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Gordie Howe’s “Miracle Therapy”

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 04/19/2015 - 06:28

After the 86-year-old hockey legend suffered disabling strokes last fall, his family took him to a clinic in Mexico where he underwent experimental stem cell treatment. The procedure involved injecting neural stem cells derived from donated brain tissue into Howe's spinal cord as well as intravenous injections of bone-marrow derived stem cells. According to the people around him, the results were nothing short of a miracle. His son, Marty Howe, said that his father was able to walk again, that his speech was improving, and that he had regained some weight.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells capable of renewing themselves though cell division and, under specific conditions, can be induced to become specialized. For example, in the case of a stroke, stem cells can be coaxed into becoming brain cells to replace those that were destroyed.

Stem cell therapy is one of the most exciting avenues of research with potential to treat conditions ranging from cancer and diabetes to baldness. Unfortunately, aside from certain diseases of the blood and immune system, so far the promise of stem cell treatment has not been realized. That, however, has not deterred companies from promoting stem cell therapy as some sort of miracle cure. The procedure is not available in Canada or the United States, but people travel to places like Mexico, China and Poland in the hope of being cured, a practice now described as “ Stem Cell Tourism”. In the case of Gordie Howe, the treatment was promoted by a biopharmaceutical company called Stemedica Cell Technologies, Inc. and offered at a clinic in Tijuana. Normally, this type of treatment costs $20,000; yet it was offered to Howe free of charge, most probably to popularize the treatment and attract those desperate enough to try an unproven clinical therapy.

While we cannot determine how much Gordie Howe has improved as a result of his stem cell treatment, we wish him all the best.

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Shark attack

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 04/15/2015 - 00:46

There's blood in the water....and the sharks are circling. Myself included. Finally the scientific community is waking up to the outrageous nonsense upon which Vani Hari, the "Food Babe," has built an empire. The critical articles, prompted to a large extent by SciBabe's (Yvette d'Entremont) excellent piece in the "Gawker" which has so far had an amazing 4.5 million views, are now flooding newspapers, magazines and the Internet. Today I was having a conversation about the mansion that ignorance built, and I mentioned to a friend that I bet I could open Ms. Hari's book at any page and find some absurdity. I was challenged to prove it.

So I asked him to open the book at any page. He did. Page 149. I struck gold with the second paragraph. "Did you know that Wendy's chili contains silicon dioxide (found in sand) or that McDonald's apple pie contains L-cysteine (derived from poultry feathers)? Are you aware that Jack in the Box puts cellulose (the same ingredient that is in sawdust) in many of its cheeses, sauces and shakes? Or that Wendy's puts dimethylpolysiloxane (used in Silly Putty) in its Natural-Cut fries?"

Wow. What a treasure trove of nonsense in such few words. Silicon dioxide is commonly added to chili powder in tiny amounts as an anti-caking agent. It is commonly added to salt as well. There isn't even a hint of toxicity here. You could eat sand by the spoonful. It would not be a gourmet meal but it would not wreak havoc with your health. L-cysteine is an amino acid that we consume routinely every time we eat protein. In the pie, it improves the texture of the dough. The fact that it may be derived from feathers is irrelevant. Any protein can be broken down into its amino acid components,

Once L-cysteine is purified, whether it came from feathers, hair, nail clippings or unicorn horn is immaterial. As far as cellulose goes, well we eat it every time we eat fruits or vegetables. It is a building block of all plant matter and is a component of dietary fiber. Fiber absorbs water, which adds bulk to stool and helps prevent constipation. With her vegetable laden diet, Ms. Hari consumes plenty of cellulose. Unfortunately it doesn't prevent mental constipation.

Then there is the Silly Putty silliness. Dimethylpolysiloxane is added in tiny amounts to the frying oil to prevent foaming. It is so non-toxic that it is used in far greater doses as a medicine to prevent excessive flatulation. The fact that it is also in Silly Putty is neither here nor there. We don't shy away from eating starch just because it can be used to lubricate condoms or make glue. Silly Putty is a great toy, and is totally safe. It has to be. Children have been known to make a meal of it. Amazingly, in spite of much effort, nobody has found a really practical use for Silly Putty. Until now. Maybe it can be used to stop the tsunami of nonsense that gushes from scientifically illiterate mouths.

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Kicking at the soapbox

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 04/14/2015 - 07:24
The Madness Of The Food Babe – Is It Time To Stand Up To Bullying Quacks?

The Food Babe is full of….chemicals!

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 04/10/2015 - 22:45

Yes she is! Thousands and thousands of them. Let’s just do a little experiment. Take a drop of her blood, or of course anyone else’s, and subject it to chemical analysis. Here’s just a small sampling of the compounds detected. They all form naturally as a result of the numerous biochemical processes that are going on in our bodies all the time that constitute life. Acetone,1-butanol, pyridine, 1-methyl-cyclopentanol, cyclopentanone, octanal, lactic acid, 1,6-heptadien-4-ol, 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one, ethyl (-)-lactate, nonanal, 1-octen-3-ol, acetic acid, decanal, 2,5-hexanedione, propanoic acid, butanoic acid, acetophenone, isovaleric acid, dodecanal, 3-hexen-2,5-diol, dimethylsulphone, phenol, benzothiazole, p-cresol, octanoic acid, 2,6,10,15,19,23-hexamethyl-2,6,10,14,18,22-tetracosahexaene (squalene), heptadecanoic acid, phenylalanine, aspartic acid, urea. There’s acetone, that’s the solvent used in nail polish remover. Acetophenone is an additive in cigarettes. N-butanol finds use in hydraulic brake fluids, degreasers and as a swelling agent in textiles. Octenol disrupts dopamine production and may be involved in Parkinson’s disease. Methanol is the basic ingredient in windshield washer fluid and can cause blindness. Squalene is used to formulate hemorrhoid creams. Propanoic acid is a common bread preservative and butanoic acid is the fragrance of rancid butter. Urea is a widely used fertilizer. Androstenol is found in boar saliva and is an attractant for female pigs. Phenol was first extracted from coal tar and is a component of paint strippers. It is also secreted by male elephants in heat and is found in the exudates of the castor sacs under the butt of the North American beaver. And we have often heard the Food Babe rail against “beaver butt” in ice cream. Skatole is known to cause pulmonary edema in goats and p-cresol attracts female mosquitoes. It has traditionally been extracted from one of the Food Babe’s favourite substances, coal tar, and is used to make another one of her loves, the preservative BHT. It is also a major component of pig odour. Good thing our pal doesn’t know all this. She might want to drain her blood.

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You Asked: How much salt is too much?

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 04/08/2015 - 08:14

Reducing sodium intake has been a nutritional mantra for decades. We have repeatedly been told that cutting back on salt lowers blood pressure which in turn lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes. But these days it seems to be in vogue to question almost every type of dietary advice that has been dispensed by health authorities, including salt intake. Questioning current dogma of course isn’t a bad thing, after all, that is how science progresses. The truth is that often the evidence for recommendations is not as robust as it is made out to be and we have seen views change about the likes of saturated fats, eggs and sugar in our diet as new data emerge. Today, with studies being cranked out at a frantic pace it is possible to find “evidence” for almost any view that one holds, but conclusive evidence, particularly when it comes to diets, is elusive. When it comes to food, the gold standard, the randomized double-blind trial, is extremely difficult to design and carry out.

In the case of sodium, a meaningful trial would mean following groups of subjects for many years and noting the incidence of cardiovascular disease, with the only difference between groups being the amount of sodium in the diet. It is difficult enough to do this over the short term, but that actually has been done. The famous dietary approaches to fight hypertension (DASH) trial managed to test three different levels of sodium intake by providing subjects with all their meals. They consumed either 1500, 2300 or 3500 mg of sodium a day, with results showing a clear link between blood pressure and sodium intake. The 3500 mg level was chosen because it represents the amount of sodium that is consumed on the average by the population. This translates to about 9 grams of salt (sodium chloride), or one and a half teaspoons, most of which comes from processed foods.

The trial lasted only 16 weeks, too short to note a difference in disease patterns. As critics pointed out, demonstrating a decrease in blood pressure with reduced sodium is not the same as showing a decrease in the risk of a heart attack or stroke. But given that there is overwhelming evidence from population studies that high blood pressure is associated with cardiovascular disease, it is reasonable to recommend a cutback on salt. The question is by how much?

That question arises because some recent studies have suggested an increased risk of adverse health outcomes associated with sodium intake in the 1500 to 2300 mg a day range. This, however, may have nothing to do with sodium. It is possible that people with cardiovascular disease, who have been advised to dramatically reduce their salt intake, fall into this range and suffer problems because of the preexisting condition rather than their low sodium intake. In any case, for the general population, the 2300 mg target is reasonable. Debates about low sodium levels presenting a risk may have academic interest but have little practical value. The 1500 mg target is unattainable for most people, and given that our average intake is in the range of 3500 mg a day, emphasis has to be placed on reducing this rather than worrying about too little sodium.

Cutting back isn’t easy. Producers cater to our fondness for salt by adding it liberally to a wide array of foods. A bowl of cereal contains about 300 mg of sodium, a single hot dog can have 800, a slice of bread 230, a cup of cottage cheese 900, a couple of slices of processed cheese 700, and half a cup of commercial tomato sauce 600 mg. A slice of pizza can weigh in anywhere from 600 to 1500 mg of sodium per slice! Obviously it isn’t hard to surpass 2300 mg. So there really is no worry about consuming too little sodium, that isn’t happening in the real world. There is another reason we can dismiss the naysayers who claim that the evidence to support a low sodium diet is too weak. Cutting back on sodium means a decrease in processed food intake and an increase in fruits and vegetables. And there can be no argument against that.

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When protein is not protein

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/29/2015 - 21:43

You need protein to build muscle. We have all heard that, probably as early as elementary school. And it is true. Muscle is mostly made of protein and its source is protein in the diet. But the route is not direct. Proteins are complex molecules composed of hundreds to thousands of amino acids linked together. When consumed, these chains are broken down into smaller fragments called peptides as well as into individual amino acids. Once absorbed into the bloodstream these are reassembled into proteins that include not only the structural parts of muscles but also enzymes and some hormones such as insulin. Of the twenty amino acids found in the body’s proteins, nine have to be supplied by the diet, the others can be made from other food components. The big question about proteins is how much do we need? Consume too little and the body suffers, consume too much and the extra is converted to fat.

It stands to reason that body size matters as well as level of activity. Muscle builders require more protein than couch potatoes. As a rough guide, people need at least half a gram per pound of body weight, recreational athletes need 0.7 grams and serious athletes about 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. Let’s take as an example a 170 pound male who works out quite regularly. His protein intake should be in the ballpark of 120 grams. That’s achievable by diet. A chicken breast has about 60 grams of protein, a hamburger 30, about the same as a serving of salmon, a couple of eggs 12, and two slices of cheese 15. Now, if someone is into serious body building, the needs can go up to 150-160 grams of protein a day. At this point adding some tofu with about 50 grams of protein per 100 grams might be in order. Or, there is always the possibility of using a protein supplement.

Protein supplements are big business, raking in about seven billion dollars a year world wide. They are sourced from milk or soy with a scoop generally containing about 40 grams of protein. But therein lies a problem. And it is a big enough issue to have resulted in law suits against the protein manufacturers. That’s because that protein powder may not be all protein thanks to something called “protein spiking” which involves using cheaper individual amino acids rather than proteins. For example, glycine, taurine and leucine are available at about one fifth the cost of proteins.

Now here is the scoop. A chemical analysis for proteins doesn’t really analyze for proteins but rather for nitrogen content. Since all proteins contain nitrogen, the amount of protein can be calculated from a nitrogen analysis. But the analysis does not distinguish between amino acids linked together in a chain, as in proteins, or individual acids all of which also contain nitrogen. In some cases a supposed 40 gram serving of protein may only deliver 20 grams, the rest being individual amino acids. What that means is that the ratio of amino acids in the supplement is not ideal for supplying what the body needs to build protein. While there is a degree of dishonest marketing here, there is no serious health consequence. Most people who supplement with protein powders, even if these are not everything they are made out to be, are probably taking in more protein than their body can possibly use.

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You Asked: Is there really a “dirty secret” about almonds?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/29/2015 - 21:37

Anytime you see an article that starts off with the heading “The Truth About….,” it’s a pretty safe bet that you will not get the truth. And so it is with an article circulating about almonds. “The Truth About Almonds: Almost No One Knows This Dirty Secret.” What is the “dirty secret?” That the almonds are treated with the fumigant propylene oxide to prevent contamination by salmonella bacteria. Salmonella infection is not pleasant to say the least. But people mostly associate it with contaminated eggs, not almonds. Where do the bacteria come from? Mostly fecal matter. Easy to see how eggs can be contaminated as they are laid. But almonds? Birds and insects can spread the bacterium after contacting fecal matter, but exposure may also be indirect through contaminated irrigation water. Salmonella bacteria can survive a long time even in dry conditions and dry heat treatment is not very effective at killing them. But fumigation with propylene oxide is. The nuts are placed in a chamber with liquid propylene oxide and the pressure is then reduced to allow quick evaporation of the liquid. The vapour destroys bacteria very effectively, preventing the possibility of food poisoning. There is no secret here. And nothing dirty is going on.

So what is the alarm all about? That propylene oxide is an animal carcinogen. That does not mean it is known to cause cancer in humans. And even if a substance is a human carcinogen, dosage still matters. While “carcinogen” is a frightening term, all it means is that the substance is capable of causing cancer in some animal at some dose. But there is a threshold effect. In rats no cancer can be found at any dose less than nine milligrams per kilogram of body weight, which has been established as the No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL). In other words at that dosage there is absolutely no problem detected.

Canada does not grow almonds so there has not been an application to allow the use of propylene oxide. This is not the same as it having been banned, as some alarmists claim. However, since Canada does import almonds that may have been treated with the chemical, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency has looked at the animal data and concluded that the maximum permissible residue is 300 parts per million. That is way below the NOAEL. And how much are almond eaters actually exposed to? The only way to know is to test for residues. That’s why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tested over a thousand samples of spices, herbs, cocoa powder and nuts, including almonds. Guess what they found? No residue at all! So there is no reason to be concerned about propylene oxide in almonds because it isn’t there. And that is the truth.

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Want to keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay? Who wouldn’t? So let’s surf the web! Keep in mind that almost every study encountered is riddled with “ifs” and “maybes.”

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 07:10

Sticking to the Mediterranean diet – low in meat and dairy products, high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals and fish – would seem to be a good start. A study of close to 500 seniors with mild cognitive impairment showed a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s with adherence to the Mediterranean diet. Eating fish is an important feature, with studies showing that people with higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids tend to have larger brain volumes in old age. It seems fish oil protects the brain’s hippocampus region, the area where shrinkage is associated with dementia.

But watch how you cook your meals. Grilling, frying or broiling produces “advanced glycation end products,” which have been linked to inflammation, insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s disease. And watch that sugar intake. A study of some 900 subjects with no cognitive problems found that within four years, 200 began to show mild cognitive impairment. Those with the highest sugar intake were 1.5 times more likely to have memory problems than those with the lowest intake. Diets containing walnuts as well as strawberry or blueberry extracts were found to reverse several parameters of brain aging, as well as age-related motor and cognitive deficits. As long as you are an aging rat.

Might not be a bad idea to add a little Indian flavour to the diet in the form of turmeric, a common spice in curry. Curcumin, its major component, has been linked with slower cognitive decline and reduced amyloid beta plaques, one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Grape seed extract appears to have the same effect, at least in mice. People with Alzheimer’s tend to have lower vitamin D than those without the disease, and better cognitive test results have been linked with higher vitamin D levels. A supplement may be in order.

People who drink three to five cups of coffee a day in their midlife years have a 65-per-cent lower chance of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared with those who drink little coffee. Green tea will do as well since its epigallocatechin-3-gallate content has been shown to prevent the buildup of beta-amyloid aggregates, at least in lab experiments. In non-smoking women, moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. And consider fruit juices. People drinking them three or more times per week were 76 per cent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who drank less than one serving per week. Pomegranate juice may be particularly beneficial.

Instead of thinking about what to eat or drink, perhaps we should think about infusing protective factors directly into our blood. Studies have shown that a transfusion of young mouse blood into older animals can improve cognition. Focus is on a protein in blood plasma called “growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11)” that declines with age both in mice and in humans. Drinking young blood won’t do.

You want to make sure you breathe clean air. Women who live in areas with the worst quality air score perform more poorly on tests of memory and thinking than those who live in cleaner areas. On the other hand, there is a correlation between strict hygiene and sanitation methods as practiced in wealthy countries and the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. The “hygiene hypothesis” is gaining traction when it comes to allergies and asthma, with the theory being that exposure to bacteria, viruses and worms early in life primes the development of a healthy immune system. Some researchers suggest that the deposition of proteins in the nervous system, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, is a result of an immune system gone astray.

And remember to brush your teeth. A study that looked at 100 sets of twins, one with Alzheimer’s and the other unaffected, found that the twin with dementia was four times more likely to have had mid-life gum disease. Playing chess, reading newspapers and engaging the brain in other tasks can significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in later life, as can physical exercise. Be conscientious. Subjects who enthusiastically agreed with statements such as: “I work hard to accomplish my goals,” “I strive for excellence in everything I do,” “I keep my belongings clean and neat” and “I’m pretty good about pacing myself so as to get things done on time,” were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, I came across a paper I really liked. A brain scan study at the University of California concluded that surfing the web increases brain activity more than reading a book. What can I say? Maybe.

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Fear of Fries

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 23:32

I've been repeatedly asked about the "dangers" of McDonald's fries. First a couple of disclaimers. I am not particularly fond of McDonald’s French fries, and I am a fan of Michael Pollan’s writings on food and nutrition, particularly his classic book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in which he summarizes his 400 or so pages with the advice to “eat foods mainly of plant origin and don’t eat too much.” He is also a fan of home cooked meals, which is great, but sometimes his attacks on processed foods are overzealous.

In a widely circulated video Pollan blasts McDonald’s not for any nutritional shortcomings of its fries but for accepting only potatoes of a certain size and shape and shunning any with blemishes caused by aphids. That, Pollan suggests, forces farmers to use pesticides such as Monitor (methamidophos) which he deems to be particularly dangerous. Indeed he points out that this chemical “is so toxic that farmers who grow these potatoes in Idaho won’t venture outside and into their fields for five days after they spray.” He goes on to say that the potatoes have to be stored in giant sheds for six weeks so they have time to off gas all the chemicals in them. The video had quite an impact, triggering headlines like “watch this video and you will never eat McDonald’s French fries again.” The issue needs a closer look.

Yes, McDonald’s likes it’s potatoes to be of a certain size so that the fries are long and reach out in an appealing fashion from their container. It doesn’t mean that other potatoes are wasted. McDonald’s buys its fries from distributors who select the appropriate ones for the company and sell the others elsewhere. It is also true that McDonald’s does not want potatoes that are affected by “net necrosis,” a viral infection spread by aphids. Nobody wants to eat potatoes permeated with black streaks like a net. As far as farmers not wanting to go out into the fields, well, that is standard protocol after spraying with any pesticide. Intervals that have to be respected after spraying any pesticide are established by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Pollan’s notion about storing the potatoes for sixty days to off gas toxins is pure nonsense. Potatoes are routinely stored in large atmosphere controlled sheds because they have to be available year round. In any case, crops are monitored for pesticide residues and all such found on potatoes are way below established tolerance levels. There may be reasons to stay away from McDonald’s fries, but not because of any highlighted in this unnecessarily alarmist video. The fat content, the high glycemic index, the amount of salt added and maybe some of the compounds formed during high temperature frying are reason enough to make fries an occasional treat. And as a final point, the pesticide being talked about, methamidophos, has not been used since 2009.

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You Asked: Should we worry about arsenic in wine?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 23:28

A story about arsenic-laced wine is panicking a lot of people. It’s all about a lawsuit brought against the producers of some wines claiming they contain unsafe amounts of arsenic. As far as I can tell, the lawsuit is an attempt at money grab by a company that performs analyses for substances such as arsenic in beverages. The idea seems to be to cash in on the public fear generated by the lawsuit. People will clamor for the testing of wines, a service the company provides. Any story about arsenic, the fabled "widow maker," is guaranteed to trigger publicity. Witness Dr. Oz's shows on arsenic in apple juice and wine.

According to the lawsuit, some cheaper wines contain up to five times as much arsenic as is allowed in tap water, which is 10 ppb. Anything that grows in soil will have some arsenic because arsenic compounds occur naturally. The 10 ppb limit in water has a large safety factor built in, but more importantly, people do not drink as much wine as water. And if they do, they need to worry about the alcohol content far more than about the arsenic content.

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A cranky homeopath

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 03/18/2015 - 00:01

The Toronto Star published a letter from a physician in BC who was critical of my attacks on homeopathy. Below is his letter as well as my response.

Published on Mon Mar 16 2015 Re: Scientists skeptical of study on ADHD care, March 6

As a medical doctor, I use homeopathy on a daily basis to fill in gaps or improve on the conventional therapies I also use in family practice. There is no doubt that homeopathy works – even in children and in skeptical patients that are willing to give it a try (particularly if they have tried everything else without benefit); sometime even in patients’ pets. Sure, good interaction and placebo play a role, just as in any therapeutic encounter, but that does not explain the results I observe.When a group of “top” scientists declare that there is no evidence to support homeopathy, you cannot but wonder at their agenda. In fact, there have been several meta-analyses and governmental assessments that show homeopathy is effective (BMJ 1991, Lancet 1997, Eur J. Clin Pharmacology 2000, Swiss Federal Office for Public Health 2006).

There are numerous positive trials, many of fair to high quality. Medical doctors around the world have accepted homeopathy based on sound evidence and the personal experience that confirms it. In Belgium, for example, 4000 doctors prescribe homeopathic medicines routinely. Homeopathy is inexpensive, convenient, integrates well with conventional medicine, and patient satisfaction and safety are excellent. It is included in the national health schemes of Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Brazil, Mexico, India and many other countries. The recent discovery of nanoparticles in homeopathic ultra-dilutions has undermined the “implausibility argument” or “I can’t understand how it works, therefore it can’t work.” This type of flat-earth thinking is not helpful in promoting better healthcare and has no place in medical practice or research.

The main reason pseudo-scientists become quack-busters and criticize therapies such as homeopathy is fear. Perceived as a threat to their world-view, they use the labels “unscientific” or “implausible” to defend themselves against the barbarians at the gate. It is not really an issue of evidence or science. It’s a subconscious defense mechanism that cannot be overcome, even if the research is piled up to the ceiling. It may be disguised as defending the public, but as Shakespeare says: “The lady doth protest too much.” The potential benefits of homeopathy demand research such as Dr. Heather Boon’s ADHD study at University of Toronto, and we should not let fixed thinkers get in the way of progress in medicine. In fact, the criticism here should be levelled at McGill University for permitting its Office for Science and Society to exist and Dr. Joe Schwarcz to continue to “interpret science for the public.” Dr. Stephen Malthouse, past president, Canadian Complementary Medical Association, Denman Island, B.C.

MY RESPONSE Dr. Stephen Malthouse’s ungracious letter requires a response. “There is no doubt that homeopathy works,” he maintains. That may be his opinion but not that of the vast majority of the scientific community. That point was effectively driven home last week by a report from Australia’ s National Health and Medical Research Council that concluded “there is no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions.” It was the most damning analysis of homeopathy ever compiled.

Dr. Malthouse trots out the tired old refrain that a discovery of some anomalous property of water undermines the argument that homeopathy is implausible. Nobody has ever maintained that homeopathy is implausible because water cannot have anomalous properties. That is a straw man argument if there ever were one. Homeopathy is implausible because it is based on the precept of ghostly images supposedly imparted to water by sequential dilutions and succusions having a healing effect.

Dr. Malthouse goes on to suggest that “it is not really an issue of evidence or science.” It most assuredly is. The science of homeopathy is non-existent, just like the molecules it is supposedly based upon. And the evidence is in for anyone who cares to look at the 225 well-designed studies that formed the basis of the Australian report. As far as Dr. Malthouse’s boorish remark that the McGill Office for Science and Society should not exist, his letter is a shining example of why there is a continuing need to interpret science for the public in an evidence-based fashion, which is exactly why the Office was established.

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The Food Babe doesn’t take well to criticism

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/15/2015 - 23:10

Our pal the Food Babe seems to have a very thin skin. She responded on her website to the article about her in the New York Times in which I was quoted along with a number of her other critics. It is true that I said she gets on talk shows because she is pleasant to look at. Isn't that a compliment? She says that is "sexist." And this is from a woman who calls herself "The Food Babe." Is she serious?

Yes I am on the editorial board of ACCN, the magazine of the Canadian Chemical Society and in fact write a regular column for the magazine. Vani thinks that the Society is some sort of industrial lobby. It is nothing of the sort. It is the academic voice of Canadian chemistry. Just another example of her being totally out of touch with how the scientific world functions. Her comment that I never met a chemical I didn't like is so silly that it is unworthy of a rebuttal. I never called her "that stupid woman," in public, but she has said many things that could invite such a comment. Here is a winner: "There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever." As far as funding from the Council of Biotechnology Information goes, twelve years ago we did receive support for student interns, none of whose work had anything to do with biotechnology. Funny that a funding issue should be brought up by someone who profits greatly from items she pushes.

Yes, I did bring to students' attention the fact that Vani blocks anyone from her Facebook page who asks about her credentials. They found this such an affront to science that they checked it out themselves and ended up being blocked. Isn't it ridiculous that someone whose knowledge about chemistry goes no further than advising people that if they can't pronounce it, they shouldn't be eating it, ends up being interviewed by USA Today about the difference between sugar and high fructose corn syrup?

It is also true that I have questioned her mental abilities. How could I not when she wrote a piece about believing that the properties of water were affected by a label on the bottle that had either loving or hateful words written on it. Let me also mention that on numerous occasions I invited her to be a guest on my radio show to air her views and she refused. I stand by my opinion of her. She is a possibly well-meaning, scientifically illiterate publicity hound who bullies companies to conform to her mostly ignorant demands. As far as being addicted goes, the only thing I'm addicted to is proper evidence-based science. And the Food Babe most assuredly does not fall into that category.

Unfortunately I can’t put these comments on her Facebook page from where I have been banned. Neither can I put them on her website where comments have been closed. It seems the Babe can dish it out but can’t take it.

 NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html Food Babe: http://foodbabe.com/2015/03/15/response-to-ny-times/ Read more

VegeGreens products’ unfounded claims hide behind great marketing

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 03/10/2015 - 00:29

I opened the door to pick up my morning Gazette and found a package with an anonymous note. “Can you please discuss in a column whether this is good to take?” Inside was a bottle of “VegeGreens.” Although I had not previously encountered this specific product, I have looked into other such concentrated powders that claim to deliver the nutritional benefits of fruits, vegetables and grains, eliminating the need to track the recommended daily servings of these foods.

VegeGreens contains components from just about every vegetable, fruit, grain, oil and herb for which health claims have been made in the pages of health food magazines or on various websites. Consider, for example, oat bran powder. There actually is some evidence that beta-glucan found in oat bran can reduce cholesterol, but you need about 3000 mg a day. How much does a serving of VegeGreens contain? Thirty mgs! An inconsequential amount. The label on the bottle features a banner “blueberry medley,” an obvious attempt to capitalize on research showing the benefits of blueberry consumption. How many blueberries have made it into this wondrous powder? Not even one! The total amount of blueberry concentrate is 50 mg. How about resveratrol, the supposed healthy ingredient in red wine? That’s in here as well, to the extent of 2.5 mg. Any potential benefit requires hundreds of milligrams. And so it goes. The amount of green tea extract is not even equivalent to one sip of tea, and the amount of ginkgo biloba is 20 mgs, which is less than one tenth of the dose used in studies that have claimed to improve memory.

While each component of VegeGreens is present in doses that are much smaller than those used in studies, most of which are less than compelling in any case, there is still the possibility that this curious blend of some sixty ingredients provides a benefit. Is there any evidence provided? All we are told is that the company “takes the holistic approach of selecting and testing every ingredient to ensure they are in balance with each other and with your body.” Really? Where are the studies to show such balance, whatever that means?

We are also comforted with the info that this supplement is professionally formulated and “energetically tested.” The professional involved seems to be a naturopath whose claim to fame is that he is a recognized authority in the field of “auriculotherapy” and “therapeutic drainage.” Auriculotherapy is based on the idea that the ear is a microsystem of the entire body and that stimulation of certain points on its outer portion can treat disease. Needless to say, there is absolutely no scientific evidence for this. Therapeutic drainage “is the process of detoxifying the body by opening the elimination channels in the excretory organs and releasing toxic accumulations.” This is achieved by administering homeopathic remedies, which by definition are so dilute as to essentially contain nothing. So much for the “professional design.” How about energetically tested? Perhaps that refers to the energy that has gone into marketing.

Now, for some of the direct claims made on behalf of VegeGreens. “Restores a healthy pH.” Our blood is a buffer system that automatically controls pH. “Detoxifies the body.” Really? What toxins are removed and how were these identified? “Renews mental clarity.” Studies please! “Promotes clear, healthy skin.” How about some before and after pictures? “Balances blood sugar.” Blood sugar is easy to measure. Where is the data to show that this product balances it? “Strengthens the immune system.” What does that mean? The immune system is very complex and involves organs, white blood cells, antibodies, enzymes, complement proteins, interferon and lymphokines. Which of these has been shown to be affected by VegeGreens? If any such studies exist, they are certainly not referenced. Instead we get the usual anecdotal accounts. "VegeGreens are amazing! I feel so energized and clear-headed when taking it," one satisfied customer opines. And a sports trainer chimes in with "trust me, I have tried every vitamin company out there and this one makes the purest and most researched supplements available.” Not exactly the scientific method, is it?

I don’t think there is any harm in VegeGreens or any of the numerous similar products out there. They may even provide some benefits for people who have a low fruit and vegetable intake. But we don’t know because there are no studies. There are just unsubstantiated claims made by promoters who have a homeopathic knowledge of nutrition. I would have been happier to find a basket of fruits and vegetables on my doorstep.

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When is enough, enough?

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 03/05/2015 - 20:38

On the “The Current,” the CBC’s national morning show, Dr. Heather Boon, Dean of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto, and I had a chance to express our views on the proposed study she is organizing to investigate the homeopathic treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in conjunction with the Riverdale Homeopathic clinic. This was stimulated by a letter I had written to Dr. Boon, co-signed by some ninety physicians and scientists, asking what was to be gained by such a study and expressing surprise that someone with training in pharmacy would attach any credibility to the bizarre concept of homeopathy.

Dr. Boon got the ball rolling by stating very clearly that she does not believe that homeopathy has any scientific basis, and that the goal of the study was to explore why people believe in homeopathy and to try and understand the complex interaction between homeopath and subject. I was glad to hear her say that she does not believe in the mythical behaviour of non-existent molecules, but when I looked at the details of the study as registered, the number one purpose stated is “to determine if there are any specific effects of homeopathic medicines in the treatment of ADHD.” Also, in a previous paper in which she discusses at length the homeopathic studies recorded in the scientific literature, she opines that “physical experiments have demonstrated a variety of possible mechanisms for the transmission and preservation of therapeutic properties in highly diluted solutions.” While some experiments have shown that water has some anomalous properties, no experiment I know of has shown the transmission of any sort of therapeutic effect.

The purpose of scientific research is to advance our state of knowledge, hopefully with spinoffs that will benefit the public. But funding for scientific research is not unlimited, indeed it is becoming harder and harder to come by. So decisions have to be made on the allocation of both money and effort. Factors that need to be taken into account include previous studies of the subject as well as scientific plausibility. For example, there would be no point in studying pendants that claim to neutralize electromagnetic radiation because this makes no sense according to principles of physics. Ditto for jars that claim to magnetize water in order to turn it into a healing solution, or for hollow wax candles that claim to remove ear wax, freeing up (nonexistent) energy channels in the body. That brings us to studying the effect of absent molecules, namely homeopathy. This two hundred year old practice has been put through the mill numerous times. Literally hundreds of studies have examined the possibility that solutions diluted to the extent that they contain no remnant of the original solute can still retain some sort of memory and deliver therapeutic benefits. How such memory, should it exist, has anything to do with healing disease is never addressed.

Plausibility is an important consideration because it prevents us from wasting scarce resources on projects that do not have a reasonable chance of producing a useful outcome. The basic tenet of homeopathy, that the potency of a substance is increased by dilution, in other words, the “less is more” phenomenon, flies in the face of what is known about the mechanism of drug action, and more specifically is incompatible with chemistry’s “law of mass action” that relates the rate of a chemical reaction to the masses of the reacting substances. If the mass of a reactant is essentially zero, as it is in a homeopathic solution, its rate of reaction with any substance in the body would also be zero. Dr. Boon has commented that conventional medications are designed based on plausibility and that the research often does not produce the desired results. I think the suggestion is that therefore we should not dismiss theories based on implausibility. While it is true that scientific plausibility does not guarantee success, implausibility, such as exemplified by the “principles” of homeopathy, virtually guarantees failure.

When confronted with the weakness of their arguments, homeopaths attempt to cloak themselves in the respectability of science by searching out references in the literature that deal with the anomalies of water. Indeed, there are some mysteries about just how water molecules associate with each other, and some interesting data about patterns that they can form. But these arrangements last only picoseconds and in no way have anything to do with justifying homeopathy. Sometimes homeopaths try to buttress their claims by lassoing the concept of hormesis, the notion that some substances at very low concentration have a greater effect than at larger concentrations. This is not pertinent because the concentrations at which hormesis is observed are far, far greater than that found in any homeopathic solution. Homeopaths also like to fling about sciency words like “nano,” “quantum” and “clathrate” as they grope to rationalize the irrational.

So it is really no surprise that the vast majority of proper, randomized, controlled, double-blind trials have concluded that the effects of homeopathy can be explained by the placebo response, without any need to invoke ghostly imprints of solute molecules. Homeopaths do not accept this conclusion and counter by pointing to the few studies that show a positive effect, no matter how marginal, as well as to the numerous anecdotal accounts of patient satisfaction. But studies of homeopathy show a huge publication bias, meaning that only positive findings, likely due to chance, get published. Less than 5% of studies in alternative journals show a negative effect while mainstream medical journals feature negative results with regularity.When challenged about the lack of evidence for their arguments, unfortunately some homeopaths tend to resort to name calling and denigrating comments about conventional medicine. They also call for more research on questions that have been repeatedly answered.

Should a university answer the call for more studies? This now takes us back to the original question we posed to Dr. Boon. Obviously she feels there is something to be gained from exploring why people believe in homeopathy and whether any benefit, should there be one, can be attributed to the interaction between the subject and the homeopath. Our view is that this issue has been thoroughly investigated, and given the scientifically irrational tenets of homeopathy, little can be gained from yet another study. Dr. Boon’s reasoning that her study will put homeopathy to the test and “will search out the truth” and perhaps “provide the best evidence yet that homeopathy doesn’t work,” is less than compelling. After the plethora of studies already carried out that have failed to resolve the issue in the eyes of believers in homeopathy, this one will? Not a chance. Doing the same experiments over and over again, hoping for a different result, is not the hallmark of good science. Admittedly, Dr. Boon’s study is well designed, but if a study isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.

There is also a potential downside to such a study. And that is the implicit legitimization of homeopathy as a consequence of a prestigious university and a highly reputable investigator being involved. That is especially bothersome when the clinic where the study will be carried out offers a number of questionable practices including homeopathic “nosodes” as alternatives to vaccination, ear candling, cupping and cranial sacral therapy.

After 200 years of often acrimonious battles between homeopaths and their critics, the only conclusion arrived at with confidence is that no study will resolve the differences. It is time to say enough is enough and dedicate funds to projects that have a better chance of a favourable outcome. Homeopaths will have to accept that the majority of the scientific community will not be swayed by the notion of nonexistent molecules producing a therapeutic effect, and we in turn have to accept that no matter what we do, homeopathy will be kept alive by a blend of bizarre ideology, a potent placebo response, scientific illiteracy, and the popular myth that anyone who opposes homeopathy is in the pocket of Big Pharma.

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Hot Dog!

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 22:05

Otto von Bismarck, the celebrated German statesman once remarked that the two things you don't want to see made are sausages and the law. Judging by some of the Parliamentary behaviour I've seen, he was right about the law. But sausages are another story. We can actually learn a lot of science from seeing them made. For thousands of years people have been stuffing ground meat along with various spices and other ingredients into casings. Homer sang of sausages in the Odyssey, written around 850 BC. The Romans traditionally made sausages from ground pork and pine nuts for the celebration of Lupercalia, a feast of eating, drinking and wenching. These sausages became so intricately connected to debauchery that Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, actually banned them. Sausage bootlegging became a profitable enterprise.

By the Middle Ages, hundreds of varieties of sausages had been developed. Many of these, like Bologna, were named after the city where they were developed. But the variety that plays the greatest role in our lives originated in the German city of Frankfurt. The frankfurter was made with cured meat and was cooked by smoke. Legend has it that the frankfurter was introduced into North America by Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, A Bavarian peddler who had emigrated to America. In 1904 he set up a booth at the St. Louis World's Fair and sold frankfurters as snacks. Since these sausages were greasy and hot, he loaned his customers white gloves with which to hold them. So many people absconded with the gloves that he needed another solution. His brother-in-law, a baker, came up with one. Why not put the frankfurter in a bun? Why not indeed! The new product was an instant success. Everyone wanted to try the new fangled hot "Dachshund sausages," as the franks were now called because of their resemblence to these lengthy canines. Soon the name was abbreviated to "hot dog," and a North American staple was born. There were some growing pains. In 1913, the Chamber of Commerce banned hot dogs from Coney Island in New York because of persistent rumours that they were made from dog meat. The ban was rescinded in 1916 when Nathan Handwerker guaranteed that he would make a quality product. He delivered, and Nathan's, the Mecca of hot dog emporium's was born.

Let’s face it, we know that hot dogs are not health food. Babe Ruth can testify to that. He once ate a dozen hot dogs during a ball game. And he was playing! All right, so they had to rush him to the hospital afterwards to pump out his stomach. But the Babe was not one for moderation. A Brooklyn psychiatrist who analyzed the personality differences between hamburger and hot dog eaters would not be surprised by the babe’s antics. Hamburger enthusiasts, he said, were steady, reliable and predictable. Hot dog lovers, on the other hand, were found to be romantics with a flair for adventure. After all, doesn't it take someone with a bit of a cavalier attitude to enjoy the mysterious ingredients in a wiener? Oh well, once in a while anyone can have a cavalier attitude!

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Stay Away From Old Goats

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 22:01

Think of a ghastly smell. Skunk? Halitosis? BO? Outhouse? Rotting fish? Rancid butter? Dog flatus? Decomposing flesh? All devastating. But let’s not forget the penetrating fragrance of a billy goat. Especially a wet one. That will horrify any nose. Unless that billy goat, or buck in more scientific terms, happens to be castrated. Along with the loss of manhood comes the loss of smell. Actually “smell” doesn’t do the aroma justice. “Reek” is a better description of the unforgettable stench. And if you handle one of these animals you will learn what “unforgettable” means. The piercing odour sticks to clothes and skin and is very tough to eliminate. You don’t want to be wearing clothes you are fond of when you have an encounter of the male goat kind. And gloves are definitely the order of the day.

Since “wethers,” as males that have been deprived of their testes are known, produce no smell, it stands to reason that the aroma of an intact male has a connection to reproduction. That has actually been demonstrated. When exposed to the scent of a male goat, females will ovulate and become receptive to the advances of the buck. Determining the exact composition of the scent that activates the female is of interest to researchers because it may lead to a way of ensuring that females are in rut for breeding. This could be a more economical and a less invasive way of stimulating ovulation than hormone treatments now used by some breeders. Obviously, the first step in such research is to collect a sample of the scent. Although the identity of the brave scientist who first carried out the pioneering research has been lost to the pages of history, it is known that the scent is wafted out from glands on the billy’s head.

So how do you collect the fragrant compounds? You design a helmet equipped with a material that absorbs volatiles, extract these with a solvent, and subject the solution to analysis by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. A gas chromatograph separates the components of a mixture and a mass spectrometer can identify the individual compounds. And there are lots! Dozens! Determining which are responsible for stimulating ovulation in the female is a challenge, one that was cleverly met by a group of Japanese researchers. By implanting electrodes in a specific area of the brain of female goats they managed to measure electrical signals associated with the firing of nerve cells that are involved in the release of the hormones that stimulate ovulation. Starting with mixtures of compounds, and then narrowing these down to fewer and fewer components, they eventually managed to determine that 4-ethyloctanal produced the strongest response. It now joins the array of compounds recognized as “pheromones,” namely chemicalssecreted by animals that influences the behavior or physiology of others of the same species. Interestingly, 4-ethyloctanal has a rather pleasant citrus-like odour.

While this compound has not been found in nature before, it has long been familiar to perfumers and artificial flavour manufacturers. A patent back in 2002 was filed for the use of 4-ethyloctanal as a fragrance chemical to enhance the bouquet of perfumes, toilet waters, colognes and other personal products, as well as for its use as a food additive to boost flavour. If 4-ethyloctanal isn’t responsible for the torturous stench of male goats, what is? The chromatographic analysis reveals a number of compounds in the family of carboxylic acids. These are widespread in nature, the simplest ones being formic acid found in ant venom and acetic acid, a dilute solution of which we know as vinegar.

“Simple” in this case refers to the number of carbon atoms in the acid’s molecular structure, with putridity increasing with the number of carbons. Propionic acid, which has three carbons, elicits the sensation of body odour, which is not surprising since it is produced by bacteria on the skin. Butyric acid is responsible for the characteristic smell of human vomit. It is also found in goat scent. As disturbing as it is, it pales in comparison with the stabbing odour of the six-carbon, caproic acid, appropriately deriving its name from “caper,” the Latin for goat. Even if you have never been near a goat, you may have encountered its dramatically unpleasant odour if you have ever sniffed the demposing seeds of the ginkgo biloba tree. Two other acids, caprylic and capric, also derive their names from “caper,” for good reason. They also contribute to the fragrance of male goats. Staying away from randy old goats is a good idea. Unless they have been deprived of their privates.

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Why Yet Another Study of Homeopathy?

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 02/23/2015 - 22:47

This post needs a bit of a background. A few weeks ago we noted that the Dean of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto was organizing a trial on using homeopathic preparations for the treatment of ADHD. A letter to the Dean asking how a Faculty of Pharmacy would get involved in studying something that is dismissed by the vast majority of the scientific community seemed appropriate. Eventually this letter was signed by more than ninety scientists and physicians and was sent off. There was no reply. In our view, not only is this a waste of funds, it adds an aura of respectability to a scientifically bankrupt notion. This is especially disturbing now in face of the measles outbreak since the private clinic where the study is to be carried out is a supporter of “nosodes,” the homeopathic “alternative” to vaccination. The original letter sent to Dr. Boon is reproduced below the following opinion piece that appeared in the Montreal Gazette.

Academic Freedom Comes With Academic Responsibility

Academic freedom is sacrosanct in universities. Researchers must be free to pursue their ideas, be they conventional or peculiar. But academic freedom also includes the freedom of others to question those ideas, and scholastic consideration dictates that those questions be addressed, especially when they are posed in a courteous letter signed by ninety scientists and physicians from around the world, including two Nobel Laureates. The letter in question was sent to Dr. Heather Boon, Dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto and focused on a study she was organizing to investigate the use of homeopathic preparations in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. Those of us who signed the letter, along with the vast majority of the scientific community, believe that numerous studies have concluded that the effects of homeopathy do not extend beyond a placebo response. The letter sought Dr. Boon’s views on why a Faculty of Pharmacy was organizing a trial that legitimizes homeopathy, a practice that has no scientific plausibility. Homeopathy is not an umbrella term for alternative modalities. It is a very specific practice that originated before the dawn of the scientific era when little was known about disease or chemistry. Samuel Hahnemann, a well-meaning German physician, concluded that a substance that causes symptoms in a healthy person cures those symptoms in a sick person if it is sufficiently diluted. His process involved thumping the solution into a leather pillow between dilutions, and finally using a drop to impregnate a sugar tablet that would then serve as a “homeopathic medicine,” the term deriving from the Latin for “similar” and “disease.” Hahnemann could not have realized at the time that the final solution did not contain a single molecule of the original substance. Today, homeopaths have to contend with chemical knowledge and have proposed that the curative effects are to be explained by the sequential dilutions leaving an imprint on the solution, although they appear to be at a loss to explain how such an image is transferred to a sugar pill or how a molecular ghost can have healing properties. Stymied by the implausibility of nonexistent molecules having therapeutic potential, homeopaths point to papers in the scientific literature demonstrating a larger than placebo effect, as well as to the millions around the world who use homeopathy with satisfaction. Neither of these is surprising. Toss a hundred coins into the air and count heads and tails. Maybe 45 heads, 55 tails. Maybe 48 tails 52 heads. But do this a hundred times, and one event may come out 30 heads and 70 tails. If this is the only one reported, the impression would be that the coins were not fairly weighted. So it is with studies of homeopathy. Just by chance alone, some results will indicate efficacy. That’s why we look at all the studies and come to the conclusion that we are looking at a placebo response, which of course is valuable and should not be dismissed. Indeed, couple the placebo response with the fact that homeopathic treatments are administered by caring people who spend a lot more time with patients than physicians can, and that they mostly target self-limiting conditions or diseases that have their ups and downs, and you have a formula for satisfaction. ADHD is a serious condition that merits serious research. Apparently the University of Toronto researchers carried out a pilot study involving homeopathy that seemed to indicate benefit. That study, however, was unblinded, devoid of randomization, had no control group and relied on a subjective outcome, making any data derived from it essentially meaningless. Even if we were to attach some importance to the claimed reduction of symptoms, the effect was about half of that seen with conventional medication, making the homeopathic treatment clearly inferior. Furthermore the proposed study would use individualized treatments for each subject as determined by a homeopathic consultation, so at best the results would be ambiguous in terms of making any recommendation. The study is actually to be carried out at the Riverdale Homeopathic Clinic, a private institution that also offers ear candling, cranial sacral therapy and “nosodes,” which are homeopathic versions of vaccines. No public funding is involved; support comes from a foundation dedicated to alternative medicine. Nevertheless, one wonders why with various nutritional and biofeedback treatments with significant potential for helping with ADHD needing exploration, a scientifically insolvent notion is being pursued. One also wonders why a Dean of Pharmacy at a major Canadian Institution did not take the time to respond directly to repeated requests for her comments on a contrary opinion expressed by a large number of notable scientists and physicians.

ORIGINAL LETTER

Dear Dr. Boon

The following originates from the McGill University Office for Science and Society and has been signed by scientists and physicians from the international community. We are all devoted advocates of academic freedom and support the right of researchers to pursue any field of study they feel has merit. But we also feel that it is fair to ask colleagues questions about how a particular study they are engaged in may contribute to the bank of scientific knowledge. It should be emphatically stated that those who have added their name to this letter, including two Nobel Laureates, in no way wish to interfere with your research. Everyone is just interested in your response to the concerns expressed here. Those concerns deal with the trial we understand you are organizing to investigate a homeopathic approach to the treatment of ADHD. First, let us point out that the McGill Office for Science and Society accepts no funds from any vested interest; our only allegiance is to the scientific method and to evidence-based science. It makes no difference to us whether any substance, including homeopathic products, is regulated or not, as long as the decision is arrived at through proper scientific evaluation rather than emotion, "they say" or pressure from vested interests. Along with the majority of scientists, we find the notion of nonexistent molecules having a physiological effect through leaving some ghostly impression in water that is then transferable to a sugar pill simply untenable. Even if some sort of "memory" effect prevailed, there is no reasonable explanation for how it could affect biology. Furthermore, after all the sequential dilutions and succussions, the original impurities in the solvent would be more extensively present in the final solution than any component from the original homeopathic source. After evaluating the scientific literature, including a comparison of 110 homeopathic studies with 110 conventional studies for a number of disorders and outcomes, the most likely conclusion is that any benefit attributed to homeopathy can be ascribed to a placebo response. Generally, scientists look askance at homeopathy, but don't bother much with it because they consider it to be harmless folly. Unfortunately, this is not the case when homeopaths recommend "nosodes" as alternatives to vaccination, or attack the use of antibiotics for infections, or offer unproven treatments for ADHD. The reason for this extensive email is to solicit your rationale, given your training as a pharmacist, for the study you are carrying out. Is the motivation a concern that parents are wasting money and possibly sacrificing effective treatment by resorting to homeopathy for ADHD, and that the study may clarify the situation? Or is there a belief that there may be some factor other than a placebo response involved? In that case, what mechanism may be operative? You allude to the results of a pilot study that warranted this further research. That study, however, was unblinded, devoid of randomization, had no control group and relied on a subjective outcome, making any data derived from it highly questionable. You also note that the reduction of symptoms found in the pilot study was about half of that seen with conventional medication, making the homeopathic treatment clearly inferior. Basically, as you have gathered, we are curious about why, given the need to investigate natural therapies that may actually have a potential for benefit, and faced with a scarcity in funding, a Department of Pharmacy is interested in investigating a subject that has been addressed extensively in the literature and has been found wanting both in evidence and plausibility. There is also a concern that just the mounting of such a study by a highly reputable researcher at a top notch university will be used by homeopaths to justify diverse aspects of their practice, including steering patients away from evidence-based treatments. Looking forward to your comments, Read more

Lead – A stain on chocolate?

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 02/14/2015 - 07:53

Lead is nasty. Since the body has a tough time eliminating it, exposure to very small amounts can cause poisoning over the long term. Diagnosis of lead poisoning is challenging because of the variety of symptoms it can produce. Vomiting, constipation, abdominal pains, headaches, mood disorders, high blood pressure, tingling sensations and fatigue can all be the result of lead poisoning, but of course these symptoms can also have other causes. Then there are the truly worrisome issues like developmental problems, learning difficulties and eventual loss of mental faculties. Lead poisoning is most worrisome in children under the age of six when the nervous system is still forming.

Exposure to lead-based paint in old buildings is a big problem, and lead paint still crops up in some imported toys that kids may put in their mouths. There is also the problem of lead in water in areas where old lead pipes are still in use. Since our body has no requirement for lead, every effort should be made to avoid ingesting lead compounds, but total avoidance is impossible since lead occurs naturally in the soil and gets incorporated into anything that grows in the soil. And that includes cacao trees and therefore chocolate. Yes there is lead in chocolate and that has raised the ire of some activist groups who claim this represents a risk especially to children. And what better time to get publicity for a warning about chocolate than Valentine’s Day. So a California watchdog group called “As You Sow” has trotted out its annual chocolate scare.

So, how much should we worry about eating chocolate? Let’s play with numbers a little. Total avoidance of lead is impossible, but the World Health Organization has determined that a tolerable daily intake for children is 3.6 micrograms per kg per day. This means that even if this amount is consumed every day, no problems are foreseen. A 20 kg child can therefore consume 72 micrograms of lead a day. Dark chocolate has the most lead with 0.07 micrograms per gram. That means 50 grams, a pretty good chunk of chocolate, will contain 3.5 micrograms of lead. Milk chocolate has less, but cocoa powder has more, at 0.25 micrograms per gram, but a serving of cocoa would only be about 7 grams which yields 1.75 micrograms of lead. Far from the daily tolerable limit of 72!

Of course lead is found in other foods as well. Berries contain as much as chocolate, and one normally eats a greater weight of berries than of chocolate. A glass of canned apple juice would have more lead than a serving of chocolate. Liver contains thousands of times more, but warnings about liver do not make the headlines. Even when the lead in all food consumed is totaled, it is unlikely that a child would exceed the 72 micrograms. Nevertheless, lead intake should be minimized as much as possible. And with chocolate, improved processing can reduce levels because studies have shown that the lead content of the finished product is greater than that found to occur naturally in the beans. The lead likely comes from machinery and air drying in places like Nigeria where leaded gasoline is still used. The bottom line here is that if you are eating enough chocolate to have to worry about lead, you are eating way too much chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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FOLLOW DR. KO: What You Never Knew About Canadian Doctors Outside Canada

From Our Contributors - Mon, 02/09/2015 - 18:18

Imagine me, a single thirty year-old living in the bustling city of New York, out at a bar on a Saturday night. “What do you do for a living?” – someone inevitably always asks.

Sometimes, for fun, I make up stories. I tell people that I specialize in cleaning elephant poo at the Bronx Zoo or something ludicrous like that. It is so much more interesting than just saying, “I’m a doctor.”

But when I do say that I am a doctor, people’s reaction is usually “Oh wow.” They think that I must live in luxury on the Upper East Side, drive a Mercedes-Benz or some other fancy vehicle, and travel to exotic lands every couple of months. They picture a doctor, noble and heroic, who goes to work every day and saves lives. Countless lives. They would imagine me shouting out a patient’s blood pressure, cutting them open, performing chest compressions, while pearls of sweat drip down my face, the sweat of hard work, of responsibility, of grandeur. Then the patient lives, wakes up, and thanks me with hugs and tears.

Well, all that is flattering, but none of it is true. Read more

Academic Freedom

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 02/08/2015 - 05:56

Academic freedom is sacrocent in institutions of higher learning. According to standards adopted by Canadian universities, academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research. To do this, faculty must be free to take intellectual risks and tackle controversial subjects in their teaching, research and scholarship. The views expressed by faculty must be based on solid research, data and evidence.Thus, academic freedom must be based on reasoned discourse, rigorous extensive research and scholarship, and peer review.”

Clearly, academic freedom does not mean that professors have the right to teach anything that strikes their fancy, and they certainly do not have the right to confuse facts with opinion and demand that students recite these opinions on tests lest they be penalized. Yet this is exactly what seems to be happening in a course called “Physical Determinants of Health” at Queens, one of Canada’s most prestigious universities.

The course is taught by a professor whose background is in sports sociology which hardly equips one to deal with the intricacies of vaccination, electromagnetic radiation, prescription drugs, toxic wastes, personal care items, artificial sweeteners and genetically modified organisms. All of these, according to Professor Melody Torcolacci contribute to our “toxic load,” whatever that may mean. As is clearly evident from student reports and her classroom slides, she strays far and wide from facts and exhibits a stunning ignorance of epidemiology, immunology and toxicology. She may once have been a nationally ranked shot putter, but that doesn’t qualify her for taking shots at vaccination.

Professor Torcolacci has a clear distrust of vaccines that she attempts to infuse into her students. Her scientific shortfall is demonstrated in one of the first slides with which she accosts the students in her lecture titled “Vaccines: Good or Bad.” Guess what conclusion she want them to come away with? “No scientific evidence exists showing vaccines are NOT contributing to increased incidence of chronic illness and disability in children,” her slide flagrantly declares. What an absurd statement this is. Science can never prove a negative. Could anyone ever prove that aliens do not kidnap people? Or that Professor Torcolacci is actually not an alien? Of course not. I think, however, we can prove that she is alien to science. Her comments that pregnant women should not be vaccinated against the flu goes against the documented evidence of a positive benefit-risk ratio.

Professors are free to express their opinions, but they are not free to make up facts. And when you teach students that vaccines are connected to AIDS and autism, you are making up facts. When you teach students that colloidal silver, oil of oregano and fresh garlic work like broad-spectrum antibiotics, you are making up facts. It seems that this professor has not come across a Google myth she hasn’t readily swallowed and then regurgitated in front of impressionable students. This isn’t academic freedom. It is an academic crime.

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