The Chicago Tribune today carries a shocking report detailing the amount of taxpayers’ money used to fund studies into quack therapies in the US.
For example, scientists were given $666,000 in federal research money to investigate whether distant prayer could heal AIDS. They found it could not.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also helped pay scientists to study whether squirting brewed coffee into someone’s intestines can help treat pancreatic cancer (a $406,000 grant) and whether massage makes people with advanced cancer feel better ($1.25 million). The coffee enemas did not help. The massage did.
NCCAM also has invested in studies of various forms of energy healing, including one based on the ideas of a self-described “healer, clairvoyant and medicine woman” who says her children inspired her to learn to read auras. The cost for that was $104,000.
A small, little-known branch of the National Institutes of Health, NCCAM was launched a dozen years ago to study alternative treatments used by the public but not accepted by mainstream medicine. Since its birth, the center has spent $1.4 billion, most of it on research.
A Tribune examination of hundreds of NCCAM grants, dozens of scientific papers, 12 years of NCCAM documents and advisory council meeting minutes found that the center has spent millions of taxpayer dollars on studies with questionable grounding in science. The cancer treatment involving coffee enemas was based on an idea from the early 1900s, and patients who chose to undergo the risky regimen lived an average of just four months.
The spending comes as competition for public research money is fierce and expected to get fiercer, with funding for the NIH expected to plateau and even drop in coming years.
Said Dr Wallace Sampson, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University:
Some of these treatments were just distinctly made up out of people’s imaginations.
And Dr David Gorski, a breast cancer researcher at Wayne State University, who has been a vocal critic of NCCAM, said:
How can we justify wasting money on something like this when there are so many other things that are much more plausible and much more likely to result in real benefit? Lots of good science and good scientists are going unfunded.
The director of the center and other advocates say it is worthwhile to use taxpayer dollars to study certain alternative treatments.
“They deserve scientific attention,” said NCCAM Director Dr Josephine Briggs, who noted that the center’s $128 million annual allotment amounts to less than half a percent of the total NIH budget.
Studies of energy healing or distant prayer likely would not get funded by NCCAM today, she added.
Yet many mind and body treatments that are being studied, like qigong and acupuncture, also involve the purported manipulation of “a universal energy or life force”, sometimes called qi — metaphysical concepts unproved by science and incompatible with our modern understanding of how the body works.
Americans spend about $34 billion each year out of pocket on complementary and alternative therapies, according to a national survey conducted in 2007 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The survey found that about 40 percent of American adults reported using some sort of alternative treatment in the previous year. Mostly they reported taking supplements; practicing deep breathing exercises; going to a chiropractor or osteopath for spinal manipulation; meditating; or getting massages.
Finding out through well-designed scientific studies whether these treatments work is a valuable service, said neurologist Dr Steven DeKosky, who sits on the NCCAM advisory council and is dean of the University of Virginia medical school. He said:
I don’t know who else would do that other than NCCAM.
DeKosky headed a $36.5 million study, including $25 million from NCCAM, on ginkgo biloba, a popular supplement taken as a defense against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. DeKosky’s study concluded that it did not lower the overall incidence rate of either condition in elderly people who were normal or already had mild cognitive impairment.
In the fiscal years 2002 and 2003, NCCAM helped fund a study with the National Cancer Institute of an arduous regimen for pancreatic cancer that is best known for frequent “detoxifying” coffee enemas.
The research design pitted standard chemotherapy against a regimen developed by Dr Nicholas Gonzalez, a New York City physician. In the study, volunteers on the Gonzalez protocol were to take dozens of supplements each day, including between 69 and 81 capsules of pancreatic enzymes; undergo twice-daily coffee enemas; maintain a strict diet; and engage in other “detoxifying” activities like “skin brushing.”
There was little scientific evidence to suggest all of this would work other than a paper Gonzalez published in 1999 on a pilot study of 11 pancreatic cancer patients.
Since then coffee enemas have been linked to infections and electrolyte imbalances that can be fatal.
Despite the risks and the lack of evidence that the regimen would help patients, the taxpayer-funded study enrolled 55 volunteers with pancreatic cancer.
In 2010 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology published a study that found that patients receiving standard chemotherapy had lived an average of 14 months. The Gonzalez patients lived an average of four months, and were in significantly more pain.
Today, patients continue to stream in to see Gonzalez about his cancer treatment. In the end, the study changed few minds and put volunteers at risk for little benefit to them or to the greater good – at a cost to taxpayers of $1.4 million, with $406,000 coming from NCCAM.
For those who want to put coffee up their butts without seeing a charlatan, sites such as the Optimal Health Network flogs home enema kits for just $225.00, saying:
Coffee in enemas increases the detoxification benefits of the colon cleanse. Coffee enemas are a common tool in the complementary treatment of cancer. Our Optimal Health Network coffee is made especially for enemas. It is an organic, fairly traded, air-roasted enema coffee blend. The blend of coffee beans is chosen for its high caffeine and palmitic acid content, which are the elements in coffee that provide the greatest benefits for liver detoxification and pain reduction. When you buy organic enema coffee from us, you can be sure you’re getting coffee optimized specifically for colon-cleansing benefit.
Critics of NCCAM say the project demonstrates how difficult it can be to study complementary and alternative medicine, and that precious research dollars could be better spent elsewhere.
Gorski, the cancer researcher, concluded:
We have to be good stewards of public money for science. I don’t view NCCAM as being a good steward of our public money at the moment. Even if they are doing rigorous science, they are still looking at incredibly implausible things.