“Most of the supplement market is bogus,” Paul Clayton*, a nutritional scientist, told the Observer. “It’s not a good model when you have businesses selling products they don’t understand and cannot be proven to be effective in clinical trials. It has encouraged the development of a lot of products that have no other value than placebo – not to knock placebo, but I want more than hype and hope.” So, Dr Clayton took a job advising Lyma, a product which is currently being promoted as “the world’s first super supplement” at £199 for a one-month’s supply.
Lyma is a dietary supplement that contains a multitude of ingredients all of which are well known and available in many other supplements costing only a fraction of Lyma. The ingredients include:
- vitamin D3.
Apparently, these ingredients are manufactured in special (and patented) ways to optimise their bioavailabity. According to the website, the ingredients of LYMA have all been clinically trialled with proven efficacy at levels provided within the LYMA supplement… Unless the ingredient has been clinically trialled, and peer reviewed there may be limited (if any) benefit to the body. LYMA’s revolutionary formulation is the most advanced and proven super supplement in the world, bringing together eight outstanding ingredients – seven of which are patented – to support health, wellbeing and beauty. Each ingredient has been selected for its efficacy, purity, quality, bioavailability, stability and ultimately, on the results of clinical studies.
The therapeutic claims made for the product are numerous:
- it will improve your hair, skin and nails (80% improvement in skin smoothness, 30% increase in skin moisture, 17% increase in skin elasticity, 12% reduction in wrinkle depth, 47% increase in hair strength & 35% decrease in hair loss)
- it will support energy levels in both the body and the brain (increase in brain membrane turnover by 26% and increase brain energy by 14%),
- it will improve cognitive function,
- it will enhance endurance (cardiorespiratory endurance increased by 13% compared to a placebo),
- it will improve quality of life,
- it will improve sleep (reducing insomnia by 70%),
- it will improve immunity,
- it will reduce inflammation,
- it will improve your memory,
- it will improve osteoporosis (reduce risk of osteoporosis by 37%).
These claims are backed up by 197 clinical trials, we are being told.
If true, this would be truly sensational – but is it true?
I asked the Lyma firm for the 197 original studies, and they very kindly sent me dozens papers which all referred to the single ingredients listed above. I emailed again and asked whether there are any studies of Lyma with all its ingredients in one supplement. Then I was told that they are ‘looking into a trial on the final Lyma formula‘.
I take this to mean that not a single trial of Lyma has been conducted. In this case, how do we be sure the mixture works? How can we know that the 197 studies have not been cherry-picked? How can we be sure that there are no interactions between the active constituents?
The response from Lyma quoted the above-mentioned Dr Paul Clayton stating this: “In regard to LYMA, clinical trials at this stage are not necessary. The whole point of LYMA is that each ingredient has already been extensively trialled, and validated. They have selected the best of the best ingredients, and amalgamated them; to enable consumers to take them all in a convenient format. You can quite easily go out and purchase all the ingredients separately. They aren’t easy to find, and it would mean swallowing up to 12 tablets and capsules a day; but the choice is always yours.”
It’s kind, to leave the choice to us, rather than forcing us to spend £199 each month on the world’s first super-supplement. Very kind indeed!
Having the choice, I might think again.
I might even assemble the world’s maximally evidence-based, extra super-supplement myself, one that is supported by many more than 197 peer-reviewed papers. To not directly compete with Lyma, I could use entirely different ingredients. Perhaps I should take the following five:
- Vitamin C (it has over 61 000 Medline listed articles to its name),
- Vitanin E (it has over 42 000 Medline listed articles to its name),
- Collagen (it has over 210 000 Medline listed articles to its name),
- Coffee (it has over 14 000 Medline listed articles to its name),
- Aloe vera (it has over 3 000 Medline listed articles to its name).
I could then claim that my extra super-supplement is supported by some 300 000 scientific articles plus 1 000 clinical studies (I am confident I could cherry-pick 1 000 positive trials from the 300 000 papers). Consequently, I would not just charge £199 but £999 for a month’s supply.
But this would be wrong, misleading, even bogus!!!, I hear you object.
On the one hand, I agree.
On the other hand, as Paul Clayton rightly pointed out: Most of the supplement market is bogus.
*If my memory serves me right, I met Paul many years ago when he was a consultant for Boots (if my memory fails me, I might need to order some Lyma).
Collagen is a fibrillar protein of the conjunctive and connective tissues in the human body, essentially skin, joints, and bones. Due to its abundance in our bodies, its strength and its relation with skin aging, collagen has gained great interest as an oral dietary supplement as well as an ingredient in cosmetics. Collagen fibres get damaged with the pass of time, losing thickness and strength which has been linked to skin aging phenomena. Collagen can be obtained from natural sources such as plants and animals or by recombinant protein production systems. Because of its increased use, the collagen market is worth billions. The question therefore arises: is it worth it?
This 2019 systematic review assessed all available randomized-controlled trials using collagen supplementation for treatment efficacy regarding skin quality, anti-aging benefits, and potential application in medical dermatology. Eleven studies with a total of 805 patients were included. Eight studies used collagen hydrolysate, 2.5g/d to 10g/d, for 8 to 24 weeks, for the treatment of pressure ulcers, xerosis, skin aging, and cellulite. Two studies used collagen tripeptide, 3g/d for 4 to 12 weeks, with notable improvement in skin elasticity and hydration. Lastly, one study using collagen dipeptide suggested anti-aging efficacy is proportionate to collagen dipeptide content.
The authors concluded that preliminary results are promising for the short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for wound healing and skin aging. Oral collagen supplements also increase skin elasticity, hydration, and dermal collagen density. Collagen supplementation is generally safe with no reported adverse events. Further studies are needed to elucidate medical use in skin barrier diseases such as atopic dermatitis and to determine optimal dosing regimens.
These conclusions are similar to those of a similar but smaller review of 2015 which concluded that the oral supplementation with collagen peptides is efficacious to improve hallmarks of skin aging.
And what about the many other claims that are currently being made for oral collagen?
A 2006 review of collagen for osteoarthritis concluded that a growing body of evidence provides a rationale for the use of collagen hydrolysate for patients with OA. It is hoped that ongoing and future research will clarify how collagen hydrolysate provides its clinical effects and determine which populations are most appropriate for treatment with this supplement. For other indication, the evidence seems less conclusive.
So, what should we make of this collective evidence. My interpretation is that, of course, there are caveats. For instance, most studies are small and not as rigorous as one would hope. But the existing evidence is nevertheless intriguing (and much more compelling than that for most other supplements). Moreover, there seem to be very few adverse effects with oral usage (don’t inject the stuff for cosmetic purposes, as often recommended!). Therefore, I feel that collagen might be one of the few dietary supplements worth keeping an eye on.
Robert Verkerk, Executive & scientific director, Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), seems to adore me (maybe that’s why I kept this post for Valentine’s Day?). In 2006, he published this article about me (it is lengthy, and I therefore shortened a bit, but feel free to study it in its full beauty):
START OF QUOTE
PROFESSOR EDZARD ERNST, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, gets lots of exposure for his often overtly negative views on complementary medicine. He’s become the media’s favourite resource for a view on this controversial subject…
The interesting thing about Prof Ernst is that he seems to have come a long way from his humble beginnings as a recipient of the therapies that he now seems so critical of. Profiled by Geoff Watts in the British Medical Journal, the Prof tells us: ‘Our family doctor in the little village outside Munich where I grew up was a homoeopath. My mother swore by it. As a kid I was treated homoeopathically. So this kind of medicine just came naturally. Even during my studies I pursued other things like massage therapy and acupuncture. As a young doctor I had an appointment in a homeopathic hospital, and I was very impressed with its success rate. My boss told me that much of this success came from discontinuing main stream medication. This made a big impression on me.’ (BMJ Career Focus 2003; 327:166; doi:10.1136/bmj.327.7425.s166)…
After his early support for homeopathy, Professor Ernst has now become, de facto, one of its main opponents. Robin McKie, science editor for The Observer (December 18, 2005) reported Ernst as saying, ‘Homeopathic remedies don’t work. Study after study has shown it is simply the purest form of placebo. You may as well take a glass of water than a homeopathic medicine.’ Ernst, having done the proverbial 180 degree turn, has decided to stand firmly shoulder to shoulder with a number of other leading assailants of non-pharmaceutical therapies, such as Professors Michael Baum and Jonathan Waxman. On 22 May 2006, Baum and twelve other mainly retired surgeons, including Ernst himself, bandied together and co-signed an open letter, published in The Times, which condemned the NHS decision to include increasing numbers of complementary therapies…
As high profile as the Ernsts, Baums and Waxmans of this world might be—their views are not unanimous across the orthodox medical profession. Some of these contrary views were expressed just last Sunday in The Sunday Times (Lost in the cancer maze, 10 December 2006)…
The real loser in open battles between warring factions in healthcare could be the consumer. Imagine how schizophrenic you could become after reading any one of the many newspapers that contains both pro-natural therapy articles and stinging attacks like that found in this week’s Daily Mail. But then again, we may misjudge the consumer who is well known for his or her ability to vote with the feet—regardless. The consumer, just like Robert Sandall, and the millions around the world who continue to indulge in complementary therapies, will ultimately make choices that work for them. ‘Survival of the fittest’ could provide an explanation for why hostile attacks from the orthodox medical community, the media and over-zealous regulators have not dented the steady increase in the popularity of alternative medicine.
Although we live in a technocratic age where we’ve handed so much decision making to the specialists, perhaps this is one area where the might of the individual will reign. Maybe the disillusionment many feel for pharmaceutically-biased healthcare is beginning to kick in. Perhaps the dictates from the white coats will be overruled by the ever-powerful survival instinct and our need to stay in touch with nature, from which we’ve evolved.
END OF QUOTE
Elsewhere, Robert Verkerk even called me the ‘master trickster of evidence-based medicine’ and stated that Prof Ernst and his colleagues appear to be evaluating the ‘wrong’ variable. As Ernst himself admitted, his team are focused on exploring only one of the variables, the ‘specific therapeutic effect’ (Figs 1 and 2). It is apparent, however, that the outcome that is of much greater consequence to healthcare is the combined effect of all variables, referred to by Ernst as the ‘total effect’ (Fig 1). Ernst does not appear to acknowledge that the sum of these effects might differ greatly between experimental and non-experimental situations.
Adding insult to injury, Ernst’s next major apparent faux pas involves his interpretation, or misinterpretation, of results. These fundamental problems exist within a very significant body of Prof Ernst’s work, particularly that which has been most widely publicised because it is so antagonistic towards healing cultures that have in many cases existed and evolved over thousands of years.
By example, a recent ‘systematic review’ of individualised herbal medicine undertaken by Ernst and colleagues started with 1345 peer-reviewed studies. However, all but three (0.2%) of the studies (RCTs) were rejected. These three RCTs in turn each involved very specific types of herbal treatment, targeting patients with IBS, knee osteoarthritis and cancer, the latter also undergoing chemotherapy, respectively. The conclusions of the study, which fuelled negative media worldwide, disconcertingly extended well beyond the remit of the study or its results. An extract follows: “Individualised herbal medicine, as practised in European medical herbalism, Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, has a very sparse evidence base and there is no convincing evidence that it is effective in any [our emphasis] indication. Because of the high potential for adverse events and negative herb-herb and herb-drug interactions, this lack of evidence for effectiveness means that its use cannot be recommended (Postgrad Med J 2007; 83: 633-637).
Robert Verkerk has recently come to my attention again – as the main author of a lengthy report published in December 2018. Its ‘Executive Summary’ makes the following points relevant in the context of this blog (the numbers in his text were added by me and refer to my comments below):
- This position paper proposes a universal framework, based on ecological and sustainability principles, aimed at allowing qualified health professionals (1), regardless of their respective modalities (disciplines), to work collaboratively and with full participation of the public in efforts to maintain or regenerate health and wellbeing. Accordingly, rather than offering ‘fixes’ for the NHS, the paper offers an approach that may significantly reduce the NHS’s current and growing disease burden that is set to reach crisis point given current levels of demand and funding.
- A major factor driving the relentlessly rising costs of the NHS is its over-reliance on pharmaceuticals (2) to treat a variety of preventable, chronic disorders. These (3) are the result — not of infection or trauma — but rather of our 21st century lifestyles, to which the human body is not well adapted. The failure of pharmaceutically-based approaches to slow down, let alone reverse, the dual burden of obesity and type 2 diabetes means wider roll-out of effective multi-factorial approaches are desperately needed (4).
- The NHS was created at a time when infectious diseases were the biggest killers (5). This is no longer the case, which is why the NHS must become part of a wider system that facilitates health regeneration or maintenance. The paper describes the major mechanisms underlying these chronic metabolic diseases, which are claiming an increasingly large portion of NHS funding. It identifies 12 domains of human health, many of which are routinely thrown out of balance by our contemporary lifestyles. The most effective way of treating lifestyle disorders is with appropriate lifestyle changes that are tailored to individuals, their needs and their circumstances. Such approaches, if appropriately supported and guided, tend to be far more economical and more sustainable as a means of maintaining or restoring people’s health (6).
- A sustainable health system, as proposed in this position paper, is one in which the individual becomes much more responsible for maintaining his or her own health and where more effort is invested earlier in an individual’s life prior to the downstream manifestation of chronic, degenerative and preventable diseases (7). Substantially more education, support and guidance than is typically available in the NHS today will need to be provided by health professionals (1), informed as necessary by a range of markers and diagnostic techniques (8). Healthy dietary and lifestyle choices and behaviours (9) are most effective when imparted early, prior to symptoms of chronic diseases becoming evident and before additional diseases or disorders (comorbidities) have become deeply embedded.
- The timing of the position paper’s release coincides not only with a time when the NHS is in crisis, but also when the UK is deep in negotiations over its extraction from the European Union (EU). The paper includes the identification of EU laws that are incompatible with sustainable health systems, that the UK would do well to reject when the time comes to re-consider the British statute books following the implementation of the Great Repeal Bill (10).
- This paper represents the first comprehensive attempt to apply sustainability principles to the management of human health in the context of our current understanding of human biology and ecology, tailored specifically to the UK’s unique situation. It embodies approaches that work with, rather than against, nature (11). Sustainability principles have already been applied successfully to other sectors such as energy, construction and agriculture.
- It is now imperative that the diverse range of interests and specialisms (12) involved in the management of human health come together. We owe it to future generations to work together urgently, earnestly and cooperatively to develop and thoroughly evaluate new ways of managing and creating health in our society. This blueprint represents a collaborative effort to give this process much needed momentum.
My very short comments:
- I fear that this is meant to include SCAM-practitioners who are neither qualified nor skilled to tackle such tasks.
- Dietary supplements (heavily promoted by the ANH) either have pharmacological effects, in which case they too must be seen as pharmaceuticals, or they are useless, in which case we should not promote them.
- I think ‘some of these’ would be more correct.
- Multifactorial yes, but we must make sure that useless SCAMs are not being pushed in through the back-door. Quackery must not be allowed to become a ‘factor’.
- Only, if we discount cancer and arteriosclerosis, I think.
- SCAM-practitioners have repeatedly demonstrated to be a risk to public health.
- All we know about disease prevention originates from conventional medicine and nothing from SCAM.
- Informed by…??? I would prefer ‘based on evidence’ (evidence being one term that the report does not seem to be fond of).
- All healthy dietary and lifestyle choices and behaviours that are backed by good evidence originate from and are part of conventional medicine, not SCAM.
- Do I detect the nasty whiff a pro-Brexit attitude her? I wonder what the ANH hopes for in a post-Brexit UK.
- The old chestnut of conventional medicine = unnatural and SCAM = natural is being warmed up here, it seems to me. Fallacy galore!
- The ANH would probably like to include a few SCAM-practitioners here.
Call me suspicious, but to me this ANH-initiative seems like a clever smoke-screen behind which they hope to sell their useless dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies to the unsuspecting British public. Am I mistaken?
Probiotics (live microorganisms for oral consumption) are undoubtedly popular, not least they are being cleverly promoted as a quasi panacea. But are they as safe as their manufacturers try to convince us? A synthesis and critical evaluation of the reports and series of cases on the infectious complications related to the ingestion of probiotics was aimed at finding out.
The authors extensive literature searches located 60 case reports and 7 case series including a total of 93 patients. Fungemia was the most common infectious complications with 35 (37.6%) cases. The genus Saccharomyces was the most frequent with 47 (50.6%) cases, followed by Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Bacillus, Pedioccocus and Escherichia with 26 (27.9%), 12 (12.8%), 5 (5.4%), 2 (2.2%) and 1 (1.1%) case, respectively. Adults over 60 years of age, Clostridium difficile colitis, antibiotic use and Saccharomyces infections were associated with overall mortality. HIV infections, immunosuppressive drugs, solid organ transplantation, deep intravenous lines, enteral or parenteral nutrition were not associated with death.
The authors concluded that the use of probiotics cannot be considered risk-free and should be carefully evaluated for some patient groups.
Other authors have previously warned that individuals under neonatal stages and/or those with some clinical conditions including malignancies, leaky gut, diabetes mellitus, and post-organ transplant convalescence likely fail to reap the benefits of probiotics. Further exacerbating the conditions, some probiotic strains might take advantage of the weak immunity in these vulnerable groups and turn into opportunistic pathogens engendering life-threatening pneumonia, endocarditis, and sepsis. Moreover, the unregulated and rampant use of probiotics potentially carry the risk of plasmid-mediated antibiotic resistance transfer to the gut infectious pathogens.
And yet another review had concluded that the adverse effects of probiotics were sepsis, fungemia and GI ischemia. Generally, critically ill patients in intensive care units, critically sick infants, postoperative and hospitalized patients and patients with immune-compromised complexity were the most at-risk populations. While the overwhelming existing evidence suggests that probiotics are safe, complete consideration of risk-benefit ratio before prescribing is recommended.
Proponents of probiotics will say that these risks are rare and confined to small groups of particularly vulnerable patients. This may well be so, but in view of the often uncertain benefits of probiotics, the incessant hype and aggressive marketing, I find it nevertheless important to keep these risks in mind.
As with any therapy, the question must be, does this treatment really generate more good than harm?
Ginkgo biloba is a well-researched herbal medicine which has shown promise for a number of indications. But does this include coronary heart disease?
The aim of this systematic review was to provide information about the effectiveness and safety of Ginkgo Leaf Extract and Dipyridamole Injection (GD) as one adjuvant therapy for treating angina pectoris (AP) and to evaluate the relevant randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with meta-analysis. (Ginkgo Leaf Extract and Dipyridamole Injection is a Chinese compound preparation, which consists of ginkgo ﬂavone glycosides (24%), terpene lactones (ginkgolide about 13%, ginkgolide about 2.9%) and dipyridamole.)
RCTs concerning AP treated by GD were searched and the Cochrane Risk Assessment Tool was adopted to assess the methodological quality of the RCTs. A total of 41 RCTs involving 4,462 patients were included in the meta-analysis. The results indicated that the combined use of GD and Western medicine (WM) against AP was associated with a higher total effective rate [risk ratio (RR)=1.25, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.21–1.29, P<0.01], total effective rate of electrocardiogram (RR=1.29, 95% CI: 1.21–1.36, P<0.01). Additional, GD combined with WM could decrease the level of plasma viscosity [mean difference (MD)=–0.56, 95% CI:–0,81 to–0.30, P<0.01], fibrinogen [MD=–1.02, 95% CI:–1.50 to–0.54, P<0.01], whole blood low shear viscosity [MD=–2.27, 95% CI:–3.04 to–1.49, P<0.01], and whole blood high shear viscosity (MD=–0.90, 95% CI: 1.37 to–0.44, P<0.01).
The authors concluded that comparing with receiving WM only, the combine use of GD and WM was associated with a better curative effect for patients with AP. Nevertheless, limited by the methodological quality of included RCTs more large-sample, multi-center RCTs were needed to confirm our findings and provide further evidence for the clinical utility of GD.
If one reads this conclusion, one might be tempted to use GD to cure AP. I would, however, strongly warn everyone from doing so. There are many reasons for my caution:
- All the 41 RCTs originate from China, and we have repeatedly discussed that Chinese TCM trials are highly unreliable.
- The methodological quality of the primary RCTs was, according to the review authors ‘moderate’. This is not true; it was, in fact, lousy.
- Dipyridamole is not indicated in angina pectoris.
- To the best of my knowledge, there is no good evidence from outside China to suggest that Ginkgo biloba is effective for angina pectoris.
- Angina pectoris is caused by coronary artery disease (a narrowing of one or more coronary arteries due to atherosclerosis), and it seems implausible that this condition can be ‘cured’ with any medication.
So, what we have here is yet another nonsensical paper, published in a dubious journal, employing evidently irresponsible reviewers, run by evidently irresponsible editors, hosted by a seemingly reputable publisher (Springer). This is reminiscent of my previous post (and many posts before). Alarmingly, it is also what I encounter on a daily basis when scanning the new publications in my field.
The effects of this incessant stream of nonsense can only have one of two effects:
- People take this ‘evidence’ seriously. In this case, many patients might pay with their lives for this collective incompetence.
- People conclude that alt med research cannot be taken seriously. In this case, we are unlikely to ever see anything useful emerging from it.
Either way, the result will be profoundly negative!
It is high time to stop this idiocy; but how?
I wish, I knew the answer.
After 25 years of full-time research into alternative medicine, I thought that I have seen it all. But I was wrong! Here is an article that surpasses every irresponsible stupidity I can remember. It is entitled ‘Ginger is the monumentally superior alternative to chemotherapy‘:
Let’s say that your doctor has given you a cancer diagnosis. Let’s revisit animal wisdom. If a squirrel was looking over a tasty morsel of ginger on one side, or a vial full of Mehotrexate, Danorubicin or Tioguanine on the other, what would that intelligent squirrel choose? The answer is obvious. And it’s the right answer, because ginger roots, after being dried and cooked, manifest an ingredient called 6-shogaol.
This naturally occurring element is up to 10,000 times more effective at killing cancer cells than those vials of destructive drugs, reports David Guiterrez from Natural News, who states that “researchers found that 6-shogaol is active against cancer stem cells at concentrations that are harmless to healthy cells. This is dramatically different from conventional chemotherapy, which has serious side effects largely because it kills healthy as well as cancerous cells.”
END OF QUOTE
As David Guiterrez from Natural News might not be the most reliable of sources, I did a bit of searching for evidence. This is what I found:
A study examining the efficacy of ginger, as an adjuvant drug to standard antiemetic therapy, in ameliorating acute and delayed CINV in patients with lung cancer receiving cisplatin-based regimens. It concluded that as an adjuvant drug to standard antiemetic therapy, ginger had no additional efficacy in ameliorating CINV in patients with lung cancer receiving cisplatin-based regimens.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter study in patients planned to receive ≥2 chemotherapy cycles with high dose (>50 mg/m2) cisplatin. Patients received ginger 160 mg/day (with standardized dose of bioactive compounds) or placebo in addition to the standard antiemetic prophylaxis for CINV, starting from the day after cisplatin administration. The authors found that in patients treated with high-dose cisplatin, the daily addition of ginger, even if safe, did not result in a protective effect on CINV.
Yes, there are also a few trials to suggest that ginger is effective for reducing nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy, but by and large they are older and less rigorous. And anyway, this is besides the point. The question here is not whether there is good evidence to show that ginger is helpful against chemo-induced nausea; the question is whether Ginger is clinically effective in ‘killing cancer cells’. And the answer is an emphatic
And this means the above-quoted article irresponsible, unethical, perhaps even criminal to the extreme. I shudder to think how many cancer patients have read it and consequently given up their conventional treatments opting for Ginger instead.
I have just been in Sao Paulo to give a lecture at the opening of a new university institute, ‘Question of Science‘. Under the leadership of Natalia Pasternak, the institute will promote scepticism in Brazil, particularly in the area of alternative medicine. Brazil currently has no less than 29 types of alternative medicine paid for with public money, and even homeopathy is officially being recognised and taught at all Brazilian medical schools.
But the most peculiar case of Brazilian quackery must surely be phosphoethanolamine. Gilberto Chierice, a Chemistry Professor at the University of São Paulo, used resources from a campus laboratory to unofficially manufacture, distribute, and promote the chemical to cancer patients claiming that it was a cheap cure for all cancers without side-effects. Remarkably, this was in the total absence of through clinical testing. In September 2015, university administrators therefore began preventing him from continuing with this practice. However, in October 2015, several courts in Brazil ruled in favour of plaintiffs who wanted the compound to remain available. In an unusual move of defence of common sense, a state court overturned the lower courts’ decision a month later, and the secretary for Brazil’s science and technology ministry promised to fund further research on the compound. In 2016, a law was passed in Brazil allowing the sale of synthetic phosphorylethanolamine for cancer treatment. Due to opposition from the Brazilian Medical Association, the Brazilian Society of Clinical Oncology, and the regulatory agency ANVISA, the country’s Supreme Court then suspended the law. I was told that a stepwise plan of clinical testing had been implemented. As the drug even failed to pass the most preliminary tests, the program had to be aborted.
This story seems like a re-play of many similar tales of bogus cancer cures of the past. They all seem to follow a similar pattern:
- Someone dreams up a ‘cure’ for all cancers that is cheap and free of side-effects.
- This appeals to many desperate cancer patients who are fighting for their lives.
- It also attracts several entrepreneurs who are hoping to make a fast buck.
- The story is picked up by the press and consequently a sizable grass-roots movement of support emerges.
- Populist politicians jump on the vote-winning band-waggon.
- The experts caution that the bogus cancer ‘cure’ is devoid of evidence and might put patients’ lives at risk.
- The legislators get involved.
- Law suits start left, right and centre.
- Eventually, the cancer ‘cure’ is scientifically tested and confirmed to be bogus.
- Eventually, the law rules against the bogus ‘cure’.
- A conspiracy theory emerges stating that the cancer ‘cure’ was unjustly suppressed to protect the interests of Big Pharma.
- A few years later, the subject re-surfaces and the whole cycle starts from the beginning.
Such stories remind us that fighting bogus claims is hugely important, even if it does not always succeed or turns out to be merely an exercise of damage limitation. Every life saved by the struggle against quackery makes it worthwhile.
I wish the new Institute ‘Question of Science‘ all the luck it richly deserves and desperately needs.
I regularly scan the new publications in alternative medicine hoping that I find some good quality research. And sometimes I do! In such happy moments, I write a post and make sure that I stress the high standard of a paper.
Sadly, such events are rare. Usually, my searches locate a multitude of deplorably poor papers. Most of the time, I ignore them. Sometime, I do write about exemplarily bad science, and often I report about articles that are not just bad but dangerous as well. The following paper falls into this category, I fear.
The aim of this systematic review was to assess the efficacy and safety of herbal medicines for the induction of labor (IOL). The researchers considered experimental and non-experimental studies that compared relevant pregnancy outcomes between users and non-user of herbal medicines for IOL.
A total of 1421 papers were identified and 10 studies, including 5 RCTs met the authors’ inclusion criteria. Papers not published in English were not considered. Three trials were conducted in Iran, two in the USA and one each in South Africa, Israel, Thailand, Australia and Italy.
The quality of the included trial, even of the 5 RCTs, was poor. The results suggest, according to the authors of this paper, that users of herbal medicine – raspberry leaf and castor oil – for IOL were significantly more likely to give birth within 24 hours than non-users. No significant difference in the incidence of caesarean section, assisted vaginal delivery, haemorrhage, meconium-stained liquor and admission to nursery was found between users and non-users of herbal medicines for IOL.
The authors concluded that the findings suggest that herbal medicines for IOL are effective, but there is inconclusive evidence of safety due to lack of good quality data. Thus, the use of herbal medicines for IOL should be avoided until safety issues are clarified. More studies are recommended to establish the safety of herbal medicines.
As I stated above, I am not convinced that this review is any good. It included all sorts of study designs and dismissed papers that were not in English. Surely this approach can only generate a distorted or partial picture. The risks of herbal remedies for mother and baby are not well investigated. In view of the fact that even the 5 RCTs were of poor quality, the first sentence of this conclusion seems most inappropriate.
On the basis of the evidence presented, I feel compelled to urge pregnant women NOT to consent to accept herbal remedies for IOL.
And on the basis of the fact that far too many papers on alternative medicine that emerge every day are not just poor quality but also dangerously mislead the public, I urge publishers, editors, peer-reviewers and researchers to pause and remember that they all have a responsibility. This nonsense has been going on for long enough; it is high time to stop it.
Several previous studies have suggested improvements in sperm quality after vitamin supplementation, and several reviews have drawn tentatively positive conclusions:
- The current literature seems to suggest a beneficial effect of antioxidants on male infertility.
- Several studies have reported a significant increase in sperm quality and pregnancy rates when the men were supplemented by specific vitamins and micronutrients
- For those undergoing assisted reproduction, the odds ratio that antioxidant use would improve pregnancy rates was 4.18, with a 4.85-fold improvement in live birth rate also noted.
Most of the primary trials lacked scientific rigour, however. Now a new study has emerged that overcomes many of the flaws of the previous research.
Professor Anne Steiner from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, presented her study yesterday at the 34th Annual Meeting of ESHRE in Barcelona. This clinical trial of 174 couples has found that an antioxidant formulation taken daily by the male partner for a minimum of three months made no difference to sperm concentration, motility or morphology, nor to the rate of DNA fragmentation. The study was performed in eight American fertility centres.
All men in the study had been diagnosed with male factor infertility, reflected in subnormal levels of sperm concentration, motility, or morphology, or higher than normal rates of DNA fragmentation. These parameters were measured at the start of the trial and at three months. In between, the men allocated to the antioxidant intervention were given a daily supplement containing vitamins C, D3 and E, folic acid, zinc, selenium and L-carnitine; the control group received a placebo.
At three months, results showed only a “slight” overall difference in sperm concentration between the two groups, and no significant differences in morphology, motility, or DNA fragmentation measurements. Sub-group analysis (according to different types of sperm abnormality) found no significant differences in sperm concentration (in oligospermic men), motility (in asthenospermic men), and morphology (in teratospermic men).(1) There was also no change seen after three months in men with high rates of DNA fragmentation (28.9% in the antioxidant group and 28.8 in the placebo group).
Natural conception during the initial three month study period did also not differ between the two groups of the entire cohort – a pregnancy rate of 10.5% in the antioxidant group and 9.1% in the placebo. These rates were also comparable at six months (after continued antioxidant or placebo for the male partner and three cycles of clomiphene and intrauterine insemination for the female partner).
The authors concluded that “the results do not support the empiric use of antioxidant therapy for male factor infertility in couples trying to conceive naturally”.
The story about supplements and health claims seems to be strangely repetitive:
- the claim that supplements help for condition xy is heavily promoted, e. g. via the Internet;
- a few flimsy trials seem to support the claim;
- these results are relentlessly hyped;
- the profit of the manufacturers grows;
- eventually a rigorous, independently-funded trial emerges with a negative finding;
- the card house seems to collapse;
- the manufacturers claim that the trial’s methodology was faulty (e. g. wrong does, wrong mixture of ingredients);
- thus another profitable card house is built elsewhere.
In the end, the only supplement-related effects are that 1) the consumers produce expensive urine and 2) the manufacturers have plenty of funds to start a new campaign based on yet another bogus heath claim.
When NHS England announced several months ago that they plan to stop the reimbursement of homeopathy, UK homeopaths were understandably upset and decided to launch a legal challenge to this decision. Yesterday, the result of this challenge has been published in a NHS press-release:
START OF QUOTE
NHS chief Simon Stevens has today welcomed the High Court’s decisive rejection of a legal challenge by the British Homeopathic Association to overturn plans to no longer routinely fund homeopathy on the NHS.
As part of action to clamp down on waste, over the last two years NHS England has taken action to curb prescriptions for medicines that can be bought over the counter or are of low value.
At the end of last year NHS England published guidance to curb prescriptions for 18 ineffective, unsafe or low clinical priority treatments, such as coproxamol, some dietary supplements, herbal treatments and homeopathy, saving up to £141 million a year. Earlier this year NHS England published a further list of 35 minor, short-term conditions for which over the counter medicines should not routinely be prescribed, saving around a further £100 million a year.
Savings form a key building block of the NHS’s 10 point efficiency plan contained in the Next Steps on the NHS Five Year Forward View, published in March 2017.
NHS chief, Simon Stevens said: “There is no robust evidence to support homeopathy which is at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds.
“So we strongly welcome the High Court’s clear cut decision to kick out this costly and spurious legal challenge.”
Guidance on items which should not be routinely prescribed in primary care is available on the NHS England website.
END OF QUOTE
The reaction of UK homeopaths was as swift and deluded as it was predictable. The British Homeopathy Association, for instance, commented thus:
… The charity’s main claims against NHS England were that the consultation misrepresented homeopathy and therefore was unfair; and a report used in the consultation to inform the public was so complicated it would deter rather than encourage people to respond. Although the judge found there were sufficient grounds for a judicial review, after four days of lengthy legal arguments he dismissed the claims. Margaret Wyllie, BHA Chair, said the case highlighted how health bosses were unfairly manipulating the consultation process and making decisions about healthcare services without genuine patient engagement. “That NHS England attracted fewer than 3,000 responses from patients to a national consultation that ran for three months highlights its failure to genuinely engage with the public on important decisions about healthcare provision. Although 18 medicines were under review the only negative statement in NHS England’s press release promoting its public consultation was about homeopathy. The statement was so prejudicial it was widely reported in the media that the decision to deny patients homeopathic medicines had already been taken. How the judge failed to recognise that this was a deliberate attempt by NHS England to unfairly influence the public is astonishing,” said Mrs Wyllie.
In The Telegraph, Wyllie is quoted saying: “It appears NHS England can fail to engage with patients properly on removing services and get away with it. That is not good enough, for it is important to remember that the real losers in this case are the patients who are now being refused a treatment on which they have come to depend.”
One can only marvel at the lack of insight and self-criticism. I should to add that the BHA is a charity; with this court case, they have wasted significant amounts of public money for their own, hopelessly misguided interests. To me, this indicates that they no longer deserve a charitable status.
Personally, I had very little doubt that the court would decide as it did. The evidence was simply overwhelming and indisputable. In the written judgement, the judge stated that “I am satisfied that NHSE was rigorous in the discharge of the duty to have “due regard” to relevant matters, and that it was entitled, on the evidence before it, to conclude that the Guidance would not have an adverse impact on the statutory equality objectives, but rather, as the Analysis found, “would [enable] patients to have access to the most effective medications to achieve the best outcomes”.
In all this, the open questions, in my view, were whether
- Prince Charles, the prime defender of quackery in the UK, would intervene,
- and whether his intervention might change anything.
So, did he try to intervene?
I do not know. It could be that, after all the hoo-ha about his spider memos, he now is a little more cautions about meddling in health politics. It could also be that, as he is getting ready to become king, he wants to keep a low profile about his more bizarre ideas. Lastly, it could be that his opinion does not weigh as heavily as I had feared.
In any case, The High Court ruling is most welcome and unquestionably just, progressive, and long-overdue. I applaud all who have worked hard to bring it about, and am sure that (most of) my readers agree.