$2.5 billion spent, no alternative cures found
BETHESDA, Md. – Ten years ago the government set out to test herbal and other alternative health remedies to find the ones that work. After spending $2.5 billion, the disappointing answer seems to be that almost none of them do.
Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.
As for therapies, acupuncture has been shown to help certain conditions, and yoga, massage, meditation and other relaxation methods may relieve symptoms like pain, anxiety and fatigue.
However, the government also is funding studies of purported energy fields, distance healing and other approaches that have little if any biological plausibility or scientific evidence.
Taxpayers are bankrolling studies of whether pressing various spots on your head can help with weight loss, whether brain waves emitted from a special “master” can help break cocaine addiction, and whether wearing magnets can help the painful wrist problem, carpal tunnel syndrome.
The acupressure weight-loss technique won a $2 million grant even though a small trial of it on 60 people found no statistically significant benefit — only an encouraging trend that could have occurred by chance. The researcher says the pilot study was just to see if the technique was feasible.
“You expect scientific thinking” at a federal science agency, said R. Barker Bausell, author of “Snake Oil Science” and a research methods expert at the University of Maryland, one of the agency’s top-funded research sites. “It’s become politically correct to investigate nonsense.”
Many scientists say that unconventional treatments hold promise and deserve serious study, but that the federal center needs to be more skeptical and selective.
“There’s not all the money in the world and you have to choose” what most deserves tax support, said Barrie Cassileth, integrative medicine chief at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
“Many of the studies that have been funded I would not have funded because they seem irrational and foolish — studies on distant healing by prayer and energy healing, studies that are based on precepts and ideas that are contrary to what is known in terms of human physiology and disease,” she said.