Why is there so much medical misinformation in The Huffington Post?

Today, I refer you to an excellent post by Peter A. Lipson, MD, at the blog, Science-Based Medicine, entitled, “HuffPo blogger claims skin cancer is conspiracy.”
The post focuses on an article by someone who contends that the link between sunlight and skin cancer is a conspiracy by dermatologists and the cosmetic dermatology industry. Dr. Lipson’s highly insightful analysis about the “interview” process and how doctors must act these days on behalf of their patients concludes:

This article shows a misunderstanding of journalistic ethics, medical ethics, and medical science. It’s a disaster. And it’s no surprise that it’s in the Huffington Post.

While this is a medicine story, my question relates to why an organization with a lot of great frontpage news so frequently posts medical articles that are wrong and, sometimes, downright dangerous.
Read the article first, then read Dr. Lipson’s analysis.
Disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to Science-Based Medicine but, like all contributors there, receive no compensation.

Boy howdy! We’ve hooked Superbug’s Maryn McKenna!

On the heels of the recruitment of Deborah Blum to ScienceBlogs, I am happy to welcome journalist Maryn McKenna to our neck of the ether.
Her inaugural post can be read here.
superbug-cover.jpgMcKenna’s blog is called Superbug, reflecting the title of her most recent book, SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, and her general interests in infectious diseases and food safety. Her 2004 book, BEATING BACK THE DEVIL: On The Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), named among Top Science Books of 2004 by Amazon.com and an “Outstanding Academic Title” by the American Library Association.
More details from her biography indicate that ScienceBlogs has secured a remarkable and experienced writer:

As a newspaper reporter, she worked for 11 years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was the only journalist assigned to full-time coverage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She reported from the Indian Ocean tsunami and from Hurricane Katrina, as well as from Southeast Asia, India, Africa and the Arctic, and embedded with CDC teams on Capitol Hill during the 2001 anthrax attacks and with a World Health Organization polio-eradication team in India.
Previously, she worked for the Boston Herald, where stories she co-wrote on illnesses among veterans of the first Persian Gulf War led to the first Congressional hearings on Gulf War Syndrome, and at the Cincinnati Enquirer, where her stories on the association between local cancer clusters and contamination escaping a federal nuclear weapons plant contributed to a successful nuclear-harm lawsuit by residents.
Maryn has been an Ochberg Fellow of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University; a Media Fellow with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She has also served short fellowships at Harvard Medical School and the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families at the University of Maryland. In 2006, she was an inaugural Health Journalism Fellow of the East-West Center in Honolulu and is now an Associate of the Center and teaches other journalists in its programs in Asia.
She is a cum laude graduate of Georgetown University, has a master’s degree with highest honors from Northwestern University, and is the recipient of numerous journalism awards.

McKenna is clearly not your ordinary writer.
McKenna Manhattan Bar Leadville.jpgBut, of course, I cannot let her welcome message go without some levity. My eye was captured by a photo on McKenna’s website with her in front of The Manhattan Bar in Leadville, Colorado, generally considered the highest, continually-occupied municipality in the continental United States. Their Facebook page is here.
Situated on US Highway 24 that becomes Harrison Street in Leadville, The Manhattan Bar is just across from the famed Delaware Hotel in this boomtown established by the Silver Rush of the late 1870s and 1880s that then collapsed when the silver standard backing US currency was repealed in 1893.
If you’ve driven from Denver to any scientific conferences in Aspen, hiked Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, ran or biked any Leadville race, or taken your lab for whitewater rafting down the headwaters of the Arkansas River, chances are that you have driven past The Manhattan Bar.
Gotta respect a talented writer who acknowledges with reverence one of Colorado’s greatest treasures.
Welcome, Ms. McKenna!
And, as always, you can continue to follow Maryn on Twitter @marynmck
Photo credit: Shamelessly taken from McKenna’s website entirely without her permission.

How to report in vitro cancer studies: maitake mushroom extract doesn’t “fight cancer”

ResearchBlogging.orgEarlier this week, I saw one of the best treatments of a misinterpreted story that has me thinking about how all news outlets should report in vitro laboratory studies.
Only thing is that it didn’t come from a news outlet.
It came instead from a brainwashing site run by those medical socialist types – I am, of course, speaking of the UK National Health Service and their excellent patient education website, NHS Choices.
You may recall reading in the popular dead-tree or online press that investigators from New York Medical College in Valhalla published in British Journal of Urology International about maitake mushroom extract killing bladder cancer cells. The most widely cited reports came from the UK Daily Mail by Tamara Cohen entitled, “Mushroom ‘shrinks cancer tumours by 75 percent,'” and “Cancer Cure: Mushrooms Can Shrink Tumors,” by Jo Willey of the UK Daily Express.
Well, NHS Choices took a look at the study and detailed how the mushroom extract was only used on bladder cells in culture. Throughout their review and in the conclusion that follows, they specifically took to task the story in the Daily Express:

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Who is AP’s Marilynn Marchione and why is she doing such a terrific job exposing alternative medicine dangers and deception?

As tipped off by Brother Orac this morning: from “60 pct of cancer patients try nontraditional med”:

Some people who try unproven remedies risk only money. But people with cancer can lose their only chance of beating the disease by skipping conventional treatment or by mixing in other therapies. Even harmless-sounding vitamins and “natural” supplements can interfere with cancer medicines or affect hormones that help cancer grow.

This is mainstream sci/med journalism done right. Period.

Why we tolerate “mystical mumbo jumbo” in academic medicine

Yet another hat tip this morning to anjou, a regular reader, commenter, and human RSS feed on all things cancer and alternative medicine (not to mention turning me on to Vanessa Hidary, the “Hebrew Mamita” spoken-word artist).
Last night anjou brought to me a superb AP Impact article, Alternative medicine goes mainstream, from medical writer Marilynn Marchione. I know that AP has been skewered as of late by various science bloggers but this particular article by Marchione is one of the best treatments I have seen in the last two years regarding the truth behind the alternative medicine industry and its infiltration into academic medicine.
It’s no surprise then that this article is being picked up extensively by US newspapers this morning.
[See also commentary from my academic physician-scientist colleague, Orac, at Respectful Insolence.]
We in academic medicine are complicit:

They are doing Reiki therapy, which claims to heal through invisible energy fields. The anesthesia chief, Dr. Richard Dutton, calls it “mystical mumbo jumbo.” Still, he’s a fan.
“It’s self-hypnosis” that can help patients relax, he said. “If you tell yourself you have less pain, you actually do have less pain.”

Like “Big Pharma,” there really is such an industry as “Big Woo” that co-opts a little science with classic marketing techniques:

“Herbals are medicines,” with good and bad effects, said Bruce Silverglade of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Contrary to their little-guy image, many of these products are made by big businesses. Ingredients and their countries of origin are a mystery to consumers. They are marketed in ways that manipulate emotions, just like ads for hot cars and cool clothes. Some make claims that average people can’t parse as proof of effectiveness or blather, like “restores cell-to-cell communication.”

“An Associated Press review of dozens of studies and interviews with more than 100 sources found an underground medical system operating in plain sight, with a different standard than the rest of medical care, and millions of people using it on blind faith.”

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Diluting a Disease?. . .Or Deluding Yourself?

My clinical counterpart, surgical oncologist Dr David Gorski, has an excellent post up today at Science-Based Medicine on the irresponsible and misleading information being provided at The Huffington Post during the current H5N1/2009 influenza (“swine flu”) outbreak. The Huffington Post’s War on Medical Science: A Brief History” provides a cautionary tale for us in embracing web-based news sources as our excellent print newspapers are going by the wayside.
Within the post, Dr Gorski shows that he is even more familiar with my writing than myself by citing a post at the old Terra Sig on the last time the press proposed the use of homeopathy to combat the then-avian flu outbreak.
I am extremely concerned that a similarly misleading stories put forth by HuffPo’s “health and wellness” experts who lack any credentials in science-based medicine and are either authors of books on enemas or practitioners of the repeatedly-disproven practice of homeopathy. Among these stories and blog posts propose treating H1N1/2009 influenza with massage therapy, colon cleansing, liver cleansing, and detoxification.
Dr Gorski deals with these cases in a systematic manner but I specifically take issue with any “detoxification” protocol. I have yet to have an alternative practitioner tell me when challenged what exactly are the toxins for which we are being detoxified? Chemical structures? IUPAC names?
In my original field of drug metabolism and toxicology, detoxification referred to the oxidation, reduction, or conjugation of hydrophobic or chemically-reactive metabolites by enzymes in the liver, kidney, and elsewhere. I have never been given a satisfactory explanation of what “detoxification protocols” do for our bodies than what our intrinsic physiology of the liver and kidney already do for us.
Off soap box.
In any case, I thought I would unearth the post of mine to which Dr Gorski describes, when an article in Ode Magazine suggested that homeopathy might be used to treat avian flu. It’s fun to read the old stuff but I am also reminded that we keep revisiting the dangerous side of pseudoscience with this irresponsible journalism.


The following appeared originally on 18 Feb 2006 at the old Blogspot home of Terra Sigillata:

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BusinessWeek sends us Airborne

Many thanks to science and medical senior writer Cathy Arnst of BusinessWeek for the unexpected coverage online a couple of days ago in their Working Parents blog.
Ms Arnst cited Terra Sig and one of our previous posts in discussing the additional FTC settlement funds to be provided by the makers of Airborne for false claims to consumers:

For background on the charges against the product check out the informative blog terra sigillata, by a pharmacologist, which pulls apart false claims made on behalf of natural remedies (in fact, he pulls apart false medical claims in general–a blog worth bookmarking).

Nothing has really changed since our 4 March 2008 post that Airborne would at that time pay consumers up to a total of $23.3 million in refunds for up to six purchases per customer. Funds for the settlement have now been moved up to $30 million but as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) stated:

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Methadone for cancer (no) and cancer pain (yes)

Most people know of methadone as a long-term substitution therapy for people addicted to heroin, morphine, or other similar drugs called opiates or opioids. A good, free full-text description of methadone maintenance therapy (MMT) can be found in the 15 June 2001 issue of American Family Physician.
ResearchBlogging.orgNow, in the 1 August 2008 issue of Cancer Research, Claudia Friesen and colleagues at the University of Ulm report that methadone can kill leukemia cells in culture and reverse acquired resistance to other drugs like doxorubicin (Adriamycin). Press reports to this effect appeared at the beginning of the month in ScienceDaily and Scientific American online.
However, Karl Schwartz of Patients Against Lymphoma and Lymphomation.org dialed us up for comment on the most complete description of this paper that appeared in ScienceNOW Daily News in an article by Rachel Zelkowitz entitled, “Relief from Rehab?”
Karl wrote primarily because a contributor to one of his patient discussion boards said that methadone would never be developed as a cancer drug because:

Methadone joins a long list of molecules that have shown activity in the lab but will never see the light of day as drugs as either they were not patentable in the first place (naturally occuring molecules) or their patient has expired.

Here was my response to Karl to pass along to his commenter:

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10-year anniversary of Viagra (sildenafil) approval – what about the women???

Only time for a short post today but many news outlets are just now picking up on a 12 March WaPo article by David Segal on the 10th anniversary of the US FDA approval of the erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra. As we noted in yesterday’s post, the active ingredient in Viagra, sildenafil, is so popular that even dietary supplement manufacturers are doping their products (illegally) with it and other related compounds.
While some may be cracking silly jokes today, Segal’s article focuses primarily on the complexities of the female side of sexual relationships and the challenges in psychology and medicine. He addresses the very serious issues of how a pill cannot be expected to improve dysfunctional relationships, why there isn’t a similar pill for women, and why insurance carriers will cover the cost of Viagra for men but not always for counseling related to sexual issues.
Segal interviews those who applaud the increasing attention given to decreased female libido, particularly as it occurs in peri- and post-menopausal women. However, he also presents the side of women like NYU’s Dr Leonore Tiefer who protest “the medicalization of women’s sexuality.”
So, while women might take a pass on reading this widely-reprinted article today, our female readers should give the original a good read since it’s all about you.
Thanks, Mr Segal, for your attention to these underappreciated issues.

Why don’t bears suffer from osteoporosis during hibernation?

This question, posed by Michigan Tech professor Dr Seth W Donahue while hiking in the Sierra Nevada, has led to the discovery of an extremely potent form of parathyroid hormone produced by black bears (Ursus americanus). In an unusual take on my usual topic of natural product therapeutics, Donahue’s hope is that the ursine form of the hormone might serve as the basis for novel drugs to treat osteoporosis in humans, hibernating (on the couch) or otherwise.

Dr. Donahue’s research on bears has advanced far enough toward a treatment for humans to capture commercial interest. Apjohn Group, a company founded by former Pharmacia & Upjohn executives in Kalamazoo, Mich., has an agreement with Michigan Tech to commercialize Dr. Donahue’s technology. To do that, they’ve created a company called Aursos, a name derived from ursos, Latin for bears.

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