Corrected and searchable version of Google books edition

Latest Tweets

We have listed many reasons hear why you should never trust Boots.  Here are the previous ones.

This post is about a "functional food".  That is about something a bit more serious than homeopathy, though I’ll return to that standing joke in the follow-up, because of Boots’ latest shocking admission..

Alternative medicine advocates love to blame Big Pharma for every criticism of magic medicine.  In contrast, people like me, Ben Goldacre and a host of others have often pointed out that the differences seem to get ever smaller between the huge Alternative industry (about $60 billion per year), and the even huger regular pharmaceutical industry (around$600 billion per year),

Boots are as good an example as any.  While representing themselves as ethical pharmacists, they seem to have no compunction at all in highly deceptive advertising of medicines and supplements which are utterly useless rip-offs.

The easiest way to make money is to sell something that is alleged to cure a common, but ill-defined problem, that has a lot of spontaneous variability.. Like stress, for example.

The Times carried a piece Is Boots’s new Lactium pill the solution to stress?. Needless to say the question wasn’t answered.  It was more like an infomercial than serious journalism.  Here is what Boots say.

 What does it do? This product contains Lactium, a unique ingredient which is proven to help with the stresses of every day life, helping you through a stressful day. Also contains B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C, which help to support a healthy immune system and energy levels. Why is it different? This one a day supplement contains the patented ingredient Lactium. All Boots vitamins and suppliers are checked to ensure they meet our high quality and safety standards.

So what is this "unique ingredient", Lactium?  It is a produced by digestion of cow’s milk with trypsin. It was patented in 1995 by the French company, Ingredia, It is now distributed in the USA and Canada by Pharmachem. which describes itself as “a leader in the nutraceutical industry.”  Drink a glass of milk and your digestive system will make it for you.  Free.  Boots charge you £4.99 for only seven capsules.

What’s the evidence?

The search doesn’t start well. A search of the medical literature with Pubmed for "lactium" produces no results at all. Search for "casein hydrolysate" gives quite a lot, but "casein hydrolysate AND stress" gives only seven, of which only one looks at effects in man, Messaoudi M, Lefranc-Millot C, Desor D, Demagny B, Bourdon L. Eur J Nutr. 2005.

There is a list of nineteen "studies" on the Pharmachem web site That is where Boots sent me when I asked about evidence, so let’s take a look.

Of the nineteen studies, most are just advertising slide shows or unpublished stuff. Two appear to be duplicated. There are only two proper published papers worth looking at, and one of these is in
rats not man.  The human paper first.

Paper 1  Effects of a Bovine Alpha S1-Casein Tryptic Hydrolysate (CTH) on Sleep Disorder in Japanese General Population, Zara de Saint-Hilaire, Michaël Messaoudi, Didier Desor and Toshinori Kobayashi [reprint here]   The authors come from France, Switzerland and Japan.

This paper was published in The Open Sleep Journal, 2009, 2, 26-32, one of 200 or so open access journals published by Bentham Science Publishers.

It has to be one of the worst clinical trials that I’ve encountered.  It was conducted on 32 subjects, healthy Japanese men and women aged 25-40 and had reported sleeping disorders.  It was double blind and placebo controlled, so apart from the fact that only 12 of the 32 subjects were in the control group, what went wrong?

The results were assessed as subjective sleep quality using the Japanese Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index (PSQI-J).  This gave a total .score and seven component scores: sleep quality, sleep latency, sleep duration, habitual sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, use of sleeping medication, and daytime dysfunction.

In the results section we read, for total PSQI score

"As shown in Table 2, the Mann-Whitney U-test did not show significant differences between CTH [casein tryptic hydrolysate] and Placebo groups in PSQI-J total scores at D0 (U=85; NS), D14 (U=86.5; NS), D28 (U=98.5; NS) and D35 (U=99.5; NS)."

Then we read exactly similar statements for the seven component scores.  For example,. for Sleep Quality

As shown in Table 3, the Mann-Whitney U-test did not show significant differences between the sleep quality scores of CTH and Placebo groups at D0 (U=110.5; NS), D14 (U=108.5; NS), D28 (U=110; NS) and D35 (U=108.5; NS).

The discussion states

"The comparisons between the two groups with the test of Mann-Whitney did not show significant differences, probably because of the control product’s placebo effect. Despite everything, the paired comparisons with the test of Wilcoxon show interesting effects of CTH on sleep disorders of the treated subjects. "

Aha, so those pesky controls are to blame! But despite this negative result the abstract of the paper says

"CTH significantly improves the PSQI total score of the treated subjects. It particularly improves the sleep quality after two weeks of treatment, decreases the sleep latency and the daytime dysfunction after four weeks of treatment.

Given the antistress properties of CTH, it seems possible to relate the detected improvement of sleep aspects to a reduction of stress following its’ chronic administration."

So there seems to be a direct contradiction between the actual results and the announced outcome of the trial. How could this happen?  The way that the results are presented make it hard to
tell.  As far as I can tell, the answer is that, having failed to find evidence of real differences between CTH and placebo, the authors gave up on the placebo control and looked simply at the change
from the day 0 basleine values within the CTH group and, separately, within the placebo group.  Some of these differences did pass statistical significance but if you analyse it
that way. there is no point in having a control group at all.

How on earth did such a poor paper get published in a peer-reviewed journal?  One answer is that there are now so many peer-reviewed journals, that just about any paper, however poor, can get published
in some journal that describes itself as ‘peer-reviewed’.  At the lower end of the status hierarchy, the system is simply broken.

Bentham Science Publishers are the publishers of the The Open Sleep Journal. (pity they saw fit to hijack the name of UCL’s spiritual founder, Jeremy Bentham). They publish 92 online and print journals, 200 plus open access journals, and related print/online book series. This publsher has a less than perfect reputation.  There can be no scientist of any age or reputation who hasn’t had dozens of emails begging them to become editors of one or other of their journals or to write something for them. They have been described as a "pyramid scheme” for open access.  It seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry has been asked.  They have been described under the heading Black sheep among Open Access Journals and Publishers.  More background can be found at Open Access News..

Most telling of all, a spoof paper was sent to a Bentham journal, The Open Information Science Journal.  . There is a good account of the episode the New Scientist, under the title “CRAP paper accepted by journal”.  It was the initiative if a graduate student at Cornell University. After getting emails from Bentham, he said “”It really painted a picture of vanity publishing”. The spoof paper was computer-generated rubbish, but it was accepted anyway, without comment.  Not only did it appear that is was never reviewed but the editors even failed to notice that the authors said the paper came from the "Center for Research in Applied Phrenology", or CRAP.  .The publication fee was \$800, to be sent to a PO Box in the United Arab Emirates. Having made the point, the authors withdrew the paper.

Paper 5 in the list of nineteen stidies is also worth a look.  It’s about rats not humans but it is in a respectable journal The FASEB Journal Express Article doi:10.1096/fj.00-0685fje (Published online June 8, 2001) [reprint here].
Characterization of α-casozepine, a tryptic peptide from bovine αs1-casein with benzodiazepine-like activity. Laurent Miclo et al.

This paper provides the basis for the claim that digested milk has an action like the benzodiazepine class of drugs, which includes diazepam (Valium).  The milk hydrolysate, lactium was tested in rats and found to have some activity in tests that are alleged to measure effects on anxiety (I haven’t looked closely at the data, since the claims relate to humans)..  The milk protein, bovine αS1 casein contains 214 amino acids.  One of the many products of its digestion is a 10-amino-acid fragment (residues 91 -100) known as α-casozepine and this is the only product that was found to have an affinity for the γ-amino-butyric acid (GABA) type A receptors, which is where benzodiazepines are thought to act.  There are a few snags with this idea.

• The affinity of α-casozepine peptide had 10,000-fold lower affinity for the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA than did diazepam, whereas allegedly the peptide was 10-fold more potent than diazepam in one of the rat tests.
• The is no statement anywhere of how much of the α-casozepine peptide is present in the stuff sold my Boots, or whether it can be absorbed
• And if digested milk did act like diazepam, it should clearly be callled a drug not a food.

Here is what I make of it.

Does it relieve stress?  The evidence that it works any better than drinking a glass of milk is negligible. Tha advertising is grossly misleading and the price is extortionate.

Corruption of science.  There is a more interesting aspect than that though.  The case of lactium isn’t quite like the regular sort of alternative medicine scam.  It isn’t inherently absurd, like homeopathy.  The science isn’t the sort of ridiculous pseudo-scientific ramblings of magic medicine advocates who pretend it is all quantum theory The papers cited here are real papers, using real instruments and published in real journals,

What is interesting about that is that they show very clearly the corruption of real science that occurs at its fringes,  This is science in the service of the dairy industry and in the service of the vast supplements industry.  These are people who want to sell you a supplement for everything.

Medical claims are made for supplements, yet loopholes in the law are exploited to maintain that they are foods not drugs.  The law and the companies that exploit it are deeply dishonest.  That’s bad enough. but the real tragedy is when science itself is corrupted in the service of sales.

Big Pharma and the alternative industry. Nowhere is the slose alliance between Big Pharma and the alternative medicine industry more obvious than in the supplement and nutriceutical markets. Often the same companies run both. Their aim is to sell you thinks that you don’t need, for conditions that you may well not have, and to lighten your wallet in the process. Don’t believe for a moment that the dark-suited executives give a bugger about your health. You are a market to be exploited.

If you doubt that, look from time to time at one of the nutraceutical industry web sites, like nutraingredients.com. They even have a bit to say about lactium.  They are particularly amusing at the moment because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has had the temerity to demand that when health claims are made for foods, there is actually some small element of truth in the claims.  The level of righteous indignation caused in the young food industry executives at the thought that they might have to tell the truth is everywhere to see. For example, try Life in a European health claims wasteland.  Or, more relevant to Lactium, Opportunity remains in dairy bioactives despite departures. Here’s
a quotation from that one.

“Tage Affertsholt, managing partner at 3A Business Consulting, told NutraIngredients.com that the feedback from industry is that the very restrictive approach to health claims adopted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will hamper growth potential.”

“Affertsholt said: “Some companies are giving up and leaving the game to concentrate on more traditional dairy ingredients.”

Science and government policy

It may not have escaped your notice that the sort of low grade, corrupted, fringe science described here, is precisely the sort that is being encouraged by government policies. You are expected to get lots of publications, so never mind the details, just churn ’em out;  The hundreds of new journals that have been created will allow you to get as meny peer-reviwed publications as you want without too much fuss, and you can very easily put an editorship of one of them on your CV when you fill in that bit about indicators of esteem.  The box tickers in HR will never know that it’s a mickey mouse journal.

Follow-up

Boots own up to selling crap

Although this post was nothing to do with joke subjects like homeopathy, it isn’t possible to write about Boots without mentioning the performance of their  professional standards director, Paul Bennett, when he appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee for Science and Technology..  This committee was holding an “evidence check” session on homeopathy (it’s nothing short of surreal that this should be happening in 2009, uh?).  The video can be seen here, and an uncorrected transcript.   It is quite fun in places.  You can also read the written evidence that was submitted.

Even the Daily Mail didn’t misss this one. Fioana Macrae wrote Boots boss admits they sell homeopathic remedies ‘because they’re popular, not because they work’

“It could go down as a Boot in Mouth moment.

Yesterday, the company that boasts shelf upon shelf of arnica, St John’s wort, flower remedies and calendula cream admitted that homeopathy doesn’t necessarily work.

But it does sell. Which according to Paul Bennett, the man from Boots, is why the pharmacy chain stocks such products in the first place.

Mr Bennett, professional standards director for Boots, told a committee of MPs that there was no medical evidence that homeopathic pills and potions work.

‘There is certainly a consumer demand for these products,’ he said. ‘I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious.

‘It is about consumer choice for us and a large number of our customers believe they are efficacious.’

His declaration recalls Gerald Ratner’s infamous admission in 1991 that one of the gifts sold by his chain of jewellers was ‘total crap’.”

The Times noticed too, with Boots ‘labels homeopathy as effective despite lack of evidence‘.

Now you know that you can’t trust Boots. You heard it from the mouth of their professional standards director.

A commentary on the meeting by a clinical scientist summed up Bennett’s contribution thus

"Paul Bennett from Boots had to admit that there was no evidence, but regaled the committee with the mealy-mouthed flannel about customer choice that we have come to expect from his amoral employer."

Well said

The third session of the Scitech evidence check can be seen here, and the uncorrected transcript is here.  It is, in a grim way, pure comedy gold, More of that later.

Now back to the Ed Biz, for a moment.  An article in Times Higher Education last week caused something of a stir.

V-cs’ candid views slip out online. 2 July 2009 By Zöe Corbyn
Prematurely released paper reveals fears of staff revolution and desire to cash in, writes Zöe Corbyn

The article refers to a paper that appeared on the web site of the journal Higher Education Quarterly. It is Perspectives of UK Vice-Chancellors on Leading Universities in a Knowledge-Based Economy by Lynn Bosetti, University of Calgary, and Keith Walker, University of Saskatchewan. The paper quotes ten different university vice-chancellors (presidents) of UK universities. Some of the comments caused quite a stir when they were quoted anonymously in an article in Times Higher Education. But the paper soon vanished and still has not reappeared. A version that lacks some of the names is expected to appear soon. The original uncensored version has now appeared on Wikileaks. Its source is no great mystery since it was available to the public for a short time.  It seems a pity if vice-chancellors want to hide their views, so here are a few quotations from the original version.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Colin Lucas, cautions:

“One of the greatest distortions is this sense that the only thing that universities are for, is to drive the economy. The core mission of universities is threatened by a narrow value system.”

Steven Schwartz was vice-chancellor of Brunel University until February 2006 when he became Vice Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He’s quoted as saying

We all know that education is a commodity that can be bought and sold, often at a very high price. So universities are busy doing that – charging students a large amount of money to study in England because it is a popular destination. Branding and marketing take the font seat and education is in the back. (S. Schwartz, Brunel University)

Reflecting on the traditional role of the university, the Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford, Colin Lucas, is concerned that

“commodification threatens to destroy not only scholarly democracy but civilisation itself.”

“The vice-chancellor needs to have a network of people involved in ‘intelligence gathering’ to be able to swiftly deal with ‘even the faintest hint of a revolution’ (S. Schwartz, Brunel University)”

That sounds a bit like the secret police and their network of informers. Hardly a good way to get the loyalty of your staff.

“you have to lead with flow and authority.You can never be out of touch with what faculty are thinking . . . if in the end faculty don’t follow you, it isn’t because they are stupid, it’s because you are out of touch’ (S. Schwartz)”

And that seems to say that you need to know how faculty think, not in order to listen to their views, but only to know how to beat them. Perhaps it has never occurred to Steven Schwartz that he might, just occasionally, be wrong?

Drummond Bone succeeded Howard Newby (of whom more here) as vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. he also seems to regard the drive to corporatisation of univeristies as a war against his own staff.

“You need to start by setting the agenda for change, then you have to look at who is going to be a driver or champion of that change, who is going to be a passenger and who, quite frankly, is going to stand against it’ (J. Drummond Bone)”.

Steven Schwartz again.

“we filled our senior management positions with people who had never worked in universities before. The HR [human relations] person came from mining, another from banking. It’s probably made a big difference to Brunel and its ability to move, in that people aren’t weighted down with a lot of public service type history.”

This attitude seems to me to be at the heart of the problem. it is based on a mistaken idea of what it is that gives a university a good reputation. The reputation, at least in academia, is the sum of the reputations of eminent people who work there, Physiologists will think of Bernard Katz and Andrew Huxley. Pharmacologists will think of Heinz Schild and James Black, People in English literature may never have heard of them, but they will think of John Sutherland and Rosemary Ashton, Each of them gives UCL a bit of reflected glory..But nobody will think about our Public Relations attempts at corporate image building. The only way to have a great university is to have great people doing the research and teaching. Anything that makes a university unattractive to them will, in the long run, harm the place. And one thing that makes a university unattractive is the perception that it is run by people who view it as a business, and who know nothing about what makes the place great. The sort of people whom Steven Schwartz seems to have gone out of his way to employ.

I was asked recently by the head of media relations to answer some questions about UCL’s attempts to build its “corporate identity” (nice to be asked, for a change). My answer was that I though they probably did more harm than good. The reason for saying that is that they are, only too often, downright embarrassing. I’ve mentioned the examples of ‘sustainable degrees‘, the concordat fiasco and ‘research days‘. And the new-age junk forced on our research staff by Human Resources is acutely embarrassing. Luckily for UCL, all universities have pursued this corporate path, so there is nowhere to run to,

The general public, having lived through the Blair era, is able to detect vacuous spin when it hears it. And there is no shortage of that in universities now. The aim of science is to discover truth. The aim of PR is to disguise truth, They are utterly incompatible. In the words of the “unrepentant capitalist” Luke Johnson, in the Financial Times,

“I have radically downsized HR in several companies I have run, and business has gone all the better for it.”

Another way to dismepower academics Steven Schwartz, with his spy network, is quite excessively conspiritorial. There is a much easier way to do it, You have a consultation. You hold open “town meetings”. The opposition then reveal themselves. Having taken the precaution of neutering the academic board, you are under no obligation to take the slightest notice of what anyone else says, and public humiliation of opponents will ensure there aren’t too many of them. I have seen this plan in action. It works rather well, in the short run.   In the long run, though, academics lose morale, loyalty and altruism when treated in that way. Vice-chancellors who behave like that are bringing their institution into disrepute.

This was poeted from the train to Edinburgh,where I’ll be giving the Paton lecture, on a related topics.

Follow-up

The modified paper has now been published in Higher Education Quarterly. And, guess what, Steven Schwartz’s name is not mentioned in it.

This advertisement has to be one of the sneakiest bits of spin that I’ve seen in a while. It appeared in today’s Guardian. And a lot more people will see it than will look at the homeopathic nonsense on the Boots ‘education’ site.

What on earth does it mean? One interpretation could be this. We can’t make false claims for Vitamin(s) B in print, but your Boots Pharmacy Team will be happy to do so in private. OK gang, let’s find out. Get out there and ask them. I’ll be happy to post the answers you get (one of those little mp3 recorders is useful).

The Boots web site isn’t much better. Their Vitality Overview says

“The following vitamins and supplements are important for vitality..
B Vitamins
Ginkgo biloba
Ginseng
Iron
Magnesium
Vitamin C”

Needless to say “vitality” isn’t defined and there is the slightest reason to think that any of these things help the “energy level” of any person on a normal diet.

Sting number 1

I went into a large branch of Boots and asked to speak to a pharmacist. This what ensued (BP= Boots Pharmacist).

DC. My eye was caught by your advertisement. I’m pretty healthy for my age but I do get very tired sometimes and it says “ask your Boots pharmacy team, so what can you recommend?”

BP. “Well basically it helps release energy from your cells so you’ll feel more energetic if you have enough vitamin B in your, eh, blood system”

DC. “Ah, I see, I’ll feel more energetic?”

BP. “yes you’ll feel more energetic because it releases the energy from the cells ”

DC. “which vitamin B does that?”

BP. “It’s a complex. it has all the vitamins in it.”

DC. “So which one is it that makes you feel more energetic?”

BP. “Vitamin B”

DC. “All of them? ”

BP. “All of them. It’s mainly vitamin B12”

DC. “Vitamin B12. That makes you feel more energetic?”

BP. “Yes. B12 and B6.”

DC. “hmm B12 and B6. I wasn’t aware of that before so I’m a bit puzzled. I mean, vitamin B12. I thought that was for pernicious anaemia.”

At this point I think the pharmacist was getting a bit suspicious about all my questions (and spotted the recorder) and began to back off.

BP. “Not necessarily. You know its got [pause], basically what its [pause], if you have enough in your diet there’s no need to take an extra vitamin B.” . . .”This is really for people who are on the go and are, you know, unable to get fresh meals.”

Then the senior pharmacist (SP) was called and I repeated the question.

DC. “Will it give me extra energy? It says I should ask my Boots Pharmacy team about that.”

SP. “It may do, yes. It depends on your own body’s individual reaction to it.” . . . “To be honest I’m not the best person to ask about clinical data on it. If you have more detailed questions I can send them to head office”

At this point. I gave up. The first pharmacist ended up with reasonable advice, but only after she’d obviously become suspicious about all my questions (and spotted the recorder). The senior pharmacist just fudged it when asked a direct question. Initially, the ‘expert advice’ was pure gobbledygook. What does one make of it? The fact that I got the right answer in the end, one could argue, makes the first part worse rather than better. She knew the right answer, but didn’t give it straight away. Instead she talked a lot of nonsense in which two quite different meanings of the word ‘energy’ were confused in a way that is only too familiar in the supplement huckster business. I’m not impressed.

Sting number 2

An email enquiry to Boots customer service asked whether Vitamin B really helped ‘vitality’. It elicited this hilarious non-response (original spelling retained).

 Dear Mrs M*** Thank you for contacting us regarding an advertisement you have seen in relation to the benifits to vitamin C. Unfortunately as I am not medically trained I would be unable to provide you with advice on this particular product. I would however, advise that you contact our pharmacy team at your local store via the telephone directly. You’ll find that they will be more than happy to help you further.

Aha, so the Pharmacy Team are medically-trained?