Clinical Trials of Unscientific 'Alternative' Medical Treatments Should End, Say Physicians

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, August 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Clinical Trials of Unscientific 'Alternative' Medical Treatments Should End, Say Physicians


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


In a scathing new commentary, two physicians call on the research community to stop allowing clinical trials -- studies involving human subjects -- to be used for "highly implausible" alternative- medicine treatments, such as homeopathy and reiki.

The writers, Dr. David Gorski, a cancer surgeon at Wayne State University School of Medicine, and Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University, argue that not only have such clinical trials "led to the infiltration of pseudoscience" into academic medicine, but that they have also caused real harm.

And that harm is not just from people substituting an ineffective treatment, such as homeopathic "remedies," for a proven one. As an example, they point to a clinical trial that compared a well- publicized alternative-medicine treatment that involves "extreme dietary modifications, juices, large quantities of supplements and coffee enemas" with standard chemotherapy for the treatment of advanced pancreatic cancer.

The results, which were published in 2010, were "disturbing," write Gorski and Novella. "One year survival of subjects undergoing [the alternative-medicine] protocol was nearly fourfold worse than subjects receiving standard-of-care chemotherapy and worse than expected based on historical controls."

Specifically, the study found that the patients in the alternative-therapy group survived an average of 4.3 months after the start of their treatment compared to 14 months for the patients on chemotherapy. After one year, 16 percent of the alternative- therapy patients were alive compared to 56 percent of the patients receiving the chemotherapy. In addition, the alternative-therapy patients reported a much lower quality of life than those being treated with chemotherapy.

'Misguided' toleration

Many scientists have tolerated -- and sometimes even encouraged - - clinical trials for scientifically dubious alternative-medicine treatments because they believe that such studies will finally prove to people that the treatments don't work and get people to abandon them.

But that viewpoint is "misguided," say Gorski and Novella.

"Acupuncture and reiki remain widely practiced and even embraced at academic institutions, and even homeopathy continues to be practiced, despite clinical trials and meta-analyses that demonstrate effects indistinguishable from placebo," they write.

It's also unethical to enroll patients in studies for treatments that have absolutely no scientific chance of being effective, argue Gorski and Novella. They point to two randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trials undertaken in Nicaragua and Honduras that tested homeopathic remedies on children with diarrhea.

"Both trials were performed even though the ingredients in the homeopathic remedies tested were not known to be effective against childhood diarrhea, two ingredients, arsenic and mercury, are definitely toxic, and the ingredients were diluted away to nonexistence," write Gorski and Novella. …

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