My Skepticon talk: Skeptical Genetics

My talk from Skepticon is now online! If you ever wanted a quick and dirty summary of basic genetic concepts, now’s your chance. I try to address a lot of common misconceptions about genetics and address some of the shoddy ways genetics is portrayed by the media:

That was my first time giving that talk. From the Q&A and questions I got afterward, I certainly know what sort of stuff I need to add, subtract, or explain better. If there’s still anything you don’t quite get about genetics, feel free to leave a question in a comments.

More damning revelations about Burzynski’s “research”

Yesterday I picked apart the Burzynski clinic’s list of “scientific studies supporting antineoplason research since 2006.” Unsurprisingly, a majority of these citations were just abstracts of conference presentations lacking peer review, and a couple studies published in terrible (and even sketchy) journals. I wasn’t able to comment on specifics about the papers since I didn’t have access through my university.

A reader sent me a pdf of the first paper from Pediatric Drugs, which is even more incriminating. For one, it’s a review paper. Review papers summarize the current state of scientific knowledge about a certain topic. Sometimes they perform meta analysis on multiple papers, but they don’t always add any new information. Burzynski’s review falls into the latter – that is, it does not have any new peer reviewed data. And the studies about antineoplastons that the paper cites are from multiple conference abstracts, a patent from 1995, his report to the FDA, and an entry in a book by Nova Science Publishers (aka, also all not peer reviewed).

The only peer reviewed research paper the review cites was on the previous list – it was the one published in the crappy alternative medicine journal. I haven’t gotten hold of the paper, but commenter joshtriska summarized it thusly:

[2] A report on 18 patients with “High-Grade, Recurrent, and Progressive Brainstem Glioma” picked from 4 of his clinical trials. The conclusion states that typically less than 10% of patients with this condition survive 2 years, but in his group 22% (or four whole people) survived past 5 years. The conclusion also states that “Because a small number of patients have been evaluated, a larger study is required to confirm these results”. No kidding!

And that final paper – the one published in the sketchy as hell “Cancer Therapy” journal, was also a review:

[3] A review paper, not a study. Antineoplastons are mentioned and a line of data from one of Burzynski’s trials is included in a table. The discussion states that the data concerning antineoplastons was from from conference abstracts, and not peer-reviewed.

The Burzynski clinic is claiming that it’s libelous to say “There are no scientific studies supporting antineoplaston treatment since 2006.” But it’s not libelous because it is true. Results that lack peer review cannot be said to support something. Abstracts at conferences are not peer reviewed. Review papers do not include new, peer-reviewed data. The only published paper he has itself states that it is inconclusive without a larger study to confirm the results.

Plus, they don’t even understand what the phrase “since 2006″ means. It means published starting in 2007. From that alone we throw out the first two papers. You’re left with a review paper that cites conference abstracts, and conference abstracts.

So no, Burzynski clinic. There aren’t any scientific studies supporting antineoplaston treatment since 2006. But there are plenty falsifying it.

A look at the Burzynski clinic’s publications

The Burzynski clinic has responded to the flood of skeptical bloggers with a press release. They’ve apparently fired (in so many words) Marc Stephens for his harassment, yet still plan to send attorneys after UK bloggers. I’m not sure if the targeting of UK bloggers has to do with UK libel laws, or if the Burzynski clinic is oblivious to the dozens of American bloggers also pointing out their harmful pseudoscience.

But the part of the press release that intrigued me was that they finally attempt to give some evidence for all that scientific research Burzynski has to back up his claims. Wow, a list of citations! To a non-scientist, it certainly seems impressive, what with its big words and journal names and such. But as a scientist, I was still skeptical, and decided to do some digging.

Why was I skeptical? Because not all journals are created equal. Lay people know this to an extent. It’s much more prestigious to get into journals like Science and Nature because the peer review process is way more rigorous. Your research not only has to be pretty damn air tight, but it has to make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. We can measure how good a journal is by a metric known as an “impact factor.” It’s complicated, but generally the higher the impact factor, the better the journal.

So let’s have a look at Burzynski’s research, shall we?

1. Burzynski, SR. Treatments for Astrocytic Tumors in Chiìdren: Current and Emerging Strategies. Pediatric Drugs 2006; 8: l67-178.

Pediatric Drugs: No impact factor.

Off to a great start! (Hint: That’s sarcasm)

2. Burzynski, S.R., Janicki, T.J., Weaver, RA., Burzynski, B. Targeted therapy with Antineoplastons A10 and of high grade, recurrent, and progressive breínstem gliome. Integrative Cancer Therapies 2006; 5(1):40­47.

Integrative Cancer Therapies has an impact factor of 1.716. What does this number mean? Compared to other journals in the category of Integrative & Complementary Medicine, it’s ranked 6 out of 21. Not bad, but “Integrative medicine” sets off my Pseudoscience Alarms. Suspicions confirmed, the  journal describes itself as emphasizing “scientific understanding of alternative medicine and traditional medicine therapies.”

To quote the brilliant Tim Minchin:

“By definition … alternative medicine … has either not been proved to work, or has been proved not to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”

What happens when you compare this journal in a more legitimate category, like Oncology? Its rank unsurprisingly drops to an abysmal 134 out of 185.

3. Burzynski, SR. Recent clinical trials in diffuse intrinsic brainstem glioma. Cancer Therapy 2007;5, 379-390.

When this journal’s website loaded, I started laughing and dragged my laptop to my fellow-scientist roommate. It looks like a relic from the 90s. Even more sketchy and unprofessional than the white-text-on-black-background and ugly use of frames is its repeated mentioning of its “rapid review process.” I couldn’t find out anything about the editorial board other than there’s some guy in Greece you should submit things to. And after a lot of digging, I couldn’t find an impact factor at all.

Super sketchy.

4. Burzynski, SR., Weaver, R.A., Janicki, T.J., Jufida, G.F., Szymkowskì, B,G., Kubove, E. Phase Il studies of Antineoplasîons A10 and AS 2-1 (ANP) in chiìdren with newly diagnosed diffuse, intrinsic brainstem gliornas. Neuro-Oncology 2007;9:206.

[etc]

The final nine of his citations all seem to come from the Journal of Neuro-Oncology. Upon first glance, it seems legit. It has a relatively high impact factor of 5.483, which makes it 24 out of 184 in Oncology. Not bad at all, especially for a specialized oncology journal (the neuro part).

Not bad until you search the journal for articles by Burzynski. The result?

Burzynski has not published a single paper in this journal. Every single citation is an abstract from a presentation made at a conference. For those of you not in academia, we like to hold conferences where people can present their research and network. However, you’re allowed to present preliminary results that haven’t been published yet. Any scientist can submit abstracts in order to speak at conferences, and if that single paragraph sounds interesting, you get to give a talk. It’s pretty much impossible to judge how legitimate research is from an abstract (or presentation) alone, and some conferences are not competitive at all when it comes to who gets to speak – they have plenty of spaces to accept all presenters. Journals often act as archives for conferences they’re affiliated with, and will list those abstracts.

This means that none of Burzynski’s research from this journal has actually been peer-reviewed by the journal. The fact that he never actually published this data says a lot. Seriously – if you legitimately found something that helped cure cancer, prestigious journals would be tripping over themselves to have you publish in them. The fact that you can’t publish your research anywhere except in the occasional bottom-of-the-barrel shady journal means your research is terrible.

There was a final citation that stood out to me. It was the only citation that wasn’t research that Burzynski himself had done. Another key facet of science that makes it robust is that other scientists must be able to confirm your findings. And if they falsify your hypothesis, it’s back to the drawing board. So lets look at this one last citation:

11. Ogata, Y., Shirouzu, K., Matono, M., Ushìjima, M., Uchida, S., Tsuda, H. Randomized phase H study of hepatic arterial infusion with or without antíneoplastons as adjuvant therapy after hepatectomy for liver metastases from colorectal cancer. Ann Oncol 2010;21:víiî221 .

Again, this was a presentation made at a conference, specifically the 2010 European Society for Medical Oncology. Again, that means this research has not been peer-reviewed at all. In addition to the lack of non-Burzynski studies replicating his results, the National Cancer Institute also points out multiple studies (in legitimate journals) that are not able to replicate his results.

I would really like someone to take a look at the few papers Burzynski has published to see what the science looks like. One, I can’t access the couple of journal articles he actually does have because the journals are so crappy that my university doesn’t bother subscribing to them. But two, my area is population genetics and evolution, so I’m not really equipped to do an in-depth analysis of cancer research. But as a biologist I can safely remark on the quality of the journals his research was published in, and what that means.

So, Burzynski. Do you have any actual science to support your claims?

Update: I discuss further damning revelations about Burzynski’s research in this newer post.

I knew there was a reason I liked Harry Potter

I had no idea the Vatican had a chief exorcist. I’m not sure why I’m surprised – believing demons can possess people isn’t any wackier than believing in the resurrection. But I must say I’m disappointed. Apparently Father Gabriele Amorth is not a fan of Harry Potter:

Reading JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books is no less dangerous, said the 86-year-old priest, who is the honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, which he founded in 1990, and whose favourite film is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist.

The Harry Potter books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, “seem innocuous” but in fact encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry, Father Amorth said.

“Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he told a film festival in Umbria this week, where he was invited to introduce The Rite, a film about exorcism starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest.

“In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses,” said the priest, who in 1986 was appointed the chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.

Come on, you know he’s just worried about job security. Harry Potter provides an alternative hypothesis to demon possession – the Imperius curse. It has just as much evidence, so no wonder he’s worried.

What a Slytherin.

 

For shame, Burzynski clinic

Why am I directing my ire at the Burzynski clinic? Any one of these reasons would be enough, but let’s go through the list, shall we?

1. Pseudoscience. The Burzynski clinic claims to be able to cure cancer with “antineoplaston therapy.” What’s that? Mainly a load of bunk (emphasis mine):

Some people promote antineoplaston therapy as a cancer treatment. But available scientific evidence does not support claims that antineoplaston therapy is effective in treating or preventing cancer. Antineoplaston therapy was developed by Dr. S. R. Burzynski in the 1970’s. He believes that antineoplastons are part of the body’s natural defence mechanisms against cancer and that people with cancer don’t have enough of them. At first, he took these compounds out of urine and blood. Now, it is possible to make them in the laboratory. There are several types of antineoplastons. They are known by the letter ‘A’ and a number such as A10, AS-25 and AS2-1.

Antineoplastons are taken either as a tablet or as an injection into the bloodstream.

There have been a number of phase 1 and 2 trials in different types of cancer. These early phase trials test what dose of treatment people should have, how safe the treatment is, and how well it works. Early trials only give the treatment to small numbers of people. Although Dr Burzynski’s own clinic have reported positive results for these trials, no other researchers have been able to show that this type of treatment helps to treat cancer. Other researchers have criticised the way the Burzynski Clinic trials have been carried out. Despite researching this type of treatment for over 35 years, no phase 3 trials have been carried out or reported.randomised clinical trial is the only way to properly test whether any new drug or therapy works.

Are we clear? There’s no evidence that “antineoplaston therapy” cures cancer, despite decades of research. Moving on.

2. Unethical behavior. Despite this lack of evidence, the Burzynski clinic will happily give you their “treatment.” The newest example of this despicable behavior is with four-year old Billie Bainbridge, who has an inoperable brain tumor.

The Burzynski clinic is happy to “treat” her – for $200,000. Which was donated by random people and even some celebrities (including the bands Gorillaz and Radiohead), who had no idea that there’s no evidence that this treatment works. Exploiting sick children for your own profit is the lowest of low.

Quackometer puts it best on why this false hope is so terrible:

False hope takes away opportunities for families to be together and to prepare for the future, no matter how desperately sad that is. It may make the lives of those treated more unpleasant and scary. (Antineoplaston therapy is not without dangerous side-effects). It exploits the goodwill of others and enriches those that are either deluded, misguided or fraudulent. It may leave a tragedy-struck family in financial ruin afterwards. Giving false hope may be more about appeasing the guilt and helplessness of ourselves rather than an act of kindness to the sick.

3. Bullying. If you can’t back up your claims with scientific evidence, it seems like the next step is propaganda and bullying. Burzynski claims he’s some of “brave maverick doctor” who’s being persecuted by the scientific community. There’s a whole propaganda documentary supporting his clinic.

But now the clinic has turned to bullying bloggers who dare question the efficacy of his treatment. Marc Stephens, who represents the Burzynski clinic, has been sending deranged pseudo-legal rants to these bloggers, threatening to sue for libel. Andy Lewis of Quackometer had his family threatened:

“Be smart and considerate for your family and new child, and shut the article down..Immediately.”

If that wasn’t enough, Marc has aggressively gone after 17-year-old blogger Rhys Morgan, including a screen capture of a Google Maps satellite view of Rhys’s house in order to intimidate him. 

If Burzynski really is a visionary, his research should speak for itself. Bullying and silencing is not how science is done, despite how highly you think of your ideas. The Texas State Medical Board is holding a hearing next April to revoke his medical license - not because he’s a rebel – but because he’s unethically exploiting sick people with his pseudoscience.

If you want to learn even more about “antineoplaston therapy” and Burzynski’s history, Dr. David Gorski has an excellent and lengthy summary over at Science Based Medicine. And if you want to show these bullies that silencing tactics do not work, spread the word far and wide. Let’s teach them about this little thing called the “Streisand Effect.” 

Lazy weekend

I was too consumed by food, cuddles, and Zelda to blog this weekend. I think I spend 90% of the time in my pajamas. Apparently Pixel is feeling similarly sleepy:

How I’m spending my Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I have to admit, I woke up a little mopey today. This is my first Thanksgiving that I’ve been totally alone. Last year the gloom didn’t quite catch up with me, since I spent my Thanksgiving weekend doing a speaking tour in Vancouver. Even though I was technically surrounded by strangers, they were so nice that I felt like I was surrounded by friends. I used to love Thanksgiving since it was one of the few times in the year that I got to spend time with my brothers (they’re 11 and 14 years older than me). Well, and the awesome food is a perk. But I don’t have the money to fly home for a weekend, so I’m on my own.

But I couldn’t stay mopey for long, because I know I have a lot to be thankful for. Like having great friends who bake you peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies as a thank you for taking care of their cat while they’re gone:

Or for having enough money and cooking ability that I can splurge on a nice Thanksgiving meal for myself:

For having a great roommate who’s letting me play his copy of the new Zelda game while he’s gone:

For having an adorable kitten who’s helping me play Zelda. And by helping, I mean she thinks the Wiimote is her mortal enemy.

For being able to spend your Thanksgiving sitting around in your underwear instead of all dressed up:

(No photograph for this one)

And for having such advanced technology that I can Skype with my family even though they’re on the opposite corner of the US.

Happy Thanksgiving!