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Jane Lewis – DC's Improbable Science

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Jane Lewis

There’s been no official announcement, but four more of Westminster’s courses in junk medicine have quietly closed.

For entry in 2011 they offer

University of Westminster (W50) qualification
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Complementary Medicine (B255) 3FT Hon BSc
Complementary Medicine (B301) 4FT Hon MHSci
Complementary Medicine: Naturopathy (B391) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine with Foundation Year (B340) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Nutritional Therapy (B400) 3FT Hon BSc
 

But for entry in 2012

University of Westminster (W50) qualification
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine with Foundation Year (B340) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSc

 

At the end of 2006, Westminster was offering 14 different BSc degrees in seven flavours of junk medicine. In October 2008, it was eleven. This year it’s eight, and next year only four degrees in two subjects. Since "Integrated Health" was ‘merged’ with Biological Sciences in May 2010, two of the original courses have been dropped each year. This September there will be a final intake for Nutrition Therapy and Naturopathy. That leaves only two, Chinese Medicine (acupuncture and (Western) Herbal Medicine.

The official reason given for the closures is always that the number of applications has fallen. I’m told that the number of applications has halved over the last five or six years. If that’s right, it counts as a big success for the attempts of skeptics to show the public the nonsense that’s taught on these degrees. Perhaps it is a sign that we are emerging from the endarkenment.

Rumour has it that the remaining degrees will eventually close too. Let’s hope so. Meanwhile, here is another helping hand.

There is already quite a bit here about the dangers of Chinese medicine, e.g. here and, especially, here. A submission to the Department of Health gives more detail. There has been a lot on acupuncture here too. There is now little doubt that it’s no more than a theatrical, and not very effective, placebo. So this time I’ll concentrate on Western herbal medicine.

Western Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is just a branch of pharmacology and it could be taught as such. But it isn’t. It comes overlaid with much superstitious nonsense. Some of it can be seen in slides from Edinburgh Napier University (the difference being that Napier closed that course, and Westminster hasn’t)

Even if it were taught properly, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a BSc for several reasons.

First, there isn’t a single herbal that has full marketing authorisation from the MHRA. In other words, there isn’t a single herb for which there is good evidence that it works to a useful extent.

Second, the fact that the active principals in plants are virtually always given in an unknown dose makes them potentially dangerous. This isn’t 1950s pharmacology. It’s 1920s pharmacology, dating from a time before methods were worked out for standardising the potency of natural products (see Plants as Medicines).

Third, if you are going to treat illness with chemicals, why restrict yourself to chemicals that occur in plants?

It was the herbal medicine course that gave rise to the most virulent internal complaints at the University of Westminster. These complaints revealed the use of pendulum dowsing by some teachers on the course and the near-illegal, and certainly dangerous, teaching about herbs in cancer.

Here are a few slides from Principles of Herbal Medicine(3CT0 502). The vocabulary seems to be stuck in a time warp. When I first started in the late 1950s, words like tonic, carminative, demulcent and expectorant were common Over the last 40 years all these words have died out in pharmacology, for the simple reason that it became apparent that there were no such actions. But these imaginary categories are still alive and well in the herbal world.

There was a lecture on a categories of drugs so old-fashioned that I’ve never even heard the words: "nervines". and "adaptogens".

n1
N3
N2

N4

The "tonics" listed here seem quite bizarre. In the 1950s, “tonics” containing nux vomica (a small dose of strychnine) and gentian (tastes nasty) were common, but they vanished years ago, because they don’t work. None of those named here even get a mention in NCCAM’s Herbs-at-a-glance. Oats? Come on!

The only ‘relaxant’ here for which there is the slightest evidence is Valerian. I recall tincture of Valerian in a late 1950s pharmacy. It smells terrible,

According to NCCAM

  • Research suggests that valerian may be helpful for insomnia, but there is not enough evidence from well-designed studies to confirm this.
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to determine whether valerian works for other conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

Not much, for something that’s been around for centuries.

And for chamomile

  • Chamomile has not been well studied in people so there is little evidence to support its use for any condition.

None of this near-total lack of evidence is mentioned on the slides.

n5

What about the ‘stimulants‘? Rosemary? No evidence at all. Tea and coffee aren’t medicine (and not very good stimulants for me either).

Ginseng, on the other hand, is big business. That doesn’t mean it works of course. NCCAM says of Asian ginseng (Panax Ginseng).

  • Some studies have shown that Asian ginseng may lower blood glucose. Other studies indicate possible beneficial effects on immune function.
  • Although Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb. Only a few large, high-quality clinical trials have been conducted. Most evidence is preliminary—i.e., based on laboratory research or small clinical trials.

 

n8

Thymoleptics – antidepressants are defined as "herbs that engender a feeling of wellbeing. They uplift the spirit, improve the mood and counteract depression".

Oats, Lemon balm, Damiana, Vervain. Lavender and Rosemary are just old bits of folklore

NCCAM says

Some “sleep formula” products combine valerian with other herbs such as hops, lavender, lemon balm, and skullcap. Although many of these other herbs have sedative properties, there is no reliable evidence that they improve insomnia.

 

n10

The only serious contender here is St John’s Wort. At one time this was the prize exhibit for herbalists. It has been shown to be as good as the conventional SSRIs for treatment of mild to moderate depression. Sadly it has turned out that the SSRIs are themselves barely better than placebos. NCCAM says

  • There is scientific evidence that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Although some studies have reported benefits for more severe depression, others have not; for example, a large study sponsored by NCCAM found that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.

"Adaptogens" are another figment of the herbalists’ imaginations. They are defined in the lecture thus.

  • Herbs that have a normalising or balancing effect.
  • Mind and body are restored to optimum normal peak,
  • Increase threshold to physical and mental trauma and damage
  • Mental and physical activity and performance improved.
n12

Well, it would be quite nice if such drugs existed. Sadly they don’t.

NCCAM says

  • The evidence for using astragalus for any health condition is limited. High-quality clinical trials (studies in people) are generally lacking.

Another lecture dealt with "stimulating herbs". No shortage of them, it seems.

s2

Well at least one of these has quite well-understood effects in pharmacology, ephedrine, a sympathomimetic amine. It isn’t used much because it can be quite dangerous, even with the controlled dose that’s used in real medicine. In the uncontrolled dose in herbal medicines it is downright dangerous.

s1
s3
s4

 

This is what NCCAM says about Ephedra

  • An NCCAM-funded study that analyzed phone calls to poison control centers found a higher rate of side effects from ephedra, compared with other herbal products.
  • Other studies and systematic reviews have found an increased risk of heart, psychiatric, and gastrointestinal problems, as well as high blood pressure and stroke, with ephedra use.
  • According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is little evidence of ephedra’s effectiveness, except for short-term weight loss. However, the increased risk of heart problems and stroke outweighs any benefits.

It seems that what is taught in the BSc Herbal Medicine degree consists largely of folk-lore and old wives’ tales. Some of it could be quite dangerous for patients.

A problem for pharmacognosists

While talking about herbal medicine, it’s appropriate to mention a related problem, though it has nothing to do with the University of Westminster.

My guess is that not many people have even heard of pharmacognosy. If it were not for my humble origins as an apprentice pharmacist in Grange Road, Birkenhead (you can’t get much more humble than that) I might not know either.

Pharmacognosy is a branch of botany, the study of plant drugs. I recall inspecting powered digitalis leaves under a microscope. In Edinburgh, in the time of the great pharmacologist John Henry Gaddum, medical students might be presented in the oral exam with a jar of calabar beans and required to talk about their anticholinesterase effects of the physostigmine that they contain.

The need for pharmacognosy has now all but vanished, but it hangs on in the curriculum for pharmacy students. This has engendered a certain unease about the role of pharmacognists. They often try to justify their existence by rebranding themselves as "phytotherapists". There are even journals of phytotherapy. It sounds a lot more respectable that herbalism. At its best, it is more respectable, but the fact remains that there no herbs whatsoever that have well-documented medical uses.

The London School of Pharmacy is a case in point. Simon Gibbons (Professor of Phytochemistry, Department of Pharmaceutical and Biological Chemistry). The School of Pharmacy) has chosen, for reasons that baffle me, to throw in his lot with the reincarnated Prince of Wales Foundation known as the “College of Medicine“. That organisation exists largely (not entirely) to promote various forms of quackery under the euphemism “integrated medicine”. On their web site he says "Western science is now recognising the extremely high value of herbal medicinal products . . .", despite the fact that there isn’t a single herbal preparation with efficacy sufficient for it to get marketing authorisation in the UK. This is grasping at straws, not science.

The true nature of the "College of Medicine" is illustrated, yet again, by their "innovations network". Their idea of "innovation" includes the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital and the Royal London Hospital for Integrated medicine, both devoted to promoting the utterly discredited late-18th century practice of giving people pills that contain no medicine. Some "innovation".

It baffles me that Simon Gibbons is willing to appear on the same programme as Simon Mills and David Peters, and George Lewith. Mills’ ideas can be judged by watching a video of a talk he gave in which he ‘explains’ “hot and cold herbs”. It strikes me as pure gobbledygook. Make up your own mind. He too has rebranded himself as "phytotherapist" though in fact he’s an old-fashioned herbalist with no concern for good evidence. David Peters is the chap who, as Clinical Director of the University of Westminster’s ever-shrinking School of Quackery, tolerates dowsing as a way to select ‘remedies’.

The present chair of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy is Michael Heinrich. He, with Simon Gibbons, has written a book Fundamentals of pharmacognosy and phytotherapy. As well as much good chemistry, it contains this extraordinary statement

“TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] still contains very many remedies which were selected by their symbolic significance rather than their proven effects; however this does not mean that they are all ‘quack’remedies! There may even be some value in medicines such as tiger bone, bear gall, turtle shell, dried centipedes, bat dung and so on. The herbs, however, are well researched and are becoming increasingly popular as people become disillusioned with Western Medicine.”

It is irresponsible to give any solace at all to the wicked industries that kill tigers and torture bears to extract their bile. And it is simple untrue that “herbs are well-researched”. Try the test,

A simple test for herbalists. Next time you encounter a herbalist, ask them to name the herb for which there is the best evidence of benefit when given for any condition. Mostly they refuse to answer, as was the case with Michael McIntyre (but he is really an industry spokesman with few scientific pretensions). I asked Michael Heinrich, Professor of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy. Again I couldn’t get a straight answer. Usually, when pressed, the two things that come up are St John’s Wort and Echinacea. Let’s see what The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has to say about them. NCCAM is the branch of the US National Institutes of Health which has spent around a billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money on research into alternative medicine, For all that effort they have failed to come up with a single useful treatment. Clearly they should be shut down. Nevertheless, as an organisation that is enthusiastic about alternative medicine, their view can only be overoptimistic.

For St John’s Wort . NCCAM says

  • There is scientific evidence that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Although some studies have reported benefits for more severe depression, others have not; for example, a large study sponsored by NCCAM found that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.

For Echinacea NCCAM says

  • Study results are mixed on whether echinacea can prevent or effectively treat upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold. For example, two NCCAM-funded studies did not find a benefit from echinacea, either as Echinacea purpurea fresh-pressed juice for treating colds in children, or as an unrefined mixture of Echinacea angustifolia root and Echinacea purpurea root and herb in adults. However, other studies have shown that echinacea may be beneficial in treating upper respiratory infections.

If these are the best ones, heaven help the rest.

Follow-up

Systems biology is all the rage, No surprise then, to see the University of Westminster advertising a job for a systems biologist in the The Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences. Well, no surprise there -until you read the small print.

Much has been wriiten here about the University of Westminster, which remains the biggest provider of junk sciencne degrees in the UK, despite having closed two of them.

University of Westminster

Senior Lecturer in Systems Biology

University of Westminster – Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences, School of Life Sciences

Cavendish Site

Salary £37,886 – £50,751 (Inc. LWA)

The Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences wishes to appoint a Senior Lecturer in Systems Biology. The post-holder will teach on the undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes within the School of Life Sciences, particularly in the areas of Molecular Biology, Bioinformatics and/or statistics, establish their own and participate in ongoing research programmes and undertake external income generation activities.

The candidate should have an active interest in bridging the gap between western life sciences and Chinese medicine using emerging systems biology approaches, specifically in metabolomics and proteomics with a goal of developing novel diagnostic technologies facilitating the creation of a personalised approach to medical care. They should therefore be willing to work closely with colleagues in the life sciences as well as with clinicians and clinical researchers from within the East Asian medical tradition.

The post is available from 1st October 2010 or as soon as possible thereafter.

The closing date for applications, together with a short statement on why you believe you are suitable for the position and a description of your research plans, is Monday 6th September 2010. Interviews are expected to be held later in September.

Administrative contact (for queries only): Tayjal Tailor (t.tailor1@wmin.ac.uk)

Reference Number:   50000360

Closing Date:   Friday 3 September 2010 

A note about systems biology

Systems biology is about about how whole organs behave, as opposed to single cells or single molecules, It has to be the ultimate aim of biology. There is one case in which this has been done with some success, That is the modelling of the behaviour of the whole heart by Denis Noble and his colleagues in the Phyiology department (now gone) in Oxford. They adopted a bottom up approach. They measured the currents that flow though many sorts of ion channels in single cells from various parts of the heart, and how individual cells communicate with each other. Starting from this solid basis, together with a lot of computer power, they were able to model successfully a lot of phenomena that occur in the whole heart, but can’t be investigated in single cells. For example their work cast light on abnormal heart rhythms like ventricular fibrillation, and on the effect of drugs on heart rhythm.

This work was mostly done before the term ‘systems biology" thought of. It was called physiology. It is impressive work, and systems biology became a fashionable buzzword among research administrators and funding agencies. Despite the amount of money thrown at the problem, I’m not aware of any success that remotely approaches Noble’s.. One reason for that is that people have not been willing to put in the groundwork. In the case of the heart, the models were built on -many years of basic research on the electrophysiology of single heart cells. People have tried to model from the top down, without doing the spade work first. There has developed a perception that computing power can compensate for lack of basic knowledge about things work. It can’t. The usual aphorism applies: garbage in, garbage out.

Here’s an example, which eas noted in the diary pages for 29 June, 2008.  While in Edinbuurgh, to give a talk to the European Conference on Mathematical and Theoretical Biology, I noticed a poster.   It described an attempt to model on a computer the entire metabolic network of yeast.

“81 of the 662 intracellular concentrations were defined . . . The remainder were set to the median concentration of c. 0.2 mM.”

Ahem.  We didn’t know the concentrations so we just made them up so we could run the program.

It’s interesting that even people in the business seem to realise that even that it isn’t living up to the hype. The Fixing proteomics web site shows why.

Put another way, if you try to run before you can walk, you risk falling falling on your face.

For these reasons, it seems to me that that most attempts at system biology have been disappointing (please correct me if I’m wrong)

Systems biology for Chinese medicine

If systems biology suffers from trying to run before it can walk in regular biology, where at least something is known about the functions of cells, how much more true that must be of Chinese medicine. In Chinese medicine almost all the treatments have never been tested properly in man. The odds are that most don’t work at all, and some are very poisonous (not to mention the cruelty and destruction of endangered species that is involved in making some of their more bizarre medicines). The idea that you can explain it with systems biology, is ludicrous in the extreme.

One can’t imagine any vaguely competent biologist who’d want to touch a project as bizarre as this with a bargepole.

Eastmedicine

This advertisement stems presumably from EASTmedicine is the University of Westminster’s research centre for East Asian Sciences and Traditions in Medicine. The proclaimed aims are to focus on “understanding, development and evaluation of East Asian medicines as living traditions”. The director of EASTmedicine, Volker Scheid, is a herbalist and acupuncturist and, as such, a firm believer in alternative medicine. When he isn’t at the University he has a private practice, the Traditional Acupuncture Centre, in London.

The website of his private practice makes some astonishing claims

"Acupuncture is effective in the treatment of numerous conditions including headache, migraine, digestive problems, menstrual disorders, indeterminate aches and pains, asthma, hayfever, stress, tiredness, depression and anxiety. Also commonly treated are chronic conditions such as arthritis, back pain, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, sinusitis, high blood pressure and repetitive strain injuries."

These claims simply cannot be justified by any worthwhile evidence. It will be interesting to see what Trading Standards make of them.

Dr Scheid describes himself as a "scholar physician". Physician seems a rather pretentious description for someone whose qualifications are stated to be PhD, MBAcC, FRCHM. But in similar vein he describes himself thus "I am one of the West’s leading experts on Chinese medical formulas and treatment strategies".

Although Scheid sells acupuncture treatments to patients, he seems ro be more anthropologist than medical. In a discussion of two acupuncture papers

"From the Perspective of the Anthropologist –
Volker Scheid, London, UK
From a perspective anchored in the cultural studies of science, technology and medicine my main interest in these papers is their status as cultural artifacts that provide access to the lifeworlds of a particular research community. If any, life-world debate and argument marks sites of contestation."  Forsch Komplementärmed 2007;14:371–375

Scheid shows not the slightest interest in whether acupuncture works other than as a placebo. Since he is selling acupuncture, he presumably starts from the premise that it works.

Volker Scheid has had a £205,000 Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine Project Grant: 2009 2012; Treating the Liver: Towards a Transnational History of East Asian Medicine; There’s nothing wrong with writing the history of long-outdated systems of medicine, though one could hardly imagine that the history would be very impartial, when it is written by a true believer. Another taste of his style can be found in his paper on Globalising Chinese Medical Understandings of Menopause. There is lots of rather pretentious stuff about culture, but very little about what actually works, Towards the end of the paper we come to the usual feeble excuse.

" . . once traditional medicines allow themselves to be evaluated by biomedical research methods, the odds against receiving fair treatment are heavily stacked against them."

The translation of that into plain English is something like ‘when we test our treatments properly we find they don’t work, so we blame the methods and carry on with selling them anyway’.

Judging from its web site, EASTmedicine does not to do any serious clinical trials to test whether the treaments work in man, They just know that they do. But they are hoping to add some spurious scientific background to their dubious claims by hiring someone to do compuations that will cast no light whatsoever on the question that really matters, Do they work or not?

The agenda is made clear by the statement

EASTmedicine seeks to describe and analyse the dynamics of these transformations with a specific view of managing their integration into contemporary health care.

So it is just yet another group of people pushing to have unproven and disproved treatments accepted by real medicine.

The University of Westminster appears to be determined to make itself the laughing stock by persisting in promoting junk science at a time when most other universities have realise that the harm done to their reputations is not worth the income it generates, Plenty of it has been revealed here.

The vice-chancellor of Westminster, Prof Geoffrey Petts, made into the pages of Private Eye (see Crystal balls. Professor Petts in Private Eye when he announced that he wouldn’t get rid of the junk, but would make it more ‘scientific’. Well, credit where it’s due, They have dropped homeopathy. see The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University For 2010 they still off ten different “BSc (Hons)” degrees in pre-scientific forms of medicine. It will take more than a bit od talk about systems biology to make anyone believe that these courses have anything to do with science.

For example, look at some slides from their lectures on “energy medicine”, Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy”

More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time it’s Naturopathy , or

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients

The Dean of the School of the Life Sciences, Jane Lewis, is an entirely respectable marine biologist.  She has had the thankless task of merging the real science with the alternative medicine in a single school. I phoned her to get a reaction

" outcome of merger of the school and trying to bring various parts of the school together"  " "things are much more rigorous than they were". 

DC: "Why don’t you just phase it out?" 

"I’m not in a poition to do that.  i move things forward as seems best -for the whole school I have to say".  We’re retaining those bits thatI think have some good standing -I see NICE has approved the use of acupuncture for lower back pain and some other bits and pieces so I see acupuncture as something that does have some standing, andwe make sure it rigorously taught"

"DCHave you looked at the stuff on naturopathy?" "Are amethysts emit high Yin energy still taught?"  " i don’t think so".

It seems, as so often in this case, that the senior people don’t really know what’s being taught under their noses. Prof
Lewis says she has not read about the background
to the (unusually) daft advice from NICE
. Neither has she read Barker Bausell’s book on acupuncture research. If she had done any of these things,I suspect she would not have such a high opinion of it as appears to be the case.

Bait and switch.  Astonishingly there is a now a whole organisation devoted to the respectabalisation of Traditional Chinese Medicine   Good Practice in Traditional Chinese Medicine Research in the Post-genomic Era   It sounds nice and sciencey but, as usual, they are trying to run before they can walk.  The first thing has to be to do good clinical trials to find out if there is anything there to be investigated.  If, and only if, this is the case, would there be any case for fancy talk about "proteomics"
and "the post-genomic era".

I do hope that no funding agency would be fooled into parting with money on the basis of the present vacuous rhetoric.

Professor Lewis said that I have I have quoted things like "amethysts emit high Yin energy" out of context. There is a simple solution to that. I have asked Westminster to make available the entire contents of the courses. Then we shall all be able to see the context of what their sudents are being taught.

Follow up

A brief report of this matter has appeared in Times Higher Education. In a statement, the University of Westminster says “its research into Chinese medicine is following the lead of “top research institutions”. I’m not aware of anyhting quite like this from anywhere else. In any case, Westminster should be able to think for themselves.