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Posts Tagged ‘medicine’

Why you should be skeptical of what doctors tell you

Posted by Richard on March 13, 2018

Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist and best-selling author (A Brief History of Time), has died at the age of 76. He leaves behind three children and two ex-wives.

Hawking, who was confined to a wheelchair for most of his adult life, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, when he was 21. Doctors gave him two years to live.

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CO lawmakers siding with terminally ill over FDA

Posted by Richard on March 25, 2014

Ryan Dunne is 9 years old and terminally ill. He has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and it’s destroying all the muscles in his body. Soon, he won’t be able to walk. Eventually, he won’t be able to breathe.

Last year, Ryan and his family found hope. He took part in a 6-month clinical trial of a new drug, one of two that have shown great promise. Ryan’s parents told CBS4Denver’s investigative reporter Brian Maass that the drug worked wonders:

“When there was no hope, all of a sudden things were getting better,” said Ryan’s father, Chris.

“He walked further, had better stamina and energy and didn’t fall into bed saying, ‘I’m tired,’ “ said his mother. “And when he was pulled off of it he went downhill immediately. The drug is effective.”

The other drug markedly improved 100% of the kids who received it, and there were no side effects.

But the trial in which Ryan was enrolled is over. And there are years to go before the FDA eventually approves either of the drugs — if it ever does.

Thousands of boys suffer from the same debilitating, fatal disease, and the FDA has been asked to grant “accelerated approval” to the drugs that appear to be their life-savers. The FDA response? It says that it has an “evolving position on these drugs” and “has reached no conclusions.” In other words, don’t call us, we’ll call you.

In Colorado, Democrats and Republicans have joined forces in support of a bill (HB1281) that gives the terminally ill the right to use experimental or investigational drugs without FDA approval. The bill has all the safeguards you’d expect: no insurance coverage, no suing if things don’t work out, a doctor must sign off, and the drug maker must agree to provide the medicine. Today, HB1281 cleared its first hurdle when it passed out of committee on a 10-1 vote.

Opponents seem few and their arguments lame. On a recent newscast, I heard one lawmaker object that Colorado can’t enact a law that challenges the FDA’s authority — apparently not a fan of the growing 10th Amendment movement. Another worried that without FDA approval, a drug might not be safe. But to a terminally ill person, any side effect from a drug that seems to work is preferable to the “side effect” of waiting — death.

Similar “Right to Try” bills are under consideration in other states. If you’re in Colorado or one of those states, urge your state legislators to support such legislation. There is also an online petition urging the FDA to grant accelerated approval for one of the DMD drugs, eteplirsen. Please go to for more information and to sign it.

UPDATE: The petition has surpassed the 100,000 signatures needed to get a response from the Obama administration. But 200,000 signatures might elicit a better response, so if you haven’t signed yet…

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The cutest amputee cat you’ll see all day

Posted by Richard on June 25, 2010

How can I not post something about a double-amputee cat with groundbreaking prosthetic paws? Meet Oscar, the bionic cat:

When Oscar the cat lost both his hind paws in a farming accident, it was feared he'd have to trundle around in one of those wheeled-cat apparatuses. But Noel Fitzpatrick, a neuro-orthopedic veterinary surgeon in Surrey, pioneered a groundbreaking technique instead, installing weight-bearing bone implants to create a bionic kitty. 

Oscar gets around just fine, as you can see in this video. 

[YouTube link]

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Flynn v. Holder: the fight for marrow cell liberation

Posted by Richard on October 31, 2009

The Institute for Justice is one of my favorite non-profits. This "merry band of libertarian litigators" just keeps finding wonderful ways of using the courts and the court of public opinion to fight for individual liberty, especially economic liberty. And they keep winning. IJ has been the leader in the fight against eminent domain abuse and for school choice, and it's helped countless minority entrepreneurs overcome arbitrary and discriminatory licensing laws, regulations, and other barriers to entry erected by governments.

On Wednesday, IJ and a diverse group of plaintiffs took on another stupid and unconstitutional law against capitalist acts between consenting adults — and this time there are many lives at stake. Flynn v. Holder seeks to overturn the ban on compensating marrow cell donors:

Every year, 1,000 Americans die because they cannot find a matching bone marrow donor.  Minorities are hit especially hard.  Common sense suggests that offering modest incentives to attract more bone marrow donors would be worth pursuing, but federal law makes that a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

That is why on October 28, 2009, adults with deadly blood diseases, the parents of sick children, a California nonprofit and a world-renowned medical doctor who specializes in bone marrow research joined with the Institute for Justice to sue the U.S. Attorney General to put an end to a ban on offering compensation to bone marrow donors.

The National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) of 1984 treats compensating marrow donors as though it were black-market organ sales.  Under NOTA, giving a college student a scholarship or a new homeowner a mortgage payment for donating marrow could land everyone—doctors, nurses, donors and patients—in federal prison for up to five years.

NOTA’s criminal ban violates equal protection because it arbitrarily treats renewable bone marrow like nonrenewable solid organs instead of like other renewable or inexhaustible cells—such as blood—for which compensated donation is legal.  That makes no sense because bone marrow, unlike organs such as kidneys, replenishes itself in just a few weeks after it is donated, leaving the donor whole once again.  The ban also violates substantive due process because it irrationally interferes with the right to participate in safe, accepted, lifesaving, and otherwise legal medical treatment.

Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, said, “The only thing the bone marrow provision of the National Organ Transplant Act appears to accomplish is unnecessary deaths.  A victory in this case will not only give hope to thousands facing deadly diseases, but also reaffirm bedrock principles about constitutional protection for individual liberty.”

Read the rest to learn about the people involved and their compelling stories.

It's the time of year when I make the bulk of my charitable contributions, and IJ is always near the top of my list. This suit strikes me as a terrific cause, so I'm going to donate online right now. Won't you help, too?

HT: Megan McArdle, whose column about this in the Atlantic I strongly recommend.

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Fascist medicine

Posted by Richard on August 20, 2009

Bob Bidinotto sees right through the Senate's "co-op alternative" to the much-reviled "public option":

Understand that the “co-op” would be funded by the government (i.e., the taxpayers). More importantly, to get admission into the co-op, insurers would have to abide by the new governmental regulations regarding coverage, treatments, premiums, etc.

… This is no liberal “retreat” from governmental health care. The new “co-op” is explicitly intended to be “a competitor to private insurers.” While ObamaCare would inject this new government entity into the healthcare marketplace, it simultaneously would:
1. Impose onerous, costly new mandates on private insurers

2. Mandate participation by unwilling individuals and small businesses, under penalty of whopping fines

3. Outlaw any private insurers that refused to adopt the new government-imposed rules

4. Compel taxpayers to fund the arrangement
Eventually, inevitably, the only private insurers that could survive this arrangement would have to operate like branch offices of the Medicare program — simply administering government “mandated” coverage, services, treatments, medicines, etc.

Rather than “single payer” socialized medicine, then, this would be more like fascist medicine: a merely nominal “private” system, in which a handful of big health care insurers and providers took their marching orders from the federal government.

The problem isn't the co-op, or even the public option. It's the rest of the bill. I've actually read most of H.R. 3200 (PDF) — admittedly, I skimmed much of the 1018 pages. I haven't seen any of the 3 or 4 Senate versions (no one has; only portions have been printed and released), but I suspect the fundamental features are the similar in all of them. 

The House bill strictly defines 3 levels of health insurance coverage and loosely defines a fourth, "premium plus" level, and these are the only policies that private insurers could legally offer. That's not just to get admission to the co-op, as Bidinotto believes, but to do business at all.

Every conceivable aspect of how health care is insured, provided, assessed, and reimbursed is mandated in excrutiating detail. All of that, and the 4 points Bidinotto listed above, would be there even if neither a "public option" nor a "co-op" were included. And Bidinotto's conclusion would still be the case. 

With or without a public option, with or without a co-op, with or without whatever other fillips they come up with or sops to squishy Republicans they propose, the Democrats' plan to "reform" health care will be an abomination, a monstrosity, an unmitigated evil that a free people cannot tolerate and must stop.

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Frontiers of medicine

Posted by Richard on February 20, 2007

On the diagnostic front, a New Jersey company has developed a new use for its super-sensitive breathalyzer, and as an ex-smoker, I’m interested:

A new breath test has been reported to detect lung cancer in its early stage. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and doctors believe that early detection could offer sufferers their best chance for early survival.

Dr. Michael Phillips, CEO of Menssana Research, the company that developed the breath test, said, "We developed a breathalyzer that is one billion times more sensitive than those the police use to measure alcohol in the breath. It detects around 200 different chemicals in a person’s breath, and some of these chemicals are markers of cancer. A breath test has great advantages over most other medical tests – it is completely safe, painless and non-invasive. All you have to do is breathe gently into a tube for two minutes. There are no potentially dangerous x-rays to worry about, and it will certainly be a lot less expensive than chest imaging."

In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health that will be published in Cancer Biomarkers, researchers studied 404 smokers and ex-smokers aged over 60. The breath test predicted lung cancer with almost the same accuracy as computerized tomography, or chest CT, the best screening test for lung cancer currently available.

The company is also working on breath tests for tuberculosis, heart disease, and breast cancer. The lung cancer test still has to get FDA approval, and I hope that happens soon.

On the surgical front, if you’re going to have laparoscopic surgery, you may want to quiz your surgeon about his or her recreational activities:

Surgeons who played video games at least three hours a week in their past were 27% faster, with 37% fewer errors, in simulations of laparoscopic surgery than nonplayers, reported James C. Rosser Jr., M.D., of Beth Israel Medical Center here, and colleagues in the February issue of the journal Archives of Surgery.

Among the 33 residents and attending physicians in Dr. Rosser’s Top Gun Laparoscopic Skills and Suturing training program, those who currently played video games committed 32% fewer errors and were 24% faster than nonplayers.

In a regression analysis, past and current video gaming were the most important factors in laparoscopic simulation performance, even more so than traditional factors, such as years of training and number of laparoscopic cases.

Sounds like you’re better off with a video-gamer surgeon, doesn’t it? But keep in mind that it’s a small study, and the research looked at the surgeons’ performance on simulations of laparoscopic surgery, not actual surgeries. John Timmer at Ars Technica offered a computer geek’s perspective of why that might make a difference:

Part of the appeal of gaming is that we can abstract our actions from any real-world consequences—we can choose to participate in virtual death and mayhem without causing any actual damage. The surgical skills test appears to give its participants the same opportunity, namely to view the errors they make as having no consequence. It’s possible that surgeons that do not game are less able to make that abstraction, and that their slow pace and (possibly nervous) errors reflect their view of the surgical drill as having similar consequences to working on an actual patient.

As usual, experts said more studies were needed (although this isn’t the first; see this from 2004 and this from 2006). They also cautioned parents that the study didn’t mean we should "relax our concerns" about video gaming by kids:

"Parents should not see this study as beneficial if their child is playing video games for over an hour a day," Gentile said. "Spending that much time playing video games is not going to help their child’s chances of getting into medical school."

Remember that, parents — your kids need to learn math and science, not Quake 3! Those fuddy-duddy med schools are still making admission decisions based on MCAT scores and GPAs instead of who has the fastest twitch.

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The next Rushdie?

Posted by Richard on December 15, 2006

Abbas Sadeghian is a clinical neuropsychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northeastern Ohio University College of Medicine. A few years ago, while studying seizure disorders, he encountered a 19th-century book on the subject that suggested Muhammad may have had a seizure disorder. Sadeghian eventually researched the matter in depth and presented a paper on the subject. Encouraged by colleagues, he’s now expanded that work into a book that seems destined to cause trouble:

Religious prophet Muhammad suffered from epileptic seizures, according to a book recently released by a Tehran- native and Muslim-raised neuropsychologist. Abbas Sadeghian delivers these findings in the book Sword & Seizure, which is based on historical text, including the Koran.

Sadeghian was inspired by a comparable paper he presented in 2001 at New York University’s Fielding Institute. He says Muhammad had suffered from "complex partial seizures," which are displayed through "excessive sweating and light trembling, olfactory, auditory and visual hallucinations, epigastric sensations (bad taste), excessive perspiration and hyper-religiosity." He says evidence of these is recounted throughout the Koran.

Epilepsy-induced hallucinations might explain some of the events Muhammad described that we non-believers dismiss as fantasy, such as his flight on a winged horse from Mecca to Jerusalem. That story, by the way, is the sole basis for Islam’s claim that Jerusalem is a holy site to Muslims. According to Muhammad, one night a winged horse flew him to Jerusalem. He climbed atop the Temple Mount, and from there, ascended into heaven for a visit with Allah and the earlier prophets. Based on that story, the Jews must be driven out of the city that King David made the capital of Israel over 3000 years ago, and it must become solely Muslim.

Sadeghian’s book is available from Amazon, and there’s an excerpt (apparently from the preface or introduction) at I did some cursory searching and haven’t turned up any fatwahs, death threats, or demonstrations of Muslim outrage against him. But the cartoon riots didn’t occur until six months after the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, and Khomeini waited five months after the publication of Satanic Verses to issue a fatwah calling for the killing of Salman Rushdie.

I suspect Dr. Sadeghian’s book will eventually draw the wrath of the more excitable elements of Islam, much as Rushdie’s did. I hope he’s beginning to take security precautions now.

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Why the flu strikes in winter and what you can do about it

Posted by Richard on September 18, 2006

The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting cooler. Fall begins this Friday. That means that any day now, we’ll start seeing news stories about "flu season" and getting vaccinated. But why is there a flu season in the winter? The influenza virus is around all year, and there are people catching it throughout the year — just not very many. So why are so many more of us susceptible when the days get short? Well, it’s because the days get short:

Now a group of researchers has come up with a novel answer to the conundrum. The "seasonal stimulus" behind the annual winter flu epidemics is a lack of vitamin D due to shorter days and lack of sunlight.

And they have even suggested that by taking a mega-dose of the vitamin at the first sign of the illness, its worst symptoms might be alleviated – which could prove to be a potential life-saver in the event of the threatened avian flu pandemic.

The traditional explanation for the winter flu epidemics is that we tend to crowd indoors in the winter months, which aids the spread of the virus. Fifty years ago, when millions of manual labourers earned their living working outdoors, that may have been true.

But in the modern world, where most people work in offices and factories, travel on buses and trains, and share the same indoor spaces in summer and winter, the explanation rings hollow. Some of the people most vulnerable to flu – elderly people living in nursing homes – are there all year round yet are at greatest risk from the virus in winter, much like everybody else.

A glass of milk contains about 100 units of vitamin D, and the RDA (recommended daily allowance) is 400 units. But twenty minutes in the summer sun can produce up to 20,000 units in your body, and levels like that were the norm for humans until very, very recently:

Throughout evolutionary history, humans obtained tens of thousands of units every day from the sun. Even after migrating to temperate latitudes, where skin colour rapidly lightened to allow for more rapid vitamin D production, humans worked outdoors. Only in recent decades as we have increasingly lived and worked indoors, travelled in cars and lathered on sunblock have levels of vitamin D sunk chronically low, according to Dr Cannell.

It may not replace the flu shot, but I strongly recommend a hefty daily dose — say, 2,000 units or more — of vitamin D during the fall and winter months. It’s not just to ward off the flu and bolster your immune system — vitamin D plays many other important roles. The U.S. government’s RDA is enough to prevent rickets, but woefully inadequate for optimum health. That, by the way, is true of many vitamin RDAs — they’ll keep you from having clinical signs of deficiency, but that’s far below the optimum levels for health.

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Speaking of unrepentant individuals…

Posted by Richard on June 27, 2006

Rush Limbaugh opened his show today with:

I’ve been trying to figure out how Bob Dole’s luggage got on my airplane!

I told my doctor I was worried about the next election


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Cancer immunity

Posted by Richard on May 11, 2006

Three years ago, researchers at Wake Forest University stumbled upon a mouse that was extremely resistant to cancer. They subsequently bred a highly cancer-resistant strain of mice. In their latest study, they injected white blood cells from the cancer-resistant mice into mice susceptible to cancer. None of the susceptible mice got cancer:

"We were surprised," said Dr. Zheng Cui, a co-investigator of the new finding that appears today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "The powerful resistance was transferred through the animal’s white blood cells," which are immune system cells. Cui, Dr. Mark Willingham and colleagues found that the animal’s innate immune system turns on to protect against cancer or to kill cancer that already exists.
. . .

Dr. Alan Houghton, a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, observed that the research "nails it down to a cell of the immune system, and that is mediating this resistance. It may not get you closer to a gene, but it gets you closer to the mechanism."

The Wake Forest researchers are working with their university to make the novel mouse strain available to other scientists.

"The observation needs to be replicated and confirmed," Cui said. "If this turns out to be what we hope it is, it will be a gift to mankind."

No kidding. The cancer-resistant mice have already been shared with researchers at Scripps Research Institute in California, the University of Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis. If someone figures out the mechanism by which white blood cells are switched into cancer-killing mode — well, can you imagine a time when you add cancer to the list of standard childhood immunizations? When the nurse asks you, "How long has it been since your last tetanus and cancer booster?"

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They call this science?

Posted by Richard on March 31, 2006

In the past few months, several studies have been widely reported that supposedly discredited some widely-used nutritional supplement or alternative treatment. The fine folks at the Life Extension Foundation (LEF) have had enough of the shoddy studies, misleading press releases, and terrible reporting, and they’re preparing a full-fledged response. A preliminary article is available on their website now:

Over the past several months, the media has questioned the efficacy of several popular dietary supplements. In the upcoming June 2006 issue of Life Extension magazine, we dissect these negative media reports down to the bone to reveal the hard scientific facts.

In doing so, we expose the absurdity of the headline-hungry media making proclamations such as “another natural remedy bit the dust” when describing the recent glucosamine study. We also reveal the inappropriateness of conventional doctors, with little knowledge about the proper use of nutrients, but with strong financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, conducting studies that contain so many flaws that their findings are largely irrelevant.

As usual for LEF, this article is footnoted to a fare-thee-well — 181 references, most to studies published in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals. If you print the article, it runs about 6 pages, depending on margin settings, etc. The references add about 6 more pages. The article provides brief preliminary critiques — scathing ones — of studies claiming that:

  • Eating a low-fat diet doesn’t reduce women’s risk of heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer, or colon cancer.
  • Calcium and vitamin D don’t protect women’s bones.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin aren’t effective for osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Saw palmetto is ineffective in treating prostate enlargement.

Each of those four claims is easily shown to be false. In fact, a couple of them are even contradicted by the studies, which were mischaracterized in press releases and media reports.

My favorite is the calcium and vitamin D study, which appeared in February’s New England Journal of Medicine. LEF’s Bill Faloon said it may be  "one of the most poorly designed studies in the history of modern medicine."

In theory, one group of women was assigned to take a calcium – vitamin D supplement and another group was assigned to take a placebo. Reportedly, the supplement group had just as many hip fractures as the placebo group.

Actually, the study did find a 29% reduction in hip fractures among the subset of the supplement group who actually took the supplements. You see, about 40% of the supplement group didn’t "achieve a standard rate of compliance," meaning they took less than 80% of the calcium and vitamin D they were supposed to take. But that didn’t matter to the MDs and PhDs conducting the study (emphasis and footnote from article):

This meant that women in the active group (the one given the calcium-vitamin D supplements) were counted as having taken the calcium-vitamin D, whether they really took the supplement or not. According to the scientists who conducted this study:

“Participants were followed for major outcomes, regardless of their adherence to the study medication…”

The “study medication” mentioned above is the calcium-vitamin D supplement. The fact that a study could be published in a medical journal “regardless” of whether the participants actually took the active ingredient defies logic.

Presumably, the placebo group had the same poor rate of compliance (since participants didn’t know whether it was the supplement or the placebo they were failing to take). So what we really have here is a $10 million federally-funded study proving that women who fail to take their calcium and vitamin D are just as likely to break a hip as women who fail to take a placebo. Unbe-frickin-lievable.

There’s more. That’s only one of several serious flaws with the calcium study. And the other studies are equally unimpressive. Read the whole thing — it’s your tax dollars at work and your health at stake.

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