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    Thursday, July 2, 2009

    PART II OF IV Believing in Medical Treatments That Don’t Work

    AP reporter M. Marchione writes that ten years ago the government set out to test herbal and other alternative health remedies to find the ones that do work. After spending $2.5 billion, the disappointing answer seems to be that almost none of them do. And the government is still spending the money.Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer; have all proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.

    Critics also say the federal center's research agenda is shaped by an advisory board loaded with alternative medicine practitioners. They account for at least nine of the board's 18 members, as required by its government charter. Many studies they approve for funding are done by alternative therapy providers; grants have gone to board members, too. "It's the fox guarding the chicken coop," said a previous director of the Office of Alternative Medicine, a smaller federal agency that preceded the center's creation. "This is not science, it's ideology on the part of the advocates." The center was handed a flawed mission, many scientists say.

    Congress created it after several powerful members claimed health benefits from their own use of alternative medicine and persuaded others that this enormously popular field needed more study. The new center was given $50 million in 1999 (its budget was $122 million last year) and ordered to research unconventional therapies and nostrums that Americans were using to see which ones had merit. That is opposite how other National Institutes of Health agencies work, where scientific evidence or at least plausibility is required to justify studies, and treatments go into wide use after there is evidence they work - not before.

    "There's very little basic science behind these things. Most of it begins with a tradition, or personal testimony and people's beliefs, even as a fad. And then pressure comes: 'It's being popular, it's being used, it should be studied.' It turns things upside down," said a senior editor who reviews alternative medicine research submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine.

    Yet to be politically correct the government continues to fund studies of purported energy fields, distance healing and other approaches that have little if any biological plausibility or scientific evidence. Taxpayers are bankrolling studies of whether pressing various spots on your head can help with weight loss, whether brain waves emitted from a special "master" can help break cocaine addiction, and whether wearing magnets can help the painful wrist problem, carpal tunnel syndrome.

    An acupressure weight-loss technique won a $2 million grant even though a small trial of it on 60 people found no statistically significant benefit - only a trend that could have occurred by chance. The researcher says the pilot study was just to see if the technique was feasible.

    Some say "It's become politically correct to investigate nonsense." Many scientists say that unconventional treatments hold promise and deserve serious study, but that the federal center needs to be more skeptical and selective. Many of the studies that have been funded I would not have funded because they seem irrational and foolish - studies on distant healing by prayer and energy healing, studies that are based on precepts and ideas that are contrary to what is known in terms of human physiology and disease.

    Critics say that unlike private companies that face bottom-line pressure to abandon a drug that flops, the federal center is reluctant to admit a supplement may lack merit - despite a strategic plan pledging not to equivocate in the face of negative findings.

    Echinacea is an example. After a large study by a top virologist found it didn't help colds, its fans said the wrong one of the plant's nine species had been tested. Federal officials agreed that more research was needed, even though they had approved the type used in the study.
    Herbal Supplements

    That reasoning was used to justify the $2 million weight-loss study, approved in 2007. It will test Tapas acupressure, devised by Tapas Fleming, a California acupuncturist.
    Use of her trademarked method requires employing people she certifies, and the study needs eight. It involves pressing on specific points on the face and head - the inner corners of the eyes are two - while focusing on a problem.

    In a federally funded pilot study, 30 dieters who were taught acupressure regained only half a pound six months later, compared with over three pounds for a comparison group of 30 others. However, the study widely missed a key scientific standard for showing that results were not a statistical fluke. The pilot trial was just to see if the technique was feasible. The results were good enough for the federal center to grant $2.1 million for a bigger study in 500 people that is under way now.



    Please remember, as with all our articles we provide information, not medical advice.
    For any treatment of your own medical condition you must visit your local doctor, with or without our article[s]. These articles are not to be taken as individual medical advice.


    * Tune in tomorrow for Part III of IV, Believing in Treatments that don't work- HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES

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