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The National Cancer Institute on Acupuncture- A travesty!

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 4, 2009

Via the never tiring James Randi we get our attention directed to the acupuncture section in the National Cancer Institute’s  (NCI), a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, section on acupuncture. You may head over to the JREF entry to get Randi’s story. My concern in this entry is along the same lines, to go over the Q&A section on acupuncture and how appallingly credulously the NCI is reporting on acupuncture, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence that it does anything that it purports to do!

If you agree with me, I invite everyone to write an e-mail to the NCI and express your indignation that the NCI is so clearly implying its acceptance of this most easily demonstrable form of woo. Here go the NCI’s Q&A about acupuncture.

1. What is acupuncture? Acupuncture applies needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments to certain places on the skin to cause a change in the physical functions of the body. The use of acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM is a medical system that has been used for thousands of years to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease.

Acupuncture is based on the belief that qi (vital energy) flows through the body along a network of paths, called meridians. Qi is said to affect a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical condition. According to TCM, qi has two forces, yin and yang. Yin and yang are opposite forces that work together to form a whole. The forces of yin and yang depend on each other and are made from each other in an unending cycle, such as hot and cold, day and night, and health and disease. Nothing is ever all yin or all yang, both exist in all things, including people. Many of the major organs of the body are believed to be yin-yang pairs that must be in balance to be healthy. When a person’s yin and yang are not in balance, qi can become blocked. Blocked qi causes pain, illness, or other health problems. TCM uses acupuncture, diet, herbal therapy, meditation, physical exercise, and massage to restore health by unblocking qi and correcting the balance of yin and yang within the person.

According to TCM, qi can be unblocked by using acupuncture at certain places on the skin, called acupoints. Acupoints are places where the meridians come to the surface of the body. There are more than 2,000 acupoints on the human body, with specific acupoints for each condition being treated.

From the very first sentence it is clear the the NCI has no intention of providing the scientific version of the acupuncture fable, but it intends to stick with the politically correct version of disregarding the science and not coming off as, dare I say, scientific? I challenge the NCI to provide the scientific evidence that shows that acupuncture causes a change in the physical functions of the body, beyond being poked with a steel needle! In fact, I can show that using acupuncture is no different from sham acupuncture which doesn’t even penetrate the skin! Check out my Acupuncture section on my Important Studies page. Not all inclusive by any means, but quite telling.

The other two paragraphs are a concise summary of what acupuncture purports to be, but where is any mentioning of the evidence to back up such claims? Shouldn’t we expect at least a token “no scientific evidence exists to support this idea” sentence on the NCI’s website?

2. What is the history of the discovery and use of acupuncture as a complementary and alternative treatment for cancer?

The oldest medical book known, written in China 4000 years ago, describes the use of acupuncture to treat medical problems. The use of the treatment spread to other Asian countries and to other regions of the world, including to Europe by the 1700s. In the United States, acupuncture has been used for about 200 years.

Research on acupuncture began in the United States in 1976. Twenty years later, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the acupuncture needle as a medical device. Many illnesses are treated with acupuncture, but it is used mainly to control pain, including pain in cancer patients. Its primary use in cancer patients has been as an addition to conventional (standard) therapy.

Again, I challenge the folks at NCI to provide the evidence that “many illnesses are treated with acupuncture”. Which illnesses are successfully treated with it? Dare I say none? Why is the NCI not mentioning that acupuncture is virtually indistinguishable from placebo? That it is virtually the placebo effect in action? Why this deafening silence? This is a government sponsored, read our tax dollars sponsored, website that’s supposed to be one of the premiere  stops for cancer information, and this is the sort of nonsense they have up there? Disappointing, very disappointing!

3. What is the theory behind the claim that acupuncture is useful in treating cancer? Acupuncture may cause physical responses in nerves cells, the pituitary gland, and parts of the brain. These responses can cause the body to release proteins, hormones, and brain chemicals that control a number of body functions. It is proposed that, by these actions, acupuncture affects blood pressure and body temperature, boosts immune system activity, and causes the body’s natural painkillers, such as endorphins, to be released.

May do this, may do that. I call bullshit. In question 1 they went over the Qi, yin-yang version, and here they start blabbering about proteins, hormones, endorphins etc etc. And they have the audacity to use the phrase “boost the immune system” in here? How preposterous is that?

5. Have any preclinical (laboratory or animal) studies been conducted using acupuncture? Scientific studies on the use of acupuncture to treat cancer and side effects of cancer began only recently. Laboratory and animal studies suggest that acupuncture can reduce vomiting caused by chemotherapy and may help the immune system be stronger during chemotherapy.

Oh stop your weaseling will you? There is no need to refer to animal studies, or preclinical studies, there are many double-blind, randomized clinical trials,  in real humans that one can refer too. Again, I challenge the folks at NCI to provide us with the studies that show that acupuncture may “help the immune system be stronger during chemotherapy.” You wanna bet that no study the purports to show this will pass the weakest of smell tests?

6. Have any clinical trials (research studies with people) of acupuncture been conducted? Most studies of the use of acupuncture in cancer patients have been done in China. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began evaluating the safety and effectiveness of acupuncture as a complementary and alternative therapy.

  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on the immune system Human studies on the effect of acupuncture on the immune system of cancer patients showed that it improved immune system response.
  • In clinical studies, acupuncture reduced the amount of pain in some cancer patients. In one study, most of the patients treated with acupuncture were able to stop taking drugs for pain relief or to take smaller doses. The findings from these studies are not considered strong, however, because of weaknesses in study design and size. Studies using strict scientific methods are needed to prove how acupuncture affects pain.
  • The strongest evidence of the effect of acupuncture has come from clinical trials on the use of acupuncture to relieve nausea and vomiting. Several types of clinical trials using different acupuncture methods showed acupuncture reduced nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, surgery, and morning sickness. It appears to be more effective in preventing vomiting than in reducing nausea.
  • Clinical trials are studying the effects of acupuncture on cancer and symptoms caused by cancer treatment, including weight loss, cough, chest pain, fever, anxiety, depression, night sweats, hot flashes, dry mouth, speech problems, and fluid in the arms or legs. Studies have shown that, for many patients, treatment with acupuncture either relieves symptoms or keeps them from getting worse.

Yeah, yeah sure. Links please!  Citations please so we may look at all these great studies. The point that NCI doesn’t seem to get, or is willingy refusing to accept, is not if it “reduced pain is some patients”. The point is this: did it perform better than placebo? Better than sham acupuncture? How weakly designed were these studies?  Studies using strict scientific methods have been performed and shown it not to work better than placebo. Need I direct people to my Important Studies page again? Who is writing these answers for the NCI, Jenny McCarthy?

7. Have any side effects or risks been reported from acupuncture? There have been few complications reported. Problems are caused by using needles that are not sterile (free of germs) and from placing the needle in the wrong place, movement of the patient, or a defect in the needle. Problems include soreness and pain during treatment; feeling tired, lightheaded, or sleepy; and infections. Because chemotherapy and radiation therapy weaken the body’s immune system, a strict clean needle method must be used when acupuncture treatment is given to cancer patients. It is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner who uses a new set of disposable (single-use) needles for each patient.

I guess this is fairly correct, unless you take these into account obviously. I’d say death is a pretty important side effect, no?

8. Is acupuncture approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a cancer treatment in the United States?

The FDA approved acupuncture needles for use by licensed practitioners in 1996. The FDA requires that sterile, nontoxic needles be used and that they be labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.

THEY’RE NOT EVEN ANSWERING THEIR OWN QUESTION! The question was not about the needles. It was asking if the FDA has approved acupuncture for use as a cancer treatment. That about says it all. Spineless cowardice and refusal to call a cow, a cow! NCI you fail. F !

NIH Commits $60 Million to Autism Research

Posted in News by Skepdude on April 30, 2009

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will commit roughly $60 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to support autism research and meet objectives set forth earlier this year by a federal advisory committee. The Request for Applications is the largest funding opportunity for research on autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to date and, combined with other ARRA initiatives, represents a surge in NIH’s commitment to finding the causes and treatments for autism.

Four grant announcements, sharing a single title, “Research to Address the Heterogeneity in Autism Spectrum Disorders,” will use different funding mechanisms to support a range of research topics over the next two years. Examples of research topics include developing and testing diagnostic screening tools for different populations; assessing risk from prenatal or early life exposures; initiating clinical trials to test early interventions; or adapting existing, effective pediatric treatments for older children, teens, and adults with ASD.

A full listing of possible study topics is available in the grant announcement listing in the NIH Guide ( While few trials can be completed in two years, ARRA funds will be important for jumpstarting projects and building the infrastructure or foundation for longer-term autism research efforts.