8%), and 60 patients in the SCC group (55.1%) experiencing clinically significant xerostomia (P = .009). Post hoc comparisons revealed a significant difference between the TA and SCC groups at both institutions, but TA was significantly different from SA only at Fudan University Cancer Center, Shanghai, China (estimated difference [SE]: TA vs SCC, -9.9 [2.5]; P < .001; SA vs SCC, -1.7 [2.5]; P = .50; TA vs SA, -8.2 [2.5]; P = .001), and SA was significantly different from SCC only at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas (estimated difference [SE]: TA vs SCC, -8.1 [3.4]; P = .016; SA vs SCC, -10.5 [3.3]; P = .002; TA vs SA, 2.4 [3.2]; P = .45).

The authors concluded that this randomized clinical trial found that TA resulted in significantly fewer and less severe RIX symptoms 1 year after treatment vs SCC. However, further studies are needed to confirm clinical relevance and generalizability of this finding and to evaluate inconsistencies in response to sham acupuncture between patients in the United States and China.

In essence this two-centre study shows that:

  • real acupuncture is better than usual care, but the effect size is small and of doubtful clinical relevance;
  • real acupuncture is not significantly better than sham acupuncture;
  • the findings differ remarkably between the US and the Chinese centre.

I find the last point the most interesting one. We know from previous research that acupuncture studies from China are notoriously unreliable; they never report a negative result and there is evidence that data fabrication is rife in China. The new findings seems to throw more light on this notion. In the US centre, real and sham acupuncture generated practically identical results. By contrast, in the Chinese centre, real acupuncture generated significantly better results than sham. The authors offer several hypotheses to explain this remarkable phenomenon. Yet, in my view, the most likely one is that Chinese researchers are determined to show that acupuncture is effective. Thus all sorts of unconscious or even conscious biases might get introduced into such studies.

In essence, trial therefore confirms that acupuncture is little more than a theatrical placebo, particularly if we consider the US data which, in my opinion, are more trustworthy.

Lorenzo Cohen, Professor of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine and director of the Integrative Medicine Program as well as senior author of the paper unsurprisingly disagrees. He was quoted saying: “The evidence is to a point where patients should incorporate acupuncture alongside radiation treatment as a way to prevent the severity of dry mouth symptoms. I think with this study we can add acupuncture to the list for the prevention and treatment of xerostomia, and the guidelines for the use of acupuncture in the oncology setting should be revised to include this important chronic condition.”

Who do you think is closer to the truth?

The medical literature is currently swamped with reviews of acupuncture (and other forms of TCM) trials originating from China. Here is the latest example (but, trust me, there are hundreds more of the same ilk).

The aim of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of scalp, tongue, and Jin’s 3-needle acupuncture for the improvement of post-apoplectic aphasia. PubMed, Cochrane, Embase databases were searched using index words to identify qualifying randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Meta-analyses of odds ratios (OR) or standardized mean differences (SMD) were performed to evaluate the outcomes between investigational (scalp / tongue / Jin’s 3-needle acupuncture) and control (traditional acupuncture; TA and/or rehabilitation training; RT) groups.

Thirty-two RCTs (1310 participants in investigational group and 1270 in control group) were included. Compared to TA, (OR 3.05 [95% CI: 1.77, 5.28]; p<0.00001), tongue acupuncture (OR 3.49 [1.99, 6.11]; p<0.00001), and Jin’s 3-needle therapy (OR 2.47 [1.10, 5.53]; p = 0.03) had significantly better total effective rate. Compared to RT, scalp acupuncture (OR 4.24 [95% CI: 1.68, 10.74]; p = 0.002) and scalp acupuncture with tongue acupuncture (OR 7.36 [3.33, 16.23]; p<0.00001) had significantly better total effective rate. In comparison with TA/RT, scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture, scalp acupuncture with tongue acupuncture, and Jin’s three-needling significantly improved ABC, oral expression, comprehension, writing and reading scores.

The authors concluded that compared to traditional acupuncture and/or rehabilitation training, scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture, and Jin’ 3-needle acupuncture can better improve post-apoplectic aphasia as depicted by the total effective rate, the ABC score, and comprehension, oral expression, repetition, denomination, reading and writing scores. However, quality of the included studies was inadequate and therefore further high-quality studies with lager samples and longer follow-up times and with patient outcomes are necessary to verify the results presented herein. In future studies, researchers should also explore the efficacy and differences between scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture and Jin’s 3-needling in the treatment of post-apoplectic aphasia.

I’ll be frank: I find it hard to believe that sticking needles in a patient’s tongue restores her ability to speak. What is more, I do not believe a word of this review and its conclusion. And now I better explain why.

  • All the primary studies originate from China, and we have often discussed how untrustworthy such studies are.
  • All the primary studies were published in Chinese and cannot therefore be checked by most readers of the review.
  • The review authors fail to provide the detail about a formal assessment of the rigour of the included studies; they merely state that their methodological quality was low.
  • Only 6 of the 32 studies can be retrieved at all via the links provided in the articles.
  • As far as I can find out, some studies do not even exist at all.
  • Many of the studies compare acupuncture to unproven therapies such as bloodletting.
  • Many do not control for placebo effects.
  • Not one of the 32 studies reports findings that are remotely convincing.

I conclude that such reviews are little more than pseudo-scientific propaganda. They seem aim at promoting acupuncture in the West and thus serve the interest of the People’s Republic of China. They pollute our medical literature and undermine the trust in science.

I seriously ask myself, are the editors and reviewers all fast asleep?

The journal ‘BMC Complement Altern Med‘  has, in its 18 years of existence, published almost 4 000 Medline-listed papers. They currently charge £1690 for handling one paper. This would amount to about £6.5 million! But BMC are not alone; as I have pointed out repeatedly, EBCAM is arguably even worse.

And this is, in my view, the real scandal. We are being led up the garden path by people who make a very tidy profit doing so. BMC (and EBCAM) must put an end to this nonsense. Alternatively, PubMed should de-list these publications.

This has been going on for far too long; urgent action is required!

 

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