May 29, 2010

One of the big health trends these days is antioxidants. I’m always coming across articles and advertisements about how certain foods are rich in antioxidants and how important it is to buy their products made with acai berries or some other exotic ingredient, or even better an expensive antioxidant supplement, to protect against cancer, heart disease, and just about every other malady. Are they really all they’re cracked up to be? Read the rest of this entry »

Scientific Literacy

May 27, 2010

There’s an excellent post at Neurologica about the challenges those of us advocating science and rationale thought are up against. It’s hard to make a reasoned argument using scientific evidence when your audience doesn’t understand science, doesn’t want to understand it, and is more likely to trust what an acquaintance says than scientific evidence.

I’m a bit late with my own post this week, but I’ll try to have something up by the weekend.

What does “toxic” mean?

May 19, 2010

Frequently we hear claims about how certain chemicals are “toxic”, or how certain products contain only “non-toxic” ingredients. Just what do these claims mean, and are they accurate?

In my opinion “toxic” is a highly misused word, particularly in the media. Common usage implies that certain chemicals are always toxic, while other chemicals are “safe”. In reality, essentially every chemical is toxic at some point; even drinking too much water has been associated with kidney damage. Toxicity is dependent not just on the chemical, but on how much a person is exposed to (or, more specifically, how much reaches the part of the body where it has its effects). If you’re going to classify chemicals as being either “toxic” or “non-toxic” then you have to consider whether the dose that someone could be exposed to is actually high enough to produce a toxic effect. Read the rest of this entry »

Funding for Non-Profitable Drugs

May 14, 2010

A recent paper showing some (very preliminary) promising results for the treatment of brain tumours with dichloroacetate (DCA) has stirred up a bit of debate about the funding of drug trials. The issue here is that DCA is a cheap, non-patentable drug (though the researchers are trying to patent its use as a cancer treatment). As a result, the research group studying its cancer application have had difficulty obtaining funding, since the likelihood of anyone getting the money back is negligible. The cost of getting a drug to the stage where agencies such as FDA approve its use is huge; a 2002 study estimated the cost at over $800 million, and it is likely higher now. No corporation is going to put up that sort of money (for something that hasn’t even been conclusively shown to work) without getting a return on the investment.

I’m not going to comment on whether this treatment is likely to be a good one or whether it might have applications beyond a specific type of brain tumour – cancer treatment is way outside my area of expertise (Update – there’s a post from this angle at Science-Based Medicine). The research group does seem to be legitimate; in fact, when their first in vitro study showed some promising effects a lot of quacks and snake-oil salesmen immediately started selling DCA to cancer patients, Dr. Michelakis, the lead researcher, came out pretty strongly against the quacks.

My interest is more in how we (as a society) can deal with these types of situation. Read the rest of this entry »

9 Anti-Vaccine Myths Demolished

May 7, 2010

A “naturopathic doctor” (how do they get away with calling themselves doctors?) recently posted what he thought were “9 questions that stump every pro-vaccine advocate“. The rebuttal at Science-Based Medicine demonstrates just how clueless this naturopath is, and is well worth reading.

Can We Trust Industry-Funded Science?

May 5, 2010

Whether it is tests on drug safety and efficacy by drug companies or environmental studies by oil companies, there is a (perhaps understandable) tendency to mistrust the results of science funded by major corporations with a vested interest in the results. Should we automatically assume that studies funded by industry are biased, or is there good science being done?

There are two major reasons why a major corporation will fund a study:

  1. They have to. For example, a pharmaceutical company can not put a new drug on the market without first doing extensive testing to show that it has a beneficial effect and is “safe” (or at least that any harmful side effects are outweighed by the beneficial effects). This testing costs on the order of 100 million dollars or more, so obviously no one else is going to pay to have it done. Nor should anyone else be responsible – if a company wants to market a new product it makes sense that they should be the ones paying for the testing, and not taxpayers.
  2. The study is expected to benefit the corporation. This could be for something like regulations which are believed to be unnecessarily restrictive; for example, many environmental guidelines err on the side of conservatism when there are gaps in the knowledge about pollutants or environmental processes; funding science to address these gaps might cost the corporation less than complying with more stringent regulations.

In either case the corporation would obviously like to see favourable results from the science. How can we tell whether the science has been done properly, or has been influenced by the desires of the corporation?

Read the rest of this entry »