Milk and Parkinson’s

As the population has been getting older, there has been increased attention paid to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. These are diseases that cause a progressive loss of mental function (dementia), or problems with movement, such as tremors. The causes of these diseases are still relatively unknown, so there is a lot of public interest in studies that look at this. This week a paper was published that suggests there may be a link between high consumption of low fat dairy (particularly milk), and Parkinson’s. This was picked up by numerous media outlets, with predictable headlines. Continue reading

Eggs, cancer, and motivated reasoning

The following headline in the The Daily Express caught my attention this week:

“Ovarian cancer – could EGGS be the cause of disease? Vegan charity research REVEALED”

Express.co.uk 14th March 2017

The article goes on to explain that a Bristol based charity called Viva! Health has urged consumers not to eat eggs, claiming that one egg a week increases cancer risk by up to 70%. According to their own website, Viva! Health is a science-based health and nutrition charity, and being “science-based” you would expect them to have sufficient evidence to make a claim as eye-catching as the one above. So is this the case?food-eggs

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Using stem cells to treat cancer

There are many scam artists around nowadays proclaiming the benefits of their particular unproven stem cell therapy, for anything from curing cancer to making paralysed people walk again. It’s not surprising really; stem cells are a pool of cells in every organ that are almost eternally youthful and can regenerate themselves and all other cells in the organ. They sound almost magical. However, last year the FDA (the US Food and Drug Administration) had to move to crack down on these clinics, citing the of lack of evidence that any of them work and a number of serious complications reported following treatment. Complications including patients in Florida dying, a woman developing bone fragments in eyelids following a stem cell facelift, and another developing nasal tissue in her spine after a doctor promised to cure her paralysis with stem cells.

It is a field ripe for abuse partly because it is one with so much potential. Stem cells do have fascinating possible applications, and there is a lot of research going in to them at the moment. Unfortunately, most exposure people have with them is in science fiction or alternative medicine. Which is why it was very interesting to see a study published last week that underlined how much real potential this field of research has. The study used mice instead of humans, so is still at an early stage, but is very promising nonetheless. Continue reading

Does Nutella cause cancer?

nutellaOn a recent cycling trip in Canada, I ate an obscene amount of Nutella. It works as a great lunch, and dipping fresh bread in it is a delicious snack. When you are exercising all day every day, a tasty, spreadable, dippable energy source like this is extremely useful. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very unhealthy food, but despite this, I’m a fan.

Which is why I was surprised this week to see Ferrero (the makers of Nutella) defending their product against claims that it causes cancer. A quick internet search revealed the problem. As the Tech Times put it: “Nutella Can Cause Cancer, Study Warns”. The Huffington Post ran with: “Stores Are Pulling Nutella After Report Links It To Cancer”, while the Daily Mail asked “Could Nutella give you CANCER?”. So what is this all about, and should you stop eating Nutella? Continue reading

Conspiracy thinking and the US election

Shortly before the election in November a story did the rounds that claimed Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager, John Podesta, ran a child sex ring at a pizzeria in Washington DC. This was an extremely complex conspiracy theory that was based on the fact that Podesta had emailed the owner of the pizzeria regarding fundraising. And it gained a shocking amount of attention on the internet.

Think about that. Millions of people were willing to share this, and numerous other fake news stories and conspiracy theories online. In fact, one of the things that defined this election was the prevalence of such conspiracy theories. Presumably only a minority of people (one hopes) fell for stories as extreme as that above, but their presence in the discourse suggests that something larger has happened. The theories may be a symptom of something else, a change in the way that people think, and it seems that Donald Trump and the Brexiteers have tapped that change to great effect. Continue reading

What happens when we don’t publish clinical trials

The last blog I posted emphasised the importance of publishing all clinical trials. The story of Lorcainide is a stark warning of what happens when we don’t.

In 1980 a cardiologist in Nottingham named Alan Cowley carried out a small clinical trial of a drug called Lorcainide. It was known at the time that heart attacks could cause irregular heartbeats in patients (known as arrhythmia), and these arrhythmias often lead to early death. Lorcainide had been shown to suppress arrhythmia, so it made sense that patients who came to hospital with a heart attack should be treated with the drug. Cowley and his colleagues carried out a small trial with 95 patients, and tested them to see whether they were getting more or fewer arrhythmias. The drug worked, lowering the frequency of serious arrhythmia.

The doctors noticed something else however. Of the 48 patients on the drug, 9 had died, compared to only 1 patient on the placebo. This was a very small trial, so the doctors weren’t overly alarmed. It’s not surprising that 10 patients died in the study; these are patients who are presenting with heart attacks after all. It was just worrying that there was such an imbalance between the groups. The doctors chalked it up to bad luck, and viewed their trial as a success.

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Problems with clinical trials

Clinical trials are at the heart of our progress in medicine. If we have a new therapy, clinical trials tell us whether it is better than the current one. They measure outcomes, but also look out for side effects and unexpected consequences of taking the therapy. They are absolutely essential to our progress, and it is vital that they are carried out properly and transparently. Continue reading