Archive for category Health & medicine

Another cancer cure that’s not a cure

The Daily Express today has a piece titled “The 20p ‘sunshine pill’ helps cancer patients live longer“. That’s a bold, unambiguous claim. Taking this pill will improve cancer survival rates, right?

A British oncologist will next week tell a conference that many of his skin cancer patients have unusually low ­levels of vitamin D.

He now gives them supplements and says they often survive for longer than expected.

Although he has not yet done a clinical trial to back up his theory, he believes that vitamin D pills at just 20p a day could eventually prove as ­effective as cancer treatments that cost thousands of pounds per patient.

Oh. So it might help cancer patients live longer one day, according to a doctor who hasn’t tested his theory yet.

There is some reasonably good evidence, summarised at Wikipedia, that low levels of vitamin D (a chemical produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight which controls bone growth and the life cycle of cells) are linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer and faster cancer growth, but the cause and effect aren’t clear – are low vitamin D levels causing cancer, or is cancer causing low vitamin D levels? – and, as Cancer Research UK says:

We strongly advise cancer patients to talk to their doctor if they are concerned, before considering taking supplements – especially since there’s evidence that some vitamin supplements can have unintended consequences.   Moreover, vitamin D from supplements doesn’t appear to be regulated in the body as tightly as vitamin D from the sun – and there’s still a lot of uncertainty over what the ‘best’ dose is.

And we certainly don’t recommend that patients go overboard on the beach or sunbeds to top up their vitamin D. We know that we all need a bit of sunshine in our lives.  But we also know that excessive UV exposure (from the sun or sunbeds) and  sunburn are major risk factors for melanoma.

That’s some very good advice, which makes it all the more galling that the Daily Express is encouraging cancer patients to start taking vitamin D pills without visiting their doctor.

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The Daily Mail, churnalism, and orgasms

Journalism is hard, guys! All that “interviewing” and “researching” and “fact checking” takes time and effort. It’s much easier if you can just nick someone’s article, rearrange the words and stick a misleading headline on it!

This week’s New Scientist has an article called “Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness” by Kayt Sukel. It’s pretty interesting – it’s about a couple of studies where women masturbated or had sex inside an fMRI machine (a type of MRI which shows which parts of the brain are active at any time), which imaged the activity in their brains to try to work out what happens in at orgasm. Interestingly, the two studies found completely opposite results. One group, led by Barry Komisaruk, found that one area of the brain – known as the prefrontal cortex or PFC – became extremely active at orgasm. Another group, led by Janniko Georgiadis, found a drop in PFC activity, and in particular, they found that the part of the PFC known as the orbitofrontal cortex or OFC shut down completely.

The article discusses a couple of possible reasons for this – Georgiadis suggests that since the PFC shuts down because the brain “loses control” at orgasm and enters an altered state of conciousness, while Komisaruk suggests that the PFC lights up because brain is investing heavily in controlling fantasy and pleasure. Since their experiments were slightly different, it’s of course possible that they’re both right – in Georgiadis’s experiments, the women had their partner with them in the fMRI machine, while in Komisaruk’s experiments, the women masturbated, and it’s possible that the two lead to very different patterns of brain activity (if the PFC plays a role in fantasy and imagination, it makes sense that it would be more active during masturbation).

At the end of the article, Komisaruk suggests that perhaps “anorgasmia” (the inability to have orgasms) might be treatable by having women “teach” their brains to have the right patterns of activity (one person New Scientist quotes, Kenneth Casey, compares this idea to the placebo effect – using the power of the mind to change the effect things have on the body), but since these are very early days, it’s certainly not a solid proposal. We don’t know which way round cause and effect are in this case anyway; perhaps changing the activity of the PFC causes orgasms, or perhaps orgasms change the behaviour of the PFC, and as Georgiadis notes:

I’m not sure if this altered state is necessary to achieve more pleasure or is just some side effect

Anyway, all very interesting, but quite vague, being more theoretical than practical at the moment. Unless you’re the Daily Mail, that is!

Secrets of the female orgasm revealed: Scientists discover new hope for women who can’t climax

Yes, for the Mail, these aren’t tentative – and confusing – first steps towards understanding the mental pathways that lead to orgasm, this is NEW HOPE FOR WOMEN WHO CAN’T CLIMAX. And also an excuse to show a model in her underwear miming either an orgasm or a sideways migrane. But mostly the NEW HOPE thing.

Interestingly, the Daily Mail ignores Komisaruk’s work completely – although he gets quoted at the bottom of the article, nowhere does the Mail mention his contradictory findings, presumably because that would mean that things are a tiny bit complicated and science can never be complicated!* This makes it a lot easier to pass the musings about a “cure for anorgasmia” as cold hard scientific fact, of course… but they’re not, they are just musings.

For some reason though – presumably because it’s the picture New Scientist used – they use a picture from Komisaruk’s experiment showing Sukel‘s brain, even though it shows exactly the opposite to what the Mail claims (the area in the image labeled “A” is the prefrontal cortext, and instead of being shut down it’s lit up like a Christmas tree). Not only is Daily Mail Reporter misrepresenting New Scientist‘s article, it’s doing a terrible job of it.

It’s not quite as terrible as “New theory could be “greatest discovery since chemotherapy”” or “Ten easy ways to beat cancer“, but it’s still a classic example of the press taking preliminary findings and twisting them into into “NEW HOPE” where hope may not (yet) be warranted.

* It’s also possible that the Daily Mail didn’t want to mention the possibility that people (even *gasp* women) might masturbate, but perhaps that theory’s a bit too Daily Mail Island (NSFW).


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Hangovers, statistics and a dodgy hookup

It’s one of the oldest clichés in the book. You go to a party, get completely hammered, and wake up in bed with a dodgy PR firm.

Today’s ill-advised hookup is a threesome between The Express, The Mirror and a non-alcoholic drinks company called Sweet Lady Beverages, who claim that “the average Briton will spend five years of their life with a hangover“.

Before we look at the article itself, a quick sanity check. Life expectancy in the UK is roughly 80 years, and it’s unlikely people are going to experience hangovers before the age of about 15 or so. So, at maximum, that gives the average Brit about 65 drinking years. If the Express‘s statistics are true, we spend 8% of our adult lives hung over – we would spend more time hungover than we would eating. It’s amazing anyone gets anything done.

The article goes on to say that:

[Britons] will suffer the ill effects for a whole day – usually a Sunday – at least once a week between the ages of 21 and 38.

Bear in mind that this an average. According to Sweet Lady Beverages, the average person is hung over every week until the age of 40, and those hangovers last all day. That sounds a tiny bit excessive. After all, one – much more scientific – study found that having even just one hangover per month over an extended period is linked to a major increase (around 2.36 times) in heart attack risk.* And yet somehow, we’re not dropping like flies.

As far as I can tell – there’s no information about this survey available on the web outside these two articles – Sweet Lady Beverages simply asked visitors to its site to answer some questions about hangovers. There’s no published methodology; in other words, they don’t say what questions were asked or what precautions they made to make sure they had a fair sample.

For instance, they could have asked

It would certainly explain the odd results they got.

The Sweet Lady Beverage company is quoted by the Express as saying

The message we can take from this is simple – by reducing our alcohol intake we can reduce the amount of time feeling wretched.

Oddly on-message for a company selling alcohol-free drinks, wouldn’t you say?

* I can’t find many good scientific studies of hangovers. A lot of them are rather hamstrung by the fact that surveys usually take place in university, and therefore involve university students – not very representative of the drinking habits of the wider population! Nevertheless, this paper suggests that only 15% of the population have more than hangover per month.

Edit: The Daily Mail has now picked up the story too.

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Definitely not an advert

Let’s suppose you were putting together the most stereotypical Daily Mail health story (that wasn’t about cancer). What would you include?

Well, obviously first of all, you need your patients. They should be someone Mail readers can sympathise with – white, straight, middle-class, happy and utterly conventional.

When Charlotte Davies met her future husband there was an instant attraction […]

The university administrator met [accountant] Dean three years ago in a bar in Colchester, Essex, and the pair quickly became inseparable.

Secondly, we need a disease. That can either be something rare and terrible – a unique form of cancer, for instance, or a disease like meningitis that often affects the young – or it can be something everyday, like sore joints or high blood pressure… or eczema.

Unfortunately for her, there was also an instant reaction – on her skin. Within weeks of meeting her soulmate, her eyelids erupted with eczema and her eyes had swelled to the size of golf balls.

Third, doctors have to be baffled. If your patient just stumbled to the GP and got a diagnosis, that’s no good. They have to have to been bounced from hospital to hospital until some maverick doctor (who may be played by Hugh Laurie) works out what the true problem was. Better yet, medical science should fail all together, and “alternative medicine” has to provide the “answers”.

Doctors struggled to explain the sudden reaction and it was a homeopath who eventually diagnosed the cause…

Fourth, you need a hook. Something that makes this case of eczema different from the millions of others out there.

as love.

Sigh. Yes.

‘He told me that it was common for eczema to be effected by emotions, but typically due to stress, trauma or unhappiness. This was the first time they had ever heard of someone being allergic to love’, she said.

‘I felt like my body was putting Dean to the test, because even though my heart told me he was The One, it was as if my body wanted to see if he really was a good as he seemed.

‘If he loved me after my eyes had turned into a bright red tomatoes literally within days of meeting him, then I’d know his love was true.’


Fifth, you need a moral. Something to appeal to the Daily Mail‘s sensibilities. One common one is the story of the mother who goes against medical advice to abort a foetus, and is then lucky enough to bring it to term safely – women who aren’t so lucky don’t seem to make the papers in quite the same way, of course. In this case, the moral is…

She said: ‘In December we got married and the eczema started to get a lot better. Perhaps my hormones calmed down and I just felt more relaxed once we were married, but it certainly seems to have cured me.’

The headline goes even further: “Allergic to love: Meeting my soulmate brought me out in itchy eczema… until he proposed”.* You heard it here first – living in sin causes eczema!

Oh, and sixth, you need to blatantly plug a product, of course!

Charlotte tried a concoction of steroids, creams, and alternative medicines, to no avail. Eventually she chanced upon Skin Shop’s Dry Eye Gel, a product she describes as ‘miraculous’ at treating the symptoms. […]

Dry Eye Gel costs £8.99 for 30ml and is available from [ADDRESS REDACTED]

Incidentally, the Dry Eye Gel website promotes their product “As seen in the Daily Mail“, while every photo in the article – including the couples wedding pictures – are credited to “Eastnews Press Agency”, a PR photography company which claims on its site thatWe know exactly the style of images National and Regional newspapers demand. With this knowledge we can give you and your clients the best opportunity to gain maximum press exposure. We can offer everything from straight forward picture coverage to an all-in-one package. This would include a full “news write through” of press releases and picture distribution service direct to National and Regional Press.

Come to think of it, it sure was convenient for everyone involved that a woman decided to tell a national newspaper about her relatively minor skin condition, wasn’t it?

(Thanks to Tabloid Watch for pointing out the Dry Eye Gel website)

* There’s a joke about loveless marriage in there somewhere, but I’m not cruel enough to make it.


Do it yourself controversy

Court battle for right to have DIY abortion at home screams today’s Daily Mail.

Ew! DIY abortion! That must be some weird, sick medical activity, right?

Women could have a ‘DIY abortion’ in their home within months under controversial plans to change the law.

They would be handed drugs to take to terminate their pregnancy in familiar surroundings rather than in a hospital or clinic.

Britain’s largest abortion provider is going to the High Court to try to scrap existing rules which state that abortion pills can be taken only under the supervision of a doctor or nurse.

No, in fact all this means is that women taking abortifacient pills may be allowed to take them at home, rather than the hospital (something that’s rather awkward at the moment, since you need to take two sets of pills a day or apart). Every check currently imposed on abortion would remain in place – women would still need to see two doctors beforehand, the drugs would remain only on prescription, and they would still be provided by trained doctors. The only difference is that women wouldn’t have to take the pills at the hospital, but could take them home. There’s nothing DIY about it, unless having some privacy while you take a pill counts as “doing it yourself”.

Obviously there are still some things they’d have to work out – for instance, how you’d check no-one overdosed or make sure the drugs were being used by the woman they were prescribed to (though this is a problem with all prescription drugs, not just abortion medication). But curiously, this isn’t the angle the Mail takes in its criticism. Instead…

A spokesman for Life, the anti-abortion charity, said: ‘Clearly, BPAS’s intention is to increase access to abortion yet further, by making it little more than a pill-popping exercise.

This is the only criticism in the article of the idea. No comment from anyone who has problems with this particular idea, only from people opposed to all abortion full stop.

(Incidentally, surely early term abortion is a “pill-popping exercise” anyway. I mean, there are pills, they are popped. The only difference to how abortion is carried right now is that one stage will take place somewhere else. That’s it.)

RopesToInfinity (of No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands) complained about Radio 5 Live having the same idea of “balance” – the most extreme views only, please! – on Twitter this morning, incidentally much more succinctly than this rambling post managed to.

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Another anti-contraceptive scare story

Happy new year to everyone!

I don’t normally mention TV news here, but they can slip up too. Channel 4 News yesterday ran a big, scaremongering piece about one simple statistic: 584 people with contraceptive implants became pregnant.

This might be newsworthy, except Channel 4 forgot to mention two rather important things, subsequently picked up on by the BBC.

First of all, the data in question covers 11 years, not just one year.

Secondly, over that time, the implant has been used by around 1.4 million women.

Now fair enough, presumably not everyone who got pregnant after using Implanon reported it, and contraceptive failure is always regrettable. 584 pregnancies among 1.4 million users however means that the implant did not fail in 99.95% of patients. That is very, very reliable in medical terms.

For comparison, vasectomy is 99.9% effective, an IUD is 99.8% effective, the pill is 99.7% effective (when taken properly; people missing doses means that in real life, it’s only 92% effective on average) and condoms are 98% effective (again, when used properly).

It’s always good to make sure people are completely aware of the relative risks of any type of contraceptive (and indeed any medicine), but using these 584 pregnancies as a sign that there’s something wrong with the implant, without any kind of context or an explanation, isn’t going to do this. All it will do is scare people – as Channel 4 have now realised. They’ve since released another article, “Implanon implant: what to do if you’re worried“, which explains:

You do not need to speak to your doctor unless you are very worried and need to have your mind put at rest.

As long as you can feel the implant, there is no cause for concern. The implant is still a very popular, safe and reliable method of contraception.

No method is 100 per cent effective but only a tiny number of women using the implant have got pregnant.

Good advice, but they should have put that in the actual article yesterday.

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Think yourself exactly the same weight

The Telegraph today carries an article promising that you can “Think yourself thinner with the fantasy diet“.

To the article’s credit, at least it’s not just someone flogging a diet (this time). This report is about a study, recently published in Science, which showed that people who imagined eating M&Ms repetitively ate fewer M&Ms at the end of the study than people who imagined simply moving the M&Ms or putting coins in a washing machine.

So far, so interesting. But is it a diet?

Not really.

When people were asked to imagine eating M&Ms but were given pieces of cheese, thinking about food didn’t have any statistically significant effect on their appetite. You need to be thinking very hard, and very specifically, about the food that you’re about to eat. Even when it did have an effect, we’re talking about handfuls of M&Ms. As Dr Carey Morewedge, study leader, says:

I do not want to blow out of proportion the efficacy of the imagery induction, as [the 50% drop] meant that participants tended to eat 2-6 grams of candy when they imagined eating the food or cheese rather than 4-12 grams of candy or cheese.

I’m not sure how much weight you’d loose by cutting your M&M consumption by 2 to 6 grams per day, but I don’t think it would be very much.

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Clear as mud

There’s a product called Joint Mud which the Express is wholeheartedly bigging up today. Apparently, it’s mud you rub on your joints which supposedly stops the pain of arthritis and improves joint flexibility; or so they claim.

This product is important, the Express says, because “The launch comes after a weekend expose revealed the NHS wasted £59million over four years on the anti-arthritis food supplement glucosamine sulphate, which does not work.“* Well then, I sure hope this Joint Mud works instead!

The Joint Mud site unfortunately doesn’t link to any of the studies to measure how effective the cream is. Instead, they simply give two very brief abstracts of studies:

Clinical Study # 1 – Results in 18 Minutes

“When used in accordance with intended package directions, Joint Mud demonstrated statistically significant reduction of joint problems by an average of 74% within the first 18 minutes with a maximum of 89% improvement reported after a single application.

Clinical Study # 2 – Long term results in 28 days.

“When used in accordance with intended package instructions in 28 days Joint Mud improved Joint Flexibility, Muscle Flexibility and Range of Motion by greater than 239%. Also, over the four week study, the number of applications needed to achieve the desired joint relief decreased from three times daily to twice a day”.

There’s no mention of how the studies were controlled or what placebos they used – after all, rubbing a cold cream into your joints normally soothes them anyway, regardless of how many organic essential oils your cream contains.

Nor does it say anywhere what improving range of motion and flexibility by “greater than 239%” means. Does this mean people went from being able to move their knees by 20° to 67°, or just from 1° to 3°?

I know what you’re thinking. “Aren’t you being too harsh on them? After all, they’ve at least released some clinical data, even if it is completely useless cargo cult science? I’m sure there’s nothing else dodgy about this product!”

Well first of all, let’s see which doctor the Express quotes to promote the product:

Dr Mark Binette, of Greek Island Labs, which produces Joint Mud, said: “I’ve been practising medicine for over 21 years and have never seen a product with such staggering results. I believe Joint Mud will help millions of people deal with aches and pains.

“I have seen impressive results in patients suffering from pain in their knees, back, hips, shoulders, hands and fingers.”

So the guy who sells the product is also the guy whose testimony they rely on to show the product works. Never mind, I’m sure Dr Mark Binette can be totally unbiased and impartial about a product he sells.

Secondly, check out the testamonials on the Joint Mud site:

I’ve had joint problems in my elbows in my knees for several years now. I was introduced to Joint Mud, I put it on and 18 minutes later I can totally feel the difference.

I’d applied the Joint Mud as instructed and within 18 minutes or so, I was feeling the results.

I’ve suffered from a really bad hip problem for several years now. I was introduced to Joint Mud and found that it works in about 18 minutes.

I was introduced to Joint Mud and at first, I was skeptical but I went ahead and tried it. Within 18 minutes, I saw tremendous results.

It’s all natural, put it on the joints where you have problems and within 18 minutes, you’re going to have tremendous results!

Funny how everyone found the product worked in exactly 18 minutes, isn’t it?

In the same vein, at the time of writing there were four comments on the Express‘s article. All four comments were posted by people who had never used the site before, three of whom claim to live in Aberdeen. Bear in mind this is a product that has not yet been released in the UK yet, so it’s unlikely three Aberdeeners and a Londoner have had a chance to try the product yet.

All four comments were posted within hours of the article going live, with the three supposedly from Aberdeen being posted between 2:03 AM and and 3:34 AM. There must be a lot of insomniac Express reading arthritics in Aberdeen!

The company that makes Joint Mud, the inaccurately named “Greek Island Labs”, is based in Arizona. Arizona is currently 7 hours behind the UK, meaning that, Arizona time, the comments were posted in the early evening – a much more convenient time to be posting on the Daily Express website.

Now, far be it from me to criticise a product promoted by Cascada, Bruno from Strictly, and David Hasselhoff’s daughter, but does that strike anyone else as odd?

* I can’t actually find any such exposé anywhere online. Curiously though, Greek Island Labs have previously promoted their products as an alternative to glucosamine, which makes me wonder how much of a part they played in writing this article.


“Kills trees” is the new “causes cancer”

(Edit: Angry Mob has a good post on this subject)

The Daily Mail has a doozy of a headline today: Is wi-fi radiation killing off trees? Study blames computer signals for dying leaves.

As if our magnificent trees didn’t have enough problems, they’re now being threatened by our emails.

When they’re not being assailed by some foreign bug or moth, there’s often a council official looking for an excuse to cut them down.

Now researchers say radiation from wi-fi networks that enable our burgeoning online communications may be their latest enemy.

Damn those foreign bugs and those council officials and those emails threatening our magnificent trees!

The study is – of course – unpublished, and the press release is so far only available in Dutch. The gist of it, according to the Dutch Antenna Agency (via Google Translate), is that researchers grew various plants in a climate controlled room. Of these, ash trees appeared to have brittle, discoloured leaves if grown close to a wireless access point – by close, we’re talking on the order of 50 cm, and maize and thale cress seemed to have delayed flowering. However, since the experiment is unpublished (indeed, it won’t even be presented to a conference until February of next year), all we have to go on is the press release. We don’t know how the experiment was controlled – after all, all the symptoms could have been disease or dehydration – there’s no mention in the press release of control groups, and we can’t know how statistically significant this result is.

The Antenna Agency also mentions previous studies showing that wi-fi had no effect on the growth of beech and spruce trees, and paraphrases the researcher thus:

He warns strongly that there are no far-reaching conclusions from its results. Based on the information now available can not be concluded that the WiFi radio signals leads to damage to trees or other plants

So in other words, this study (which has not yet been published) may make some interesting observations, but it most certainly does not blame wi-fi for killing trees. Oh well, Daily Mail, it’s just that the lead headline in your science section is completely wrong and will scare people unnecessarily, it’s not like that’s a big deal or anything.


Magic crystals in the Mail

The idea that there should be some magic bullet to weight loss is a surprisingly common one. This week, the magic cure the Mail is pushing is a type of crystal called “Sensa” which, it claims, makes food more flavoursome, so people eat less but feel as full. (Edit: The Telegraph is now reporting on it too, and their article is even more one sided than The Mail‘s)

So far, so what? Every diet pill on the planet claims to do that.

Ah, but, The Mail claims, there’s SCIENCE behind it:

In scientific tests, obese participants who used the flavourless, ‘Sensa Tastant’ crystals lost an average of two stones in six months.

Others lost an average of just two pounds.

Sure enough, the website of Sensa does provide links to the study, and it does appear to back up what the Mail claims at first glance. But there’s a problem.

The study, Use of Gustatory Stimuli to Facilitate Weight Loss, carries the name of just one scientist – Dr. Alan Hirsch. Hirsch happens to be not only the researcher who performed this experiment, but also the inventor of the crystals. One other study, “Efficacy Determination of Weight Loss through Use of Crystal Tastants“, claims to be by an independent lab, but there’s no authors listed for the study and it doesn’t appear anywhere on the internet apart from the Sensa website and a couple of mirrors, which makes this claim impossible to verify. In an interview with ABC News, Hirsch claims the second study was carried out by the distributor of the Sensa, in which case the researchers were perhaps less independent than implied.

Neither of these papers have published in a peer reviewed journal – nor, in fact are they proper papers. Instead, they’re just posters for use at a conference. As a result, they really don’t go into the experiments in any details, glossing over all the awkward details. For example, the papers do not give the distributions of weight loss. It’s all very good and well claiming that on average people lost on average 30 lbs, but unless you know what the spread is, it’s pretty useless. Did everyone lose 30 lbs, or did a few people lose 100 lbs and everyone else lose nothing?

Nor does it explain how the “control” group was controlled. In Hirsch’s study, there was no placebo. As far as I can tell, the control group is simply a collection of obese individuals who had no particular intention to lose weight. The people who actually took Sensa on the other hand were people who definitely did want to lose weight. Given that a) participants actually had to pay $49 per month to take part in the 6 month trial and b) people weren’t weighed in the lab but instead simply reported their weights to the scientists at the end of the study,  there’s more than enough reasons for people to exaggerate their weight-loss to the researchers. Who wants to admit to wasting $300, after all?

Furthermore,  only 1436 participants out of 2437 actually completed the trial; over 40% dropped out. It’s reasonable to assume that people who did not lose weight would stop taking the Sensa – after all, they’re paying $49 per month for it! This would weed out anyone who did not find Sensa worked and, over time, you’d be left only with the people who did lose weight – whether that was due to Sensa or not.

Finally, and most damningly, the experiments have never been peer reviewed. Dr Hirsch claimed at one point that the Endocrine Society had reviewed and approved his work. In fact, they simply allowed him to give a presentation at a conference, and were “surprised and troubled by the promotional nature of his presentation“.

ABC showed the papers to researchers, both professors at prestigious US university. One claimed the study has “negative value”, while the other said “says there is no scientific proof that Sensa works and believes the study was done to justify a commercial product”. Pretty damning.

It’s always possible that maybe a proper independent lab will pick up this study and prove without a doubt in a properly controlled experiment that Sensa works. At the moment though, I think it’s safe to say that the scientific evidence that the Mail so proudly touts is rather lacking.

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