Category Archives: Dr Malcolm Kendrick

I am a GP living in Macclesfield, having graduated from Aberdeen medical school many moons ago. This blog is my best effort at providing some balance to the increasingly strident healthcare lobby that seems intent on scaring everyone about almost everything. Is there a foodstuff that is safe to eat anymore? Is there any activity that does not cause cancer or heart disease? Sausages…..get thee behind me Satan.

British Society of Lifestyle Medicine Conference

On the weekend of the 1st July I am giving a talk at the British Lifestyle Conference in Bristol UK.

This is a great grassroots movement of people, and many doctors, who are trying to achieve a more holistic approach to health. I hope some of you can come along. Here is what the organiser, Dr Rob Lawson, has put together for a mention on my blog.

Vital optimism at work – and play.

Lifestyle Medicine has been shaped by the natural evolution of Medicine. It is an established approach that focuses on improving the health and wellbeing of individuals and populations. It combines the broad facets of modern healthcare practices with the deeper understanding of being human. In the 21st century it has never been more important as a concept. And that is to create a society and an environment, from cell to community, which nurtures healthy longevity.

It requires an understanding and an acknowledgement of the physical, emotional, environmental and social determinants of disease and wellbeing. Hence the LM practitioner will engage with us as patients and operate within a boundary of evidence-informed medicine. A boundary in which our ideas, values, mind-set and social context blend not only with the clinicians’ expertise but also with clinical research outcomes.

Importantly, Lifestyle Medicine has a wider responsibility to recognise upstream determinants of disease and to promote population health, to protect ecological health and to reduce health inequity. This requires a realistic team approach and recognition that not one discipline or profession alone can meet our health needs.

On 1st July 2017 in Bristol Dr Malcolm Kendrick will be joining other world renowned speakers in Bristol at the inaugural Conference of the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine, the Science and Art of healthy longevity, https://bslm.org.uk/event/vital-optimism/, to which you are warmly invited. If you have never heard him speak – this is your chance! No better way to spend a Saturday in July

Mike Cawdery – a tribute

It is not often you are passed such terrible news. But sadly, Mike Cawdery, a regular and highly impressive contributor to this blog, was murdered along with his wife, on the 26th of May.

‘The devastated family of an elderly couple murdered in their home on Friday say they are struggling to understand what has happened. Michael and Marjorie Cawdery, both aged 83, were the victims of a brutal knife attack leaving them both with fatal injuries.

A family spokesperson said: “The awful and incomprehensible events of Friday 26 May have deprived our family of two wonderful people Michael and Marjorie who were our father, mother, brother, sister and grandparents. “We thank the police for their prompt response and professional actions. We also thank everyone who has expressed sympathy in whatever way and offered help.”

Mr Cawdery, a retired veterinary surgeon who trained at Trinity College Dublin, and his wife Marjorie, were attacked in their home and died at the scene.’ http://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/belfast-news/marjorie-michael-cawdreys-family-say-13101196

I found out about this from his GP, who was kind enough to e-mail this news. He knew that Mike posted comments to this blog on a very regular basis, and he thought that I should know what had happened. Thank goodness, he did, otherwise I would have had no idea. I would have simply wondered why Mike Cawdery, our statistician par excellence, had fallen silent. [In truth, other people have since, e-mailed me with the news].

I never met him, I never spoke to him, but I believe that I – and other readers of this blog- knew him well. He seemed ferociously intelligent, and still driven to do what he thought was right. I felt he was an admirable man. Funny how the Internet brings people together into a ‘family’ that converses and argues and supports and occasionally falls out.

In the last month, Mike Cawdery posted 117 comments on the blog, all of them were worth reading. Here was one of his last ever posts.

‘May I plead with you all to keep a watch on the BMJ and to use their RAPID RESPONSE system just as one uses Dr Kendrick’s comment section. Many of the comments and references cited here are equally valid on some relevant editorials, news items and even reports. All one has to do is give name and rough address and answer a question or two. Open to all including doctors.

May I take this opportunity to suggest that any one, a patient, carer and particularly doctors as the ultimate carers sign up as “patient reviewers”. Interesting and gets patients and carers involved. Too long have patients been treated little better than pets (may be with less respect??). It is people like Dr Kendrick that have given patients an outlet to express their views and knowledge.’

At 83, he was still active, still getting involved, and still trying to make the world a better place. Mike, you will be missed, by us all.

What causes heart disease part XXVII

Lumen: The lumen of the artery is the hole in the middle that the blood flows through.

The artery wall: The artery wall is made up of three layers: Endothelium/intima, media and adventitia

The endothelium: Usually thought of as a single layer of endothelial cells than line the lumen of the artery. [The layer may be more than one cell thick]. This layer of endothelium acts as a barrier to blood, or anything in the blood, leaking from the lumen into the artery wall. There is a bit of space, sometime called the intima just under the endothelial cells.

The media: This layer is mostly made up smooth muscle cells and elastic tissue. The muscle can contract or relax, depending on circumstances

The adventitia: This outermost layer is mainly made up of collagen. It is very strong and keeps the artery in shape.

The atherosclerotic plaque: The areas of thickening and narrowing of arteries (in heart disease). These are usually found between the endothelium and the media – smooth muscle layer. They lie beneath the endothelium – within the artery wall itself. The area often referred to as the intimal layer of the artery.

The elevator pitch

Various people who work in business tell me of something called the ‘elevator sales pitch’. So-called, because of a (highly unlikely) situation whereby you find yourself in an elevator (which we in the UK call a lift) with a rich, famous, person. You have a short space of time to outline your idea to them, what it is, what it means, and why it is of value. They then hand over a hundred million dollars to invest in you, and your idea. Or something like that anyway.

Whilst the elevator pitch is clearly a mythical beast, the general point is reasonable. You should be able – or you should at least attempt – to condense your ideas into a very short space of time, before people get bored and walk away. Well, clearly I have miserably failed on this, as I am now writing part twenty-seven of my idea(s) on heart disease. In truth, I am planning on the elevator breaking down for about ten hours between floors to give me the time needed.

Recently, though, I have been speaking to a number of people who have successful careers in business, music, the arts and suchlike. I have been trying out my elevator pitch on them. Admittedly the elevator I am thinking of is in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, but I am trying. So, here goes. Doors close on the elevator. Me and Bill Gates…

Me. ‘Forget diet, forget cholesterol, the real cause of heart disease is blood clotting.’

Bill Gates looks at his watch. ‘You have one minute.’

Me. ‘Blood clots can form and stick to the inside of artery walls. They then get absorbed into the artery wall itself where, normally, they are cleared away by specialised white blood cells. But if blood clots keep forming rapidly, at the same point, or the blood clots are bigger and more difficult to shift when they form, they cannot be cleared away quickly enough and so end up stuck inside the artery wall. This leads to a build-up of blood clot residue, and remnants, in the artery wall itself. Which means that repeated episodes of clotting, over time, build into thickenings, and narrow the larger arteries, mainly in the heart and the neck, growing somewhat like tree rings. These areas of damage are usually called atherosclerotic plaques.

In time, the process of blood clotting, over a vulnerable area, leads to heart attacks and strokes as the final, fatal blood clot forms over an area of the artery that is already thickened and narrowed. In short, atherosclerotic plaques are the remnants of blood clots. Heart attacks and strokes are the end result of the same processes that caused plaques to form in the first place. Heart disease is a disease of abnormal blood clotting. It is as simple as that. The end.’

Ping. Elevator door opens and Bill Gates walks out.

Do you think he believed me? Of course not. Heart disease is caused by cholesterol, end of.

Bill Gates: ‘Who was that complete idiot in the lift, make sure he never gets the chance to speak to me again.

Man in black suit: ‘OK boss.’

I should point out that I have never spoken to Bill Gates, and almost certainly never will. I merely used his name as an example of someone that you might try to convince using an elevator sales pitch.

I also know that my sales pitch will just seem like the most complete nonsense to most people. How can I possibly claim that atherosclerotic plaques are blood clots, when no-one else in the entire world is saying it? Am I not simply a flat-Earther? Indeed, am I not a lonely flat-Earther baying at the moon. At least the moon currently passing overheard, to join all the other moons that clearly fall into a big basket on the other side of the Earth – to be returned from time to time by an enormous dung beetle.

I like to think not, because the ‘blood clotting’ hypothesis fits all known facts about cardiovascular disease. In fact, many people have proposed the ‘blood clotting theory’ of CVD over, what is now, hundreds of years. From Rokitansky to Duguid to Smith – and many more. Here, from a paper written in 1993 called ‘Fibrin as a factor in Atherosclerosis’, co-authored by Elspeth Smith.

[Just to first remind everyone that Fibrin is a critical element of blood clots (along with platelets). Fibrin is made up of short strings of a protein called fibrinogen. When the clotting system (clotting cascade) is activated, the end result is that fibrinogen is stuck together end to end, in order to create long sticky strands of fibrin that entangle themselves around the clot and bind it all together.]

After many years of neglect, the role of thrombosis in myocardial infarction is being reassessed. It is increasingly clear that all aspects of the haemostatic system are involved: not only in the acute occlusive event, but also in all stages of atherosclerotic plaque development from the initiation of atherogenesis to the expansion and growth of large plaques.

Infusion of recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (rt-PA) into healthy men with no evidence of thrombotic events or predisposing conditions elicited significant production of crosslinked fibrin fragment D-dimer. Thus, in apparently healthy human subjects there appears to be a significant amount of fibrin deposited within arteries, and this should give pause for thought about the possible relationship between clotting and atherosclerosis.

It also provides in vivo biochemical support for the numerous morphological studies in which mural fibrin and microthrombi have been observed adherent to both apparently normal intima and atherosclerotic lesions. It should be noted that these observations are based on the human and not just the animal model.

In 1852 Rokitansky discussed the “atheromatous process” (sic) and asked “In what consists the nature of the disease?” He suggests “The deposit is an endogenous product derived from the blood, and for the most part from the fibrin of the arterial blood”.

One hundred years later Duguid demonstrated fibrin within, and fibrin encrustation on fibrous plaques, and small fibrin deposits on the intima of apparently normal arteries. These observations have been amply confirmed but, regrettably, the emphasis on cholesterol and lipoproteins was so overwhelming that it was another 40 years before Duguid’s observations had a significant influence on epidemiological or intervention studies of haemostatic factors in coronary heart disease.

Unfortunately, since that paper was written the emphasis on cholesterol and lipoproteins has become even more overwhelming, and research into blood clotting and atherosclerosis has faded to almost nothing. It appears that the vast sums of money to be made from cholesterol lowering has completely distorted research into this area. All the funding, and all the international experts, have charged into the blind-alleyway that is the cholesterol hypothesis.

In a kind of supreme irony, in 1992 Pfizer were also travelling down the blood clotting route. I have (mentioned before) possibly the only remaining copy of a small booklet entitled ‘Pathologic Triggers New Insights into cardiovascular risk.’ And I quote:

‘Several features of mature plaques, such as their multi-layered patterns, suggests that platelet aggregation and thrombus formation are key elements in the progression of atherosclerosis. Platelets are also known to provide a rich source of growth factors, which can stimulate plaque development.

Given the insidious nature of atherosclerosis, it is vital to consider the role of platelets and thrombosis in the process, and the serious events that may be triggered once plaque are already present.’

Of course, this leaflet was promotional, for their product doxazosin. Doxazosin lowers blood pressure and also has effects on urinary retention. However, in this leaflet, they were trying to promote its effects on blood clotting factors. Basically, doxazosin reduces fibrinogen levels and plasminogen activator inhibitor – 1 (PAI-1). Plasminogen is activated by tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) which then becomes plasmin, an enzyme that slices fibrin apart, and breaks down blood clots. PAI-1 stops this happening, so makes clots more difficult to break down.

To quote, again.

‘These recent studies suggest that doxazosin may have a range of significant antithrombotic effects in many patients, in addition to its proven beneficial effects on hypertension and hyperlipidaemia. Following doxazosin treatment, a reduction of platelet aggregation and a tendency towards dissociation, together with a reduction in fibrinogen levels, might prevent excessive degrees of thrombosis at the site of vascular injury. In addition, reduced levels of PAI-1, and increased tPA capacity with doxazosin might stimulate fibrinolysis and early clot dissolution at these sites, and prevent the evolution of an acute coronary event.’

So there, couldn’t have put it better myself.

Then Pfizer bought Warner-Lambert, who made atorvastatin/Lipitor. The focus became Lipitor and lipids, lipids, lipids. Lo it came to pass that Pfizer never mentioned blood clotting ever again, lest it interfere with the LDL story. Pity really, because mighty Pfizer got it right in 1992. Smith got it right in 1993, Duguid got it right in the 1940s, and Rokitansky was right in 1852. Of course, there have been many others who got it right too. Many, sadly, lost to history.

At some point this, the blood clotting hypothesis, the correct hypothesis will win. Maybe that time will be now.

Postscript

I realise some people may still wonder (if they have not read what I have written before) how the blood clot ends up within the artery wall/beneath the endothelium.

The reason is as follows. If the endothelium is damaged, a clot will form, sitting on the inside of the arterial wall. Once the clot has stabilised, and been reduced in size by fibrinolysis, the remainder of the clot will be covered over by Endothelial Progenitor Cells (EPCs) that float around in the bloodstream and are attracted to areas of endothelial damage.

After a layer of EPCs has grown over the clot, and converted themselves into mature endothelial cells the blood clot will now, effectively, be sitting inside the artery wall. Underneath a new layer of endothelium. Thus, clot becomes plaque.

http://circ.ahajournals.org/content /92/5/1355.full

What causes heart disease part IV

I have entitled this little series ‘What causes heart disease?’ But I have been at pains to point out that you cannot possibly establish potential causes heart disease, until you are clear about the underlying process.

By this I mean you can say that smoking causes heart disease – and you would be right. You can also say that Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) causes heart disease – and you would also be right. You can say that type II diabetes causes heart disease – and you would be, guess what, right. You could say that obstructive sleep apnoea causes heart disease and you would be… right again. Steroids…right again. High levels of fibrinogen…right once more. Cushing’s disease…right. Depression… bang on the button.

But you have to be able to answer the question, how can these very different things lead to the same disease? Or, perhaps you are going to argue they all cause different diseases, that look exactly the same? If so we are doomed, as this would mean that there are a hundred different types of heart disease each with their own individual cause. (I believe this to be unlikely, and am not further discussing it as a possibility).

In short, you cannot simply go around stating that you have identified cause after cause, after cause after cause. Or you can, but it does not help in the slightest with understanding what is going on. It just becomes increasingly confusing. You must establish the process, or processes, that can link all of these potential causes together. Until you can answer this, you are basically just floundering about.

I spent thirty years floundering about in this unending kaleidoscope of risk factors before I decided that it was mission critical to work out what was the actual disease process underpinning CVD. In the end, it came down to this.

The four stage process

Heart disease – or the development of atherosclerotic plaques, followed by the final, fatal, blood clot – consists of four stages. These stages obviously overlap, and interact, and separating them out is a somewhat artificial process. However, I think a degree of separation is necessary for understanding. You can jumble them all around again afterwards.

I should also say that; in this particular blog, I am only going to look at the first stage of the four stage process. And the first stage is endothelial damage.

The endothelium

The endothelium is a single layer of cells that lines all arteries, and veins. At one time endothelial cells were believed to be essentially inert. They just sat there, lining the blood vessels, and not doing much. But, of course, these cells are gigantically, mind-bogglingly, complex.

However, for the sake of this discussion, I am only going to look at three aspects of endothelial cells.

  • Nitric oxide synthesis
  • What happens when endothelial cells are damaged
  • Tissue factor

Nitric oxide synthesis

A critical role of endothelial cells is to manufacture nitric oxide (NO). When it comes to CVD, this little molecule is absolutely key. First, it relaxes the smooth muscle in artery walls, causing them to relax, which opens up the surrounding artery. This then lowers blood pressure.

Within conventional medicine various ‘nitrates’ are given to people with angina, which opens up the coronary arteries, improves blood flow and the oxygen supply improves. The first of these to be discovered was nitro-glycerine. Renamed glyceryl tri-nitrate, and put into tablets to dissolve under the tongue.

NO is also a very powerful anticoagulant – it stops the blood clotting. This is clearly essential as you do not want clots forming on normal blood vessel walls, and when NO levels fall, accidental blood clotting becomes a real possibility.

Healthy endothelial cells produce lots of NO. Stressed and damaged endothelial cells do not. Which means if you have stressed or ‘dysfunctional’ endothelial cells, your arteries are narrower ‘constricted’ and the blood within them more likely to clot.

In recent years it has been recognised that damage to endothelial cells is an early marker of atherosclerosis, as made clear in this paper, entitled: ‘Endothelial dysfunction: the early predictor of atherosclerosis.’

‘Endothelial dysfunction, characterised by reduced NO bioavailability, is now recognised by many as an early, reversible precursor of atherosclerosis.’ 1

Which means that damaged, or dysfunctional, endothelial cells can be recognised by their failure to produce NO. On the flip side, if there is abundant NO in the body this seems, in reverse, to keep endothelial cells healthy.

There are some drugs, supplements, and activities, that can actually increase NO synthesis in endothelial cells, and also the rest of the body. Possibly the most powerful single factor that can do this is sunlight. As highlighted in this paper, where the rather snappy title actually says all that needs to be said: ‘Whole body UVA irradiation lowers systemic blood pressure by release of nitric oxide from intracutaneous photolabile nitric oxide derivates.2

Essentially, if you sunbathe, NO is released throughout the body, and your blood pressure drops (as your arteries open wider). Other studies have found many other major benefits of sun exposure on lung, breast, prostate and colo-rectal cancer, but that is a story for another day.

For now, the focus here is simple. Endothelial cells produce NO, this chemical is vital for CVD health. Any factor that reduces NO synthesis is unhealthy, any factor that increases NO synthesis will protect against CVD.

What happens when endothelial cells are damaged

I am not looking in any great detail here at how endothelial cells are damaged, although there are many, many, things that have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of endothelial cells. High blood sugar, low blood sugar, steroids, smoking, cocaine, SLE, Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), and suchlike.

Perhaps the single most important factor that can damage endothelial cells is this – biomechanical stress. By biochemical stress I mean turbulent blood flow, stretching and bending of the blood vessel, high shear stress, high blood pressure, rapid blood flow, points where the blood has to change direction violently.

Violent direction occurs where smaller arteries branch off from larger one e.g. where carotid arteries (that supply blood to be brain) branch from the aorta at the base of the neck. Such points are called bifurcations, and bifurcations are where the biggest and most ‘vulnerable’ atherosclerotic plaques are almost always to be found.

In reality, extreme biomechanical stress only takes place in the larger arteries in the body, where the pressure is high and there are great forces for the endothelium to deal with. A raging white water river. Place a pebble on the side of this maelstrom and it will soon be ripped off and dragged downstream. Veins and the arteries in your lungs, on the other hand, are more like the lazy rivers of East Anglia, slowly meandering along through flat fields.

It is almost certain that the massive difference in the biomechanical stress that endothelial cells have to deal with, in arteries, in comparison to veins and pulmonary blood vessels (the blood vessels in the lungs) fully explains why atherosclerotic plaques never develop in veins and never develop in the pulmonary blood vessels (blood vessels in the lungs). Despite that fact that these blood vessels are exposed to exactly the same ‘risk factors’ as the arteries.

Moving on. It is possible to do more than simply stress endothelial. They can simply be stripped off. If and when this does happen, not only is there no NO at that location, something else far more important comes into play….

Tissue factor

Sitting within all artery walls (and all vein walls too) is a substance called Tissue Factor (TF). It is by far the most powerful clotting agent known to nature. If you expose blood to it, a clot will immediately form, right on top.

This makes sense. If a large blood vessel is damaged, you will bleed to death very rapidly, unless a very strongly constructed blood clot forms right on top of the damaged area, to block the hole. Another point to mention is that TF triggers the ‘extrinsic’ clotting system which simply bypasses a large part of the blood clotting system. Clot right here, right now!

In truth, the system of blood clotting is incredibly complex, and I have not the slightest intention of covering it all here. Probably because I don’t fully understand it myself. However, at its simplest, blood clots consist of two key components. Platelets and fibrin.

Platelets are small ‘sticky’ cells. They are activated by exposure to Tissue Factor (TF), at which point they start clumping together to get the clot started. Whilst doing this they release about five hundred other substances that further activate the entire ‘clotting cascade.’ Then all hell breaks loose.

The end result of all of these clotting factors activating is that small strands of protein called fibrinogen are stuck together for form a long, very strong, string of protein called fibrin. This wraps round platelets, and anything else floating past, and binds everything together in a tight and very strong blood clot.

This clot then sticks very firmly to the site of damage, and grows, until all the damage is covered up. At which point the other five hundred factors that are designed to stop blood clots forming and/or getting too big, stop the clotting process in its tracks.

After the clotting process has been whipped into action, then brought to a halt, we have a blood clot stuck to the inside of the artery wall. Obviously if it grew too big it will have completely blocked the artery – resulting in a heart attack, or suchlike. Assuming, however, that it stopped growing, before completely blocking the artery. What then happens to it?

To be continued.

References:
1: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3721957/
2: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19797169

Study 329 – where the hell is the outrage?

To quote from the BMJ ‘No correction, no retraction, no apology, no comment…’

Study 329 was started in 1994 by Smith Kline Beecham, which shortly become part of the larger conglomerate Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK). Study 329 looked at the use of paroxetine, an anti-depressant, in adolescents with depression.

Following this study paroxetine was promoted and marketed heavily by GSK as demonstrating, in the words of GKS marketing materials: ‘REMARKABLE Efficacy and safety’. Over two million prescriptions were then written for children and adolescents in the US.

However, in 2002 the FDA considered study 329 to be a ‘failed trial.’ In 2003 the UK recommended that paroxetine should not be used in children and adolescents with depression because it increased the risk of self-harm and potentially suicidal behaviour.

In 2004 the FDA placed a black box warning on all antidepressants in adolescents and children stating that they increased the risk of suicidal thinking and suicidal behaviour in these groups. In 2012 GSK finally agreed to pay £2Bn for fraudulently promoting paroxetine.

But the story does not end here. A group of researchers, who had been heavily critical of this trial, finally managed to get hold of the raw data and carried out a re-analysis under the restoring invisible and abandoned trials (RIAT) initiative. Yes, this saga has been a long one.

The reanalysis was recently published in the BMJ with sadly predictable results. The primary conclusion was that ‘Neither paroxetine nor high dose imipramine showed efficacy for major depression in adolescents, and there was increase in harms in both groups.’

This is in stark contrast to the original trial results. When it was first published it appeared to demonstrate very clearly that paroxetine was both safe and effective in adolescents with depression. According to GSK it demonstrated ‘.remarkable efficacy and safety’ However, using exactly the same trial data, reanalysed by independent researchers, we now find that paroxetine was both useless and damaging.

So, what has been the consequences for those involved in the initial trial and the writing up thereof? For those who read the BMJ, you will know that I am now quoting verbatim here:

  • Despite subsequent FDA and MHRA warning about increased risks of suicidal thinking and behaviour and GSK receiving a record fine, partly for illegal off-label promotion of the drug, the original report has not been retracted or even had a correction
  • Academic and professional institutions have failed to publically address the many allegations of wrongdoing
  • None of the named authors had intervened to correct the record. An internal enquiry by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) concluded that no further action was necessary
  • Brown University remains silent over its involvement in the study. It refuses even to confirm or deny whether any investigation took place1

I will add to this that a co-author of study 329, Karen Wagner, named eight times in the 2011 US Department of Justice complaint against GSK, is currently the president elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry – whose journal, the JAACAP, is where the original study was published.

Taking stock. What do we have? A study was done, and published, demonstrating that paroxetine was safe and effective. The trial data were heavily promoted, resulting in millions of children and adolescents being prescribed paroxetine.

The reality is that this drug was completely ineffective and increased the risk of suicide (amongst other things). This has all been known for many years. The latest re-analysis simply confirms everyone’s worst fears.

So surely someone, somewhere, got punished? No they did not. Not only that, but the original published study has not even been retracted. It still sits in the medical database. A young and innocent researcher could come across it, and reference it, and use data from it to support a grant application for a study to use antidepressants in children.

If this were not all completely and absolutely one hundred per-cent fact, you might think we have a possible plot line for a dystopian novel here. A story of terrible corruption where large corporations can distort data through one hundred and eighty degrees, and get away with a fine. A world where bent researchers promote research that results in more children committing suicide, and then move on positions of greater power and authority – with no censure from anyone. To become presidents of major medical societies, for example.

Frankly I don’t think I would dare to write a novel with a plot so completely outrageous. Surely someone, somewhere, would be punished for this behaviour. Surely the paper would be retracted. Surely a co-author of such a study would not be in line for a prestigious position. Surely the public would rise up in outrage.

In truth, it seems, nothing is going to happen at all. I must dig out 1984 and read it again, just to depress myself even further.

1: BMJ 2015;351:h4629

Medicine – science or religion?

[Never admit that you are wrong]

Medicine has always occupied an often uncomfortable space between science and belief. I remember when I started medical school the Dean of the medical school welcomed us to the main lecture hall. He told us how wonderful it was that we had chosen to become doctors, and waffled on for a bit about how we were the chosen few. He finished his speech with these words, which etched themselves into my brain… ‘Welcome to the brotherhood.’

Of course the parallels between medicine and religion have always been obvious to anyone who has eyes to see. The patient consultation as confessional. The use of long latin words that the patient cannot understand. The rituals and incantations of medicine have clear parallels with religion. Or would that be the other way round. You could go on and on.

It is easy to understand why many aspects of medicine and religion mirror each other. Particularly if we look at one very important aspect of religion. Namely, protection against terrible things happening to you. Humans, once they became aware of their mortality, very rapidly felt the need for protection against an unpredictable and dangerous world. Earthquakes, storms, crop failures, plagues, early death… that type of thing.

Very early on, religious leaders realised the power and status you could command if you claimed to be able to understand why such terrible things happened. And, more importantly, how to stop them. Build a big temple, pray to a god, don’t shave your hair, sacrifice a pig, don’t eat pigs…. give the priests lots of money, and suchlike. The people, in turn, were extremely eager to do these ‘right’ things in order to feel a sense of protection, a removal of fear.

Of course, none of this actually stopped anything. But when terrible things still occurred it was because you (you sinner) didn’t pray in the right way, or someone else (a heretic) was deliberately praying the wrong way and causing bad things to happen. ‘Find the heretic in our midst and burn them.’ Or whatever. A good idea not to have ginger hair or a club foot at such times.

Over time, a million and one reasons were developed by clever priests to explain why, despite all the incantations, gifts, temples built, and sacrifices, bad things were not prevented. However, there was one reason that could never be countenanced. Namely that the priests were completely wrong, and had no idea what they were talking about. For, if the priests were wrong then…well then, terrible things just happened and there was nothing you could do to stop them.

How frightening is that. Thus, it was not just were the priests desperate to keep their power that kept their religion going, the people were equally desperate to believe that the priests knew what they were doing. It could be described as a conspiracy of the willing. ‘I will protect you. Yes, you will protect me.

It was usually only when plagues and earthquakes and lack of rain and suchlike went on for a prolonged period of time that the people rose up against the priesthood and bashed their skulls in. Usually to be replaced by the ‘new model priesthood’, with another bunch of newly discovered incantations. ‘The absolutely new true truth is revealed,’ rpt.

Then, luckily, along came science and we started to learn what caused bad things to happen in the first place. Earthquakes weren’t due to the displeasure of Gods. Infections were caused by viruses and bacteria and suchlike. More and more that used to be unknown, and terrifying, became explained and, at least in some cases, controlled.

As science advanced, and became the best way to explain the physical world medicine, which used to be a branch of the priesthood, moved towards becoming more scientific. However, one of the primary social drivers behind medicine remained ‘this is how the world works, and we can protect you from it’.

Thus, although in many ways, medicine became more scientific, it maintained of the key social functions previously carried out by religion. ‘We can stop bad things happening to you. You do not need to be frightened. If you do as we say’

This form of mutual dependency works extremely well when the medical profession really does know how to stop things happening, and the medical leaders know exactly what they are doing. However, there is a heavy price to be paid for establishing yourself in the position of ‘certainty’. A position of belief requirement.

Primarily, it becomes extremely difficult for you, or the rest of the brotherhood, to admit that you don’t know something? Or that things you have been telling people, or doing, are in fact useless or wrong. Because if you start doing that, you fear you may lose your hard won authority, control and respect. Equally, if patients no longer believe, or trust in you, or your advice, what then? Fear stalks the land. Metaphorical skull crushing looms.

This is why, if you are a patient who feels that your treatment has not worked as you were told it would, or should, you will not find an eager audience for your complaints within the medical profession. Equally if you question or refuse the sacrament, sorry treatment, your doctor is likely to become very angry with you.

Additionally, if a doctor cannot discover what is causing your symptoms, or they have no tests to diagnose you, you are likely to be told that there is nothing actually wrong with you. The medical profession cannot easily admit to ignorance. In such situations, the only explanation that can be countenanced is that ‘you are making it up.’ Unexplained symptoms become ‘somatisation’. Side effects from drugs, such as statins, are due to ‘nocebo’ effects.

A million reasons will be found as to why the treatment has not worked in your case. Or why you got worse. The only explanation that cannot be allowed is that the doctors are completely wrong, and do not know what they are talking about.

If you find a whole group of patients who feel that their condition is not being treated well, and you band together to get the medical profession to think again, you will run up against a brick wall. You will simply be written off as cranks, and dismissed. The priesthood does not take kindly to being exposed as wrong.

See under, treating thyroid patients like children.

Treating Thyroid patients like children

Here is an imagined, but not far off the truth, conversation between a doctor and a patient.

‘Why can’t I have T3 doctor? I feel so much better when I do?’

‘Because I say so, now go away.’

Nowadays doctors, at least when they are in training, are repeatedly told that they must NEVER be paternalistic. To do so will result in immediate censure. In the UK it is also a very rapid way of failing the GP entrance exams. We are told that we must explore the patients’ expectations, listen to their worries and fears, and work with them in partnership to lead to a therapeutic partnership…. or some such left wing bollocks. [Joke]

How exactly that fits within the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines is up for grabs. For those who don’t know, NICE decide on which drugs and interventions can be prescribed, or paid for, within the NHS. So you can explore expectations with your patient till the cows come home, only to find that you cannot prescribe what the patient wants, even requires. Even if it makes them feel much better and costs very little. Would you call this paternalism? Oxford entrance exam, discuss.

Don’t get me wrong, I think rationing is increasingly vital for healthcare provision, and at one point I supported NICE. I now realise how naïve and misguided I was…but that is a discussion for another day.

Where was I? Oh yes, T3. Most people have never heard of it. But I am willing to bet that if you have heard of it, and you are a patient, you will certainly know all about this particular hormone. You will definitely know about a thousand times as much as your GP, who may nod sagely when you mention T3. But frankly they are unlikely to have any idea what it is, or does.

To be honest, until about a year ago I had no real idea what T3 was either, but I have learned quite a lot since. Wikipedia states that: ‘The thyroid hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and its prohormone, thyroxine (T4), are tyrosine-based hormones produced by the thyroid gland that are primarily responsible for regulation of metabolism.’ I would like to draw your attention to the fact that, in Wikipedia, at least, T3 is mentioned before T4 – which makes it more important?

In reality, in a physiological sense at least, T4 comes before T3, in that T4 is produced almost exclusively by the thyroid gland in a ratio of about 17:1 T4 to T3. Once inside various tissues and organs T4 is then converted to T3, where it becomes the biologically active hormone.

Whichever does come first, it can be argued that T3 that is the key thyroid hormone, because T4 is basically a ‘prohormone.’ From Wikipedia again: ‘A prohormone refers to a committed precursor of a hormone, usually having minimal hormonal effect by itself. The term has been used in medical science since the middle of the 20th century. Though not hormones themselves, prohormones amplify the effects of existing hormones.’ Although the figures are not absolutely clear cut, it is usually stated that T3 is five times more biologically active than T4.

Therefore, if someone is hypothyroid, which is normally taken to mean that the thyroid gland is not producing a sufficient quantity of thyroid hormone, you would want to prescribe the active hormone T3, would you not?

This is a rather rhetorical question because what doctors do, at least since the 1960s, is to prescribe synthetic T4 (levothyroxine). Once T4 is in the body it is converted to T3 (through the kidneys, liver, spleen and brain – and numerous other thyroid hormone receptors throughout the body) and does its thing. In most cases this is a perfectly good treatment. However, there is a kicker, which I will get to.

At this point I feel I need to add that hypothyroidism is a very, very common condition. By the age of 60, 10% of people have ‘lab’ test abnormalities that would define them as having subclinical hypothyroidism. At least 2% of the population has overt, clinical, symptoms. Which means that we are talking about millions of people in the UK, possibly tens of millions in the EU and US.[It affects women ten times as much as men].

TSH

I now need to bring in another player called Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). As with all systems in the human body, a negative feedback loop controls the function of the thyroid gland, and it works something like this:

If you have a high T4 level, this is detected by the pituitary gland, which sits deep within your brain. At which point the pituitary gland reduces the production of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone. As TSH is the hormone that instructs the thyroid gland to produce T4/T3, production of T4/T3 falls. [There are actually a couple of other steps, but this is essentially what happens].

If T4 falls too far, the pituitary gland swings into action to produce more TSH. In turn stimulating the thyroid gland to manufacture more T4…and so it goes. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Endlessly until, of course, you get too old and drop dead. And there ain’t no feedback loop for that.

TSH is also important in that it is usually the substance you measure to decide whether or not someone is hypothyroid. If TSH is very high this means it is trying to ‘drive’ the thyroid gland into action – and failing. You also use the TSH level to determine the dose of T4 that is required as replacement therapy. If the level of TSH is low, this suggests you may be giving too much T4. If the level of TSH is high, this suggests you may be giving too little.

As you may have noticed, at this point I have slipped into talking about TSH and T4, with T3 getting very little mention. That is because this is where the medical profession now stands. Hypothyroidism means high TSH and low T4. You are getting adequate thyroid replacement hormone if TSH in the ‘normal’ range. End of.

Here is what the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the British Thyroid Association (BTA) have to say on the matter. Key points only

  • The only validated method of testing thyroid function is on blood, which must include serum TSH and a measure of free thyroxine (T4).
  • Overwhelming evidence supports the use of Thyroxine (T4) alone in the treatment of hypothyroidism. Thyroxine is usually prescribed as levothyroxine. We do not recommend the prescribing of additional Tri-iodothyronine (T3) in any presently available formulation, including Armour thyroid, as it is inconsistent with normal physiology, has not been scientifically proven to be of any benefit to patients, and may be harmful. [Then again, it may not be – harmful, that is]

An aside – (Additional information, as provided to me)

I should mention here that I have been told that the RCP has been asked on numerous occasions to cite references to research/studies showing “overwhelming evidence supports the use of thyroxine (T4 alone)”, but to date, they have provided none. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request that the RCP provide such evidence – again met with no response. A request was made via the ‘Ask for Evidence’ website, run in association with ‘Sense About Science’ asking for evidence on the safety and efficacy of L-T4 as a treatment for hypothyroidism. This request was directed to the RCP who eventually responded stating “The RCP’s guidance is based on the opinion of an expert panel which was temporarily formed for this purpose. The evidence they used to form their individual opinions has not been collated and therefore the RCP cannot provide any evidence list”1 (Jolly, as they say, good)

Restricting the diagnosis and treatment of hypothyroidism to measuring T4 and TSH, and nothing else, is the approach that seems to be used by conventional medicine in the rest of the World. I recently received an e-mail from someone in Singapore telling me that their doctor was about to be struck off for prescribing T3 to patients- against Singaporean medical rules. In the UK, T3 testing is virtually banned, and the medical authorities are making it virtually impossible to prescribe T3 in any form.

In the UK, a doctor called Gordon Skinner was repeatedly dragged in front of the General Medical Council (GMC) for prescribing thyroxine to patients whose T4 and TSH levels were in the ‘normal range’. He was also attacked for prescribing natural thyroid extract (NDT) (a combination of T4 and T3) to his patients – who he felt would benefit. He is now dead. It has been suggested that constant and repeated efforts to strike him off the medical register may have had an impact on his health. I couldn’t possibly say.

Now, there is no doubt that this area is highly complex and for those who know this area, you will be aware that I am keeping things as simple as possible. But I think it is important to make a few points:

The lab tests, especially for TSH, are far from 100% reliable, to say the very least. In fact the man who developed the test in the UK, at Amersham International in Wales, has told me that the test is virtually worthless in many cases (especially continuous testing when patients are taking thyroid hormone replacement).

The conversion of T4 into T3 can be significantly reduced in some people. So these individuals can have normal T4 and TSH, but they are still effectively hypothyroid. For those who are interested in a bit more detail, there is a population with a defective DIO2 gene. This blocks T4 to T3 conversion, and results (amongst other things) in reduced T3 levels in the brain, which can lead to mood disorders2. I mention this single example to make it clear that there is solid scientific evidence to back up the conjecture that it is possible to be functionally ‘hypothyroid’ with normal blood tests.

A lot of people have reported significant improvements in their health through taking thyroxine, with normal blood tests, and also natural thyroid extract when their laboratory tests were ‘normal’. Please look at this article in the Daily Telegraph3…then look at the comments section – which is very, very telling. A cry of despair!

I am not going into further detail of how T4 binding and conversion in various organs can be affected by stress hormones, inflammation, trauma, adrenal insufficiency, lack of converting enzymes in tissues, and infection of various sorts. I shall just keep this simple by stating that it is possible to have enough T4, even T3 in your bloodstream, but these hormones have reduced ‘bioavailability’. This is not crank ‘woowoo’ stuff. This is real and measurable and you can find studies on this in peer-reviewed medical journals.

Far more telling, from my point of view, is the fact that hundreds, indeed thousands of patients report that, although their blood tests were normal, they felt terrible, and that they have felt so much better when they have been given ‘excess’ T4 and/T3, or NDT (natural desiccated thyroid). Whilst there is no doubt that some of them are, to quote a medical colleague, ‘not tightly wrapped.’ I have spoken to many, many, people who are calm, rational and reasonable, and their stories are compelling. A hellish existence that was ‘cured’ by Dr Skinner and his like. I refuse to believe that all of these patients are ‘somatising’ fruitcakes.

Comparing the use of SSRIs and ‘Unconventional’ Treatments for Hypothyroidism

At this point I will change tack slightly. For I think it is fascinating to compare and contrast the treatment of depression using SSRIs, with hypothyroid patients who complain that they are unwell, despite ‘normal’ T4 and TSH tests.

Today, almost all doctors you speak to believe that depression is due to a low level of serotonin in the brain. This is why they prescribe SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) by the lorry-load. Drugs such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil etc.To quote from a recent article in the BMJ ‘Serotonin and depression, the marketing of a myth’4.

‘…the number of antidepressant prescriptions a year is slightly more than the number of people in the Western World.’

This all happens despite the fact that:
‘There was no correlation between serotonin reuptake inhibiting potency and antidepressant efficacy. No one knew if SSRIs raised or lowered; they still don’t know. There was no evidence that treatment corrected anything.’

In short, with depression, there is no lab test, no way of measuring the impact of anti-depressants. They are prescribed purely and simply on the basis of the patient history. Equally, there is no doubt at all that SSRIs have significant side-effects, some of which are very, very serious e.g. increased suicidal tendency. They are also addictive and patients can end up stuck on them for years. So, they do cause harm.

Equally, as you may be aware, clinical trial data in this area have been horribly distorted….

“…That said, the fact that the class of antidepressants known as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are basically useless in treating depression in children and adults is not news to the FDA. Back on September 23, 2004, during testimony at a hearing before the House Oversight and Investigations Committee on Energy and Commerce, Dr Robert Temple, the FDA’s Director of the Office of Medical Policy, discussed the agency’s review on the efficacy of SSRIs with the children.”

He noted that it was important in a risk-benefit equation to understand the benefit side. “Of the seven products studied in pediatric MDD (Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Effexor, Serzone and Remeron),” he testified, “FDA’s reviews of the effectiveness data resulted in only one approval (Prozac) for pediatric MDD.”

“Overall,” Dr Temple said, “the efficacy results from 15 studies in pediatric MDD do not support the effectiveness of these drugs in pediatric populations.”

Also in 2004, a study of previously hidden unpublished data as well as published studies on five SSRIs, was conducted by Tim Kendall, deputy director of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Research Unit in London, to help analyze research to draw up the clinical guidelines for British regulators, and published in the Lancet.

Following his evaluation, Mr Kendall stated: “This data confirms what we found in adults with mild to moderate depression: SSRIs are no better than placebo, and there is no point in using something that increases the risk of suicide.”

In 2005, the British Medical Journal published another study that concluded that SSRIs are no more effective than a placebo and do not reduce depression.

In December 2006, at the most recent FDA advisory committee meeting held to review studies on SSRI use with adults, SSRI expert, Dr David Healy, author of, “The Antidepressant Era,” told the panel that the efficacy of SSRIs has been greatly exaggerated, while the actual studies reveal that only one in ten patients responds specifically to an SSRI rather than a nonspecific factor or placebo.

In February 2008, Irving Kirsch’s study at the Department of Psychology at the University of Hull is the first to examine both published and unpublished evidence of the effectiveness of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which account for 16 million NHS prescriptions a year. The largest study of its kind concluded that antidepressant drugs do not work. More than £291 million was spent on antidepressants in 2006, including nearly £120 million on SSRIs. 4

Critics complain that industry funded studies are presented in ways to exaggerate benefits and obscure side effects. “These include failure to publish negative results, the use of multiple outcome measures, and selective presentation of ones that are positive, multiple publication of positive study results, and the exclusion of subjects from the analysis,” according to the paper, “Is Psychiatry For Sale,” by Joanna Moncrieff, in People’s Voice.”5

So we have an interesting medical conundrum, do we not? On one hand, doctors are more than eager to prescribe antidepressants at the drop of a hat, based entirely on the patients reported symptoms. No need for any blood tests, and no evidence that they work for the vast majority of people.

On the other hand, if a patient dares to say that they feel better taking T4 when their blood tests are normal, or if they say they feel better taking a combination of T3 and T4/NDT, they are dismissed as ‘somatising.’ Which is a posh medical way of saying, you are making your symptoms up and we don’t believe you. Equally, if a patient complains of continuing symptoms and that they don’t feel better when they are taking T4 (or T3 and T4) and their blood test results show ‘normal’ they are again accused of ‘somatising’6

The world, my friends, has gone nuts and, in a bitter irony, the medical profession – at least in this area – has become institutionally paternalistic. ‘You cannot be feeling better, because your blood tests say you were never unwell. So you cannot have treatment. And you, Dr Skinner and your like. If you dare treat patient’ symptoms you will be attacked and struck off from medical practice.’ Now I have looked long and hard, and I have found no evidence, from anywhere, that giving T3, in the dose that’s needed, causes any significant medical problems, and I have listened to repeated testimony from people who feel they have greatly improved.

As for antidepressants, these mostly useless addictive drugs that can increase suicide risk. ‘Have as many as you like for as long as you like. Because we fully believe everything you say about your symptoms….’ No need for any silly tests, or anything like that.

Compare and contrast, then try to make some sense of the medical world that we now live in.

Sigh.

P.S. Because I am considered to have alternative views about medical matters, many people contact me to help promote their ‘alternative’ ideas. Some I believe to be completely whacko, I smile sweetly and move on. Some I cannot decide. Other issues, once I start looking into the evidence, I find the evidence compelling.

I certainly find the evidence that a large number of people are effectively hypothyroid, with ‘normal’ thyroid blood tests, to be virtually overwhelming. Both from a scientific/physiology basis, and also from a patient testimonial basis.

I now firmly believe that the medical profession is currently doing these people a great disservice, and that the guidelines on the treatment of ‘hypothyroidism’ are rigid, autocratic, and just plain wrong (for a significant minority).

As with all medical matters that I write about, I have no axe to grind, no horse in the race, no financial links to anyone or anything with regard to treating thyroid patients. I simply hope this article can have some positive impact. For it seems very clear to me that many thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people are suffering unnecessarily. And I would like it to stop.

References:

  1. http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1463_AAA_Petitioner_19.11.14.pdf
  2. “Common Variation in the DIO2 Gene Predicts Baseline Psychological Well-Being and Response to Combination Thyroxine Plus Triiodothyronine Therapy in Hypothyroid Patients”http://press.endocrine.org/doi/pdf/10.1210/jc.2008-1301
  3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/alternative-medicine/10985192/Could-a-renegade-doctor-save-your-life.html
  4. Serotonin and Depression, the marketing of a myth.’ BMJ2015;350:h1771
  5. Kirsch I, Deacon BJ, Huedo-Medina TB, Scoboria A, Moore TJ, et al. “Initial Severity and Antidepressant Benefits: A Meta-Analysis of Data Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration.” 2008, PLoS Med 5(2): e45 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050045: Access full article at http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0050045
  6. http://www.lawyersandsettlements.com/articles/ssri_birth_defects/ssri-secret-00642.html#.VT-ycCG6eUk
  7. Professor A Weetman – http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/524955

 

Further postscript

Malcolm – we need to clear up the fact regarding the definition of ‘hypothyroidism’ which is “underactivity of the thyroid gland” according to the RCP Policy Statement on the diagnosis and management of hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is easily diagnosed and more often than not, easily treated with L-thyroxine only. However, what is being missed by everybody is that over 300,000 UK citizens (15% of the thyroid community – millions worldwide) have a normally functioning thyroid GLAND, but the hormone it is secreting is not getting into the cells where it does its work. These are the folk who need T3, in combo. with T4, T3 alone or in NDT. The RCP teaching curriculum makes no mention of the possibility of a non-thyroidal condition where patients suffer the same symptoms and signs of hypothyroidism that may need to be treated with a different medication or hormone. When these patients complain of continuing symptoms when treated with L-T4 monotherapy, many are given an incorrect diagnosis of ME, CFS, FM, depression, functional somatoform disorder – or even old age blah, blah, blah – and sent on their way without further investigation or treatment. This is a serious business, which the RCP and BTA choose to ignore.

Doctoring Data

I am pleased to announce that my book is finally written and edited and available to buy, on-line at http://doctoringdata.co.uk

The full, formal launch will not be until next year. But for those who cannot wait (hopefully several hundred million people), you can pre-order it now on a restricted print run. First come, first served as they say.

It has been a mighty effort to write, and I hope that people can both enjoy reading it, and feel that they have learned something by so doing. I am but your humble servant.

My father

My father died recently, so I have been rather busy with other things. I wrote a short eulogy to him and I thought I would share it, and my memories of him, on my blog. I am not certain that this is the ‘done’ thing, but I am doing it anyway. I sort of feel the need to share it with those who are kind enough to read my blog.

My father was not a man who suffered fools gladly. In fact his favourite expression was BF, as in, bloody fool. We were all, at times, BFs. I am sure I was referred to as a BF on more occasions than I ever knew. Politicians were most certainly all BFs.

But beneath the façade of referring to everyone and most of their actions as those of a BF was a man who would, after he had finished his obligatory two minute rant, then do all that he possibly could to help someone out.

Crashed your car….you BF….then he would fix it. Needing help… he would invite foreign students into his house for the night. At heart he was, basically, a big softie. A velvet fist in a steel glove. He would forgive anyone anything – in the end.

I remember he used to sing a little song at times. At the time I never knew where it came from. Some of you may recognise it. It is incredibly rude, and incredibly sad. This is the chorus – which is the only bit I heard him sing.

It’s the same the whole world over,

It’s the poor that get the blame,

It’s the rich that get the pleasure,

Ain’t it all a bloody shame

This never seemed, to me, to be a favourite song of a man who did not care deeply about the world, and who would like to see it become a better place.

Yes he could be irascible – we all know that. Yes, he could be difficult and argumentative… and we all most certainly all know that. Yes, he too, he was a fully functioning BF at times, with bells and whistles, and there were most certainly moments when he drove me – and everyone else – completely mad. But my thoughts and memories now are almost entirely positive. As I think are those of everyone else gathered here.

As we know he did many, many things. A man of great energy and boundless enthusiasm for life. Whilst I was thinking about writing this short eulogy I remember a quote about Winston Churchill that I think best sums up my father.

When you first meet him, you see all his faults. It takes a lifetime to appreciate his virtues.

Silence was the stern reply

I thought I should share with you, a letter written to Professor Sir Rory Collins by a reader of my blog. Mr David Bailey. Of course I have ensured that I have his permission to re-print this here.

He sent the letter to me some time after he wrote to Professor Sir Rory Collins. I told I thought it was very well written and interesting. But then, as a confirmed statin/cholesterol geek, I think everything about statins is interesting [More meds please nurse].

Anyway, David Bailey wrote the letter, with the following cover note to me:

Malcolm,

I followed your GOOGLE link in your latest blog, and of course I found Sir Rory’s email address! I sent him the following letter, but I didn’t explicitly CC you, because I thought he might be less likely to take me seriously!

I hope perhaps a few of your other readers will do the same, but I don’t intend to suggest this on your blog – I don’t want this to seem organised.

All the best,

———————————————————

I replied

David

Excellent letter.

The reply will be, as follows

Dear Mr Bailey,

Thank you for you letter. Professor Sir Rory Collins is unable to respond to personal issues of this type. Message ends….

Still a good letter though. Could I put it on my blog in a couple of weeks, once you fail to gain any response at all?

Malcolm

———————————————————

That is the background, here is the letter. It is typical of many hundreds that I receive from people suffering severe and significant statin related adverse effects. In virtually every case their doctor has dismissed the adverse effects as even existing.

When, rarely, their doctor has accepted they are having adverse effects they have NEVER, according to those who write to me, made any attempt to inform the authorities that their patient has suffered a statin related adverse effect. Medwatch in the US, the Yellow Card system in the UK…

Dear Sir Rory,

I am not a medical doctor, though I have a PhD in chemistry, but I am writing to tell you of my experiences taking Simvastatin.

As I understand it, you are of the opinion that statin side effects are rare, and not important when weighed against the chance to avoid cardiovascular events.

I took Simvastatin for 3 years, and for most of that time I suffered no obvious side effects. I felt extremely positive towards this drug, because although I have not had a stroke or heart attack, anything that reduced the risk seemed like a good idea.

The side effects started rather suddenly – with extreme cramps in my right leg, which was weakened by polio when I was a child. I naturally thought I was getting Post Polio Syndrome (PPS) – a problem that I understand has no specific test. Because there was some delay before I could see a specialist, and I was struggling as my symptoms got worse, I decided to stop my Simvastatin as a precaution because I remembered that it could cause ‘muscle pains’. By that time my leg was extremely painful in the muscles and the knee joint, and it had weakened further so that my right foot would drop as I walked – potentially causing me to trip on it.

By the time I saw a polio specialist, I was not diagnosed with PPS because the symptoms were receding – I got no specific diagnosis. As I continued to improve, I decided to restart my Simvastatin, assuming that it had had nothing to do with my problems, and within a week I could feel the symptoms returning.

All in all, I stopped Simvastatin 3 times, and each time the symptoms started to reduce after a delay of about a week, and returned after I restarted the drug!

Had I not realised that Simvastatin might be causing my problems; I think I might have ended up confined to a wheelchair in considerable pain, still taking the drug! As it was, once I gave up on Simvastatin, I recovered completely over a period of about 9 months.

Of course, my situation was a bit special, but I discovered from informal discussions with others in their late 50’s and 60’s that maybe half had had problems with statins, or knew someone else who had! Some had simply discarded their tablets without discussing it with their GP, others had been given prescriptions for a succession of different statins, and had trouble with all!  One man had suffered muscle cramps and severe memory problems – both reversed after he stopped taking statins.  These were personal contacts, but of course, the internet is overflowing with stories of statin side-effects. I realise that the internet may encourage such stories, but when I combine them with my own experience and those of others I know, I am very concerned that you are so ready to endorse an even wider use of statins in people who are currently well.

I would particularly like to draw your attention to the following aspects of my case:

1)           My side effects took 3 years to manifest themselves – making it less obvious what was happening.

2)          Only my polio leg was affected, which suggests that statin side effects may start in a part of the body already damaged in some other way. This must give particular concern because it suggests that there are people out these suffering statin side effects and still taking the drug!

3)          Because I was very positive about the value of Simvastatin, it is hard to attribute what happened to me as a nocebo effect. Furthermore, the fact that I tried stopping the drug several times and observed the symptoms recede each time, means that I can be essentially certain that my troubles were indeed caused by Simvastatin!

After this experience, I have read around the entire subject of statins, cholesterol levels, and saturated fats. What I read disturbs me greatly.

1)            The evidence against saturated fats is weak except for one graph by Ancel Keys, who cherry picked his data to ‘prove’ the result he wanted!

2)           Cholesterol in the blood (or LDL/HDL) seems far less well correlated with heart attacks than I would have expected.

3)           Even though statins also block the synthesis of Co-Enzyme Q10, doctors do not seem to be warned to combine statin treatment with this supplement.

4)           Many medical researchers are concerned by the consequences of taking statins – some even suggest that statin induced muscle damage may be responsible for a rise in the incidence of heart failure in recent years!

We live in an age of openness, and I really think it would help if you debated your views with medical critics – verbally or in written form. Simply repeating that statins are safe and good for you (I paraphrase slightly) doesn’t seem to be sufficient.

Sincerely yours,

David Bailey

‘You are killing my patients’ – again

[Bring it on]

A few months ago I was part of a group that wrote a letter to the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) criticising their proposed guidance on the use of statins in primary prevention. I drafted the letter and it was signed by such people as the President of the Royal College of Physicians, past president of the Royal College of Physicians etc. This was not, in short, a group of fringe lunatics.

It caused a bit of a stir, and generated a considerable amount of air time. After receiving the letter, NICE reviewed their guidance and decided that they had been perfectly correct to promote the use of statins in primary prevention in the UK after all. NICE, in effect, judged NICE, and found itself not guilty of anything. Well, that’s one of the benefits of being judge, jury and executioner all wrapped up together in one body.

This letter, and the dismissal of all its points, followed a nasty outbreak of hostilities in which Professor Abramson and Dr Malhotra had been attacked by Rory Collins for publishing separate, but related, papers in the BMJ. These papers suggested that adverse effects from statins were quite common. Professor Rory Collins demanded retraction of the articles and also attacked the editor of the BMJ very publically. Generating articles such as this one:

‘Professor Sir Rory Collins, from Oxford University, said he believes GPs and the public are being made unjustifiably suspicious of the drug, creating a situation that has echoes of the MMR vaccine controversy.

The academic, one of the country’s leading experts on the drug, is particularly unhappy with the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which has run well-publicised articles by two critics of statins that he argues are flawed and misleading.

“It is a serious disservice to British and international medicine,” he said, claiming that it was probably killing more people than had been harmed as a result of the paper on the MMR vaccine by Andrew Wakefield. “I would think the papers on statins are far worse in terms of the harm they have done.”’ 1

Stung by this attack, the BMJ brought together an independent panel in response to Rory Collins criticism. The result, as reported by Forbes, was as follows:

“As previously reported, Rory Collins, a prominent researcher and head of the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration, had demanded that The BMJ retract two articles that were highly critical of statins. Although The BMJ issued a correction for both papers for inaccurately citing an earlier publication and therefore overstating the incidence of adverse effects of statins, this response did not satisfy Collins. He repeatedly demanded that the journal issue a full retraction of the articles, prompting The BMJ’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, to convene an outside panel of experts to review the problem.

The report of the independent statins review panel exonerates The BMJ from wrong doing and said the controversial articles should not be retracted:

“The panel were unanimous in their decision that the two papers do not meet any of the criteria for retraction. The error did not compromise the principal arguments being made in either of the papers. These arguments involve interpretations of available evidence and were deemed to be within the range of reasonable opinion among those who are debating the appropriate use of statins.”

In fact, the panel was critical of Collins for refusing to submit a published response to the articles:

“The panel noted with concern that despite the Editor’s repeated requests that Rory Collins should put his criticisms in writing as a rapid response, a letter to the editor or as a stand-alone article, all his submissions were clearly marked ‘Not for Publication’. The panel considered this unlikely to promote open scientific dialogue in the tradition of the BMJ.””2

In short, Professor Sir Rory Collins was told that he was utterly wrong to demand retraction of the papers, and that by refusing to take part in an open discussion was trying to strangle scientific debate.

That, if you like sets the scene. A scene whereby anyone who dares to criticise statins, even a prestigious journal such as the BMJ itself, is subjected to vitriolic attacks and a demand for silence. Rory Collins tried to keep all correspondence with Fiona Godlee secret, which kind of backfired on him. Hoorah. Type ‘Rory Collins and Fiona Godlee e-mails’ into Google, and you can see for yourself.

Of course, things have not stopped here. The ‘statinators’ although briefly thwarted in their initial attack on Abramson, Malhotra and the BMJ – and less directly me – have switched track. The British Cardiovascular Society (which you will not have heard of), have decided to run a survey of their members. They are trying to gather information about the damaging impact of the articles, and the letter to NICE:

Here is an e-mail which was sent to all members:

The British Cardiovascular Society is keen to know of any potential adverse effect on cardiovascular disease prevention which may have resulted from recent media stories and articles such as those published in the BMJ (1,2) and in an open letter to NICE (3). 
We would be grateful if members would complete this short survey. Your response will be anonymous and the link below is unique to you allowing you to complete the survey once only. 
The survey closes on 30th September and results will be made available subsequently on the BCS Website and in the BCS newswire.

References

(1) Abramson JD, Rosenberg HG, Jewell N, Wright JM. Should people at low risk of cardiovascular disease take a statin? BMJ 2013; DOI:10.1136/bmj.f6123.
(2) Malhotra A. Saturated fat is not the major issue. BMJ 2013; DOI:10.1136/bmj.f6340
(3) http://www.nice.org.uk/News/Press-and-Media/nice-responds-to-criticisms-of-its-draft-guidance-on-statins
PLEASE CLICK HERE TO COMPLETE THE SURVEY 

Now, why would they be doing this? I do not think it is that difficult to work it out. The BCS is trying to gather evidence that the articles by Abramson, Malhotra and the open letter to NICE have caused harm to patients. They will be asking their members if they know of people who have stopped taking statins, or who will not go on statins, because of what they have read in the BMJ and suchlike.

Once they have done this, they will then extrapolate the raw figures to the entire population of the UK, in order to claim that ‘Thousands have died.’ Abramson will be attacked, along with Malhotra and the BMJ. I will get a few attacks as well for drafting the letter to NICE. This is a very unsubtle variation of the ‘You’re killing my patients’ tactic which is regularly used to silence any who dares criticise currently medical opinion.

At this point you may be wondering what the British Cardiovascular Society (BCS) may be, and could it possibly have any conflicts of interest with the pharmaceutical industry? Well, of course it does. The BCS is heavily reliant on the industry for its very existence. I would say totally reliant, but such bodies do not reveal detailed financial information.

However, you can start looking at what they charge for sponsorship at their conference, and begin to multiply. For example, if you want an exhibition stand at said conference, here is what you pay for an Option 1 stand3.

Option 1 – £33,500 + VAT
To include:

  • Stand – 8mx8m (64msq) island site
  • Full Page Colour advert in Heart Journal
  • Table (10 guests) at BCS Annual Dinner (Tuesday 3 June)
  • 4 x Conference Badges (company name only so transferable)
  • 20 x Stand/Exhibition Badges
  • 50 word entry in the Conference Programme and on the website
  • Opportunity to purchase additional adverts in Heart Journal

with up to a 50% discount of card rate

The BCS helpfully explains the benefits of exhibiting:

Why Exhibit?

The BCS Annual Conference is the most highly attended and respected cardiovascular event in the UK. The Exhibition is a crucial component to the success of BCS event, enabling cardiologists, physicians, scientists, physiologists and nurses to keep up to date with innovative and developing technologies, pharmacology, diagnostic equipment, educational materials and more.

Access over 2,300 cardiovascular healthcare professionals face to face – including top cardiologists, physicians, scientists, physiologists and nurses

Promote and demonstrate products and services directly to key cardiovascular healthcare professionals and gain first-hand feedback

Associate your brand/company with the Society for Cardiovascular Care – the British Cardiovascular Society

Introduce new products/services and test the market

Opportunity to network with industry peers

Of course there are other sponsorship opportunities, such as Advertising in the BCS Conference Programme, which will set you back another £10K:

Advertising in BCS Conference Programme

A copy of the Conference Programme is given to each delegate upon arrival to the event. This is the perfect opportunity to reinforce your presence and support of the BCS Annual Conference 2014.

Inside Front Cover: £2,000 + vat (exclusive)

Inside Back Cover: £2,000 + vat (exclusive)

Outside Back Cover: £2,000 + vat (exclusive)

Double Page: £2,000 + vat

Single Page: £1,200 + vat

There are limited opportunities available

I could go on, but I think you get the general drift. The BCS are funded and supported by the pharmaceutical industry. An industry that is not, currently, that bothered about statins – as the patents have run out. But it is an industry that remains extremely interested in the whole idea of lowering cholesterol. Which remains THE multi-multi-billion dollar market.

Any attack on statins threatens the foundations of this market, one that has been painstakingly constructed over the last thirty years. Keeping the cholesterol lowering idea alive, vibrant, and expanding, will make it far simpler to sell the next generation of cholesterol lowering agents that are currently lurking in the wings, engines purring.

To cut a long story short, the forthcoming attack by the BCS can be considered, to all intents and purposes, an attack by the pharmaceutical industry on anyone who dares to suggest that drugs lowering cholesterol may not be such a brilliant idea. So when you see the headlines in the newspapers damning and rubbishing Aseem Malhotra, John Abramson, and me (and a few others), you now know exactly where this attack originated, and why. Knowledge is, as they say, power.

References:

1: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/21/-sp-doctors-fears-over-statins-may-cost-lives-says-top-medical-researcher

2: http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhusten/2014/08/02/no-retraction-for-you-review-panel-exonerates-medical-journal-in-statin-kerfuffle/

3: http://www.bcs.com/pages/exhibition_09.asp?PageID=497&NavCatID=86

Reality control

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.” 1984

In my first book, the Great Cholesterol Con, I included a passage about Ancel Keys by Henry Blackburn, a colleague and admirer of Keys. It points out that Ancel Keys was humiliated by George Pickering at a meeting of the WHO in Geneva 1954 discussing the new ‘epidemic’ of heart disease. The quote from Henry Blackburn finishes thus:

My theory is that Keys was so stung by this event that he left the Geneva meeting intent on gathering the definitive evidence to establish or refute the Diet-Heart theory. Out of this single, moving, personal experience – so my theory goes – came the challenge, the motivation, the implantation of the Seven Countries Study.’

As I wrote in the book. ‘So there you have it. As a result, Ancel Keys stormed off, put together a huge research budget, hired a staff of thousands, did his study and was the able – in objective ‘scientific speak,’ of course – to say ‘I told you so, I told you so. Nyah, nyah, nyah.’ Not, as I pointed out, the best possible motivation for a research project.

Of course you are going to have to take my word on the exact events described. For, shortly after my book was published, this passage was removed from the University website it was on, never to be seen again. Cause and effect, who can say? But it does raise an important issue. If there is no record of a thing happening – did it happen? If you control the historical record, what is truth?

In the age of the Internet you might think it is more difficult to hide the historical record, but in some ways it is easier. If something only exists on a server somewhere, all you need do is delete it and it is gone – forever. Unless you ensure that you archive it yourself – something I did not do with the Henry Blackburn quote.

At this point you may wonder where this is all going. Well, for some years, I have used statistics from the European Heart Survey which looks at data from nearly a million people. The latest version is here http://www.bhf.org.uk/publications/view-publication.aspx?ps=1002098. This is very impressive bit of research, and is full of good stuff. For a few years I have included statistics from this study to produce tables such as the one below (See table).

guessinggame

The table makes it very clear that saturated fat intake has absolutely nothing to do with the rate of CHD deaths in any country in Europe. In fact, in general, the association is completely inverse i.e. the more saturated fat you eat, the lower the rate of coronary heart disease (CHD). Twenty times as low in France, as Georgia, despite the French eating three times as much saturated fat. This, of course, completely contradicts everything you have ever read about the impact of saturate fat on heart disease.

Jerome Burne, a friend and colleague, and medical journalist, wanted to use a couple of my tables for his blog. So I sent them over. He pointed out that my data was from the 2008 survey. In the latest 2012 survey – it take some time for the data to be published – the figures on saturated fat intake have simply gone. They are no longer published at all.

I hurriedly went back to the search the 2008 data to make sure that this had not been wiped from the record. They have not, although it is rather more difficult to find. I have now stored these data on my computer, and archived them. For I suspect that these data on saturated fat intake will gradually disappear from the historical record.

Of course, I am going to write to the researchers in charge of the European Heart Statistics and ask them why, of all the data, the data on saturated fat no longer features. Why have they done this? I strongly suspect I know the answer, and I suspect that you do to.

I am going to write although I already know the type of answer I will get. It will be some complete fudge, not answering the question but saying something along the lines of ‘Our panel of International Experts constantly review the data that we include and make decisions based on priorities that are determined by many different factors. For various reasons not all data are included, but we are always working to ensure that everything is done to provide the most useful and up to date information. Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter a discussion on specific issues.’ Beep, message ends.

It has long amused me the European Heart Statistics – if you look through them carefully – contradict almost everything we have ever been told about the causes of heart disease. Of course they are now somewhat less contradictory, because they have removed the data on saturated fat.

“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” 1984

Watch this

Someone I have come to know recently is Dr David Newman, Director of Clinical Research in Mount Sinai University, New York. He has been a great thorn in the flesh of the ‘statinators’ recently. He runs a website called http://www.thennt.com/ I recommend that everyone goes and has a look at it.

He is very concerned about providing information to the public that they can understand about various medical interventions. His work is excellent, he is clear, passionate and (nearly) 100% correct about everything.

He gave a talk called ‘The truth that lasts’ and you can catch it on you tube here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCk_vTkS6bU

For those of you, who have not had a heart attack or stroke, and are on statins, or are bullied into going onto statins, I suggest that you watch this. It is seventeen minutes long, and will be the most valuable seventeen minutes you have spent in your life.

Best wishes.

The planet Vulcan

I love reading about the history of science. In part, because I think you can learn so much about the process of thinking itself. Especially when it goes wrong. More especially when you are looking at the process of immunisation.

Immunisation is something that Karl Popper was particularly interested in. Popper was a scientific philosopher who is a bit of a hero of mine (when I can actually understand what he is saying). Amongst many other things, he was interested in the techniques used by scientists to protect favoured scientific hypotheses, which he called ‘immunisations’.

An immunisation is essentially a way of explaining why a fact, which appears to contradict a favoured hypothesis, does not actually contradict it at all. For example, when it was found that the orbit of the planet mercury could not be explained by classical Newtonian physics, a mathematician called Le Verrier postulated that there must be another, smaller, planet inside the orbit of Mercury that was affecting Mercury’s orbit. The planet Vulcan.

Vulcan was invisible – primarily because it did not exist. But for many years the invisible and non-existent planet served its purpose. It protected classical Newtonian physics from a potential contradiction, or refutation. Or, to be more blunt, of being simply wrong. In this case, scientists were quite happy to believe in invisible non-existent things, if the alternative was to cast aside a hallowed hypothesis.

Of course, this is just one of thousands of examples whereby unwelcome facts have been simply swatted aside, or immunised against. It is not just the Catholic Church that refuses to look through telescopes.

Vulcan, although just one example, does provide a good case study of a widely used form of immunisation tactic, the ‘ad-hoc’ hypothesis. An ad-hoc hypothesis is a secondary hypothesis that is bolted on to the side of the main hypothesis in order to defend it, or protect it. A more recent example of this can be seen in the Global warming debate.

It has been noted that global temperatures have not increased by much, if at all, in the last 15 years. This, however, is not viewed as a contradiction to the hypothesis of man-made global warming. Why not? Because it is argued that the oceans are taking in the excess heat, and trapping it. This process has held back the degree of global warming that had been predicted by the experts.

I am not going to debate whether or not this is true. I am just using it as a more recent example of an ‘ad-hoc’ hypothesis which came into existence to protect the central hypothesis. I would further add that ad-hoc hypothesis are not always wrong. They can very often be right. Le Verrier, prior to inventing the planet Vulcan, had predicted the presence of the plant Neptune due to irregularities in the orbit of Uranus.

However, if you read his works, you will know that Popper was not a fan of ad-hoc hypotheses. He felt that a good hypothesis should be fully predictive of future ‘events’ without the need for additional explanations, adaptations, or suchlike.

He did not state how many ad-hoc hypotheses it took before you had to admit defeat. One, ten, a hundred, a thousand? No-one can give you a clear cut figure, but the more of them there are, the less likely it is your central hypothesis was correct in the first place. The phenomenon of adaptation/immunisation had been recognised many years before Popper.

‘A nice adaptation of conditions will make almost any hypothesis agree with the phenomenon. This will please the imagination, but does not advance our knowledge.’ J Black 1803

I have recently been pondering the ad-hoc hypothesis once more in relation to heart disease. For I suspect that never in the history of science has a central hypothesis had so many ad-hoc hypotheses bolted on to it. Indeed, we have now reached the point where ad-hoc hypotheses have had ad-hoc hypotheses bolted onto them, to protect the ad-hoc hypotheses themselves from being refuted.

Just to look at one example. There are a number of drugs that have been developed to raise High Density Lipoproteins (HDL), the supposed ‘good’ cholesterol. A few of them also lower LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol at the same time. Billions have been spend on this class of drugs known as ‘trapibs’ . The first of these was Torcetrapib.

At this point I should probably remind you that the ‘good’ cholesterol hypothesis was only created as an ad-hoc hypothesis to explain why some/many people with high total cholesterol levels do not suffer from heart disease. ‘It’s because they have a high HDL level.’

The logic here was obvious, if horribly facile. Raise the HDL and reduce the risk of heart disease. Anyway, ignore the chasms of logic, along came the ‘trapibs’, which were going to take over from statins:

‘Hailed as a potential blockbuster that could take Lipitor’s place, torcetrapib was a cholesteryl-ester transfer protein inhibitor (CEP-T inhibitor) designed to increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. Development of the drug began in 1990 with clinical trials starting nine years later. But it wasn’t until 2006 that Pfizer got close to submitting the drug to the FDA. The company touted torcetrapib as the answer to its near-term pipeline woes, predicting the potential blockbuster could make up for billions of dollars in lost Lipitor sales when that drug went off patent in 2011.’

Well, torcetrapib certain raised HDL by about 50%, and lowered LDL by about 10%. So, what could possibly go wrong?

‘What went wrong: In late 2006, the walls came crashing down around the company. Pfizer announced in December that it was halting development of it’s prized Phase III asset. The decision came after an independent Data Safety Monitoring Board recommended terminating the study because of an imbalance of mortality and cardiovascular events. Results from a 15,000-person trial showed that patients taking torcetrapib with Lipitor experienced excess deaths than those taking Lipitor alone. Not long after torcetrapib demise, Pfizer announced that it was cutting 10,000 jobs. The company spent $800 million developing the drug.’ http://www.fiercepharma.com/special-reports/pharmas-biggest-flops/torcetrapib-pharmas-biggest-flops

What went wrong was the Torcetrapib increased cardiovascular deaths about around 50% (relative increase in risk). Several other ‘trapibs’ have since come, failed, and slunk from the playing field, taking many billions down the drain with them. Yes, I know, you have never heard of them. At the risk of sounding rather big-headed, I predicted their total and abject failure long before the results of the clinical trials came out.

Now, there are those of us i.e. me who would suggest that this blows a hole in the entire good, bad, cholesterol hypothesis. But no. Why not? Because it was found that torcetrapib raised the blood pressure, and lowered potassium levels. This, it seems, was enough to explain the massive rise in CV mortality. Well, quite reasonable, you might say. Yes, but the rise in BP was minute, and the drop in potassium was equally minute. This could explain, perhaps, a 5% rise (at most) in CV mortality. Which should have been overwhelmed by the massive rise in HDL, and drop in LDL.

But no-one was going to look too closely into the figures themselves. An ad-hoc hypothesis had been found. The ‘experts’, rather than questioning the central good/bad cholesterol hypothesis simply bolted on the ‘BP rise, potassium falls’ ad-hoc immunisation device and moved on.

So, here we have an ad-hoc hypothesis, bolted onto an ad-hoc hypothesis, bolted onto the central hypothesis. We have another planet inside the invisible planet Vulcan, to explain why it is so difficult to find the planet Vulcan.

As you can see, the games played to protect the cholesterol hypothesis are, literally, endless. I am not sure when the games end? Perhaps they never do. Very clever people, given enough time and money can, it seems, twist reality round and round, inside out and upside down forever. I would call the process vulcanisation, but I think that has something to do with rubber.

Immovable Object

I have not been blogging much recently. One of the reasons is that I have been involved with a group of doctors and professors who have been fighting against the latest guidelines on primary prevention of cardiovascular disease which were due to be announced in July. We have had, as I knew, precisely no effect.

Here is the latest NICE guidance that was announced, today 18th July 2014. The committee having ignored any and all criticism:

Taking further steps to tackle the risk from heart attacks and strokes

NICE has today published its final updated guidance on the steps needed to prevent thousands of people from becoming ill and dying prematurely from heart attacks, strokes and peripheral arterial disease. NICE says doctors should consider many more people to be at risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) which causes 1 in 3 deaths in the UK (180,000 each year).

NICE advises that the threshold for starting preventive treatment of these conditions should be halved from a 20% risk of developing CVD over 10 years to a 10% risk. Prevention includes stopping smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, taking exercise and eating a healthy diet. Once these factors have been addressed, the guidance says high intensity statin therapy should be offered.

People can be at risk from CVD because of factors they cannot change including their age, sex, ethnicity, and family history. The guidance recommends that risk factors which can be addressed should be managed.

Professor Mark Baker, Director of the Centre for Clinical Practice at NICE, says: “To make progress in the battle against heart disease and stroke, we must encourage exercise, improve our diets still further, stop smoking, and where appropriate offer statins to people at risk.

“Doctors have been giving statins to ‘well people’ since NICE first produced guidance on this in 2006. We are now recommending the threshold is reduced further. The overwhelming body of evidence supports their use, even in people at low risk of cardiovascular disease. The effectiveness of these medicines is now well proven and their cost has fallen.

“The weight of evidence clearly shows statins are safe and clinically and cost effective for use in people with a 10% risk of CVD over 10 years. “We’re not saying that everyone with a 10% or greater risk of CVD within 10 years needs to take a statin. The guideline recognises the importance of choice in preventing CVD and that this should be guided by information on the trade-off between benefits and risks.”

By recommending a systematic approach to identifying those at risk of CVD, the guideline will enable people to access treatments to address that risk by reducing their cholesterol levels. It will also provide further clarity for practitioners in primary and secondary care about how to manage patients both with and without pre-existing cardiovascular disease.

NICE recommends that people are assessed (using the QRISK2 calculator) for their risk of developing cardiovascular disease using measurements including whether or not they smoke, their cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and body mass index. The calculator then provides a percentage risk of developing CVD in the next 10 years. “This new guideline complements the NHS Health checks programme in helping to identify people at future risk of developing cardiovascular disease at a stage at which lifestyle modification can make a significant difference “says Guideline Development Group Chair Dr Anthony Wierzbicki. “It updates and simplifies treatment protocols for people with established CVD, with diabetes or kidney disease so that these people can derive maximum benefit from lipid-lowering therapies.”Liz Clark, a lay member of the Guideline Development Group, said:

“One of the key challenges is how to convince people who feel well that they need to make substantial lifestyle changes or that they benefit from lifelong drug treatment. This requires high quality information and communication on the benefits and risks of these therapies and this is reflected in the guideline.

“The guideline therefore places patients centrally in any decision making about their management and it emphasises the need to address all CVD risk factors in combination. “It highlights the need for doctors to encourage people to participate in reducing their CVD risk. For example, it recommends that doctors assess a person’s readiness and confidence to make changes to their diet, level of physical activity and smoking and alcohol consumption, as well as taking long-term medication. It also recommends that people are involved in developing a shared management plan.”

So, up to 17 million people in the UK will now be taking statins for the rest of their lives. Well, of course, we will never get anywhere near this number. After about a year 50% of people stop taking their statins – I wonder why. A lot of people will refuse to take them in the first place. But millions and millions will take these drugs for many years.

This is clearly, and absolutely, nuts. My major fear, as I tell anyone, is not that statins have a lot of adverse effects – which they do. You can always stop taking them and the adverse effects go away. If, that is, the effects are not permanent.

I have heard enough testimony from patients, and people who e-mail me, and reviewing FDA Medwatch (the system for picking up drug related adverse effects in America) to believe, one hundred per cent, that many people have been left permanently disabled from taking statins.

My personal belief is that the true burden of damage that will be caused by millions of people taking statins, forever, is very heavy. Every individual case of irreversible neuropathy, or muscle wasting, or degenerative neurological condition, or suchlike, is dismissed as anecdote by the great and the good – and the NICE. ‘Statins don’t do that.’ Is what I hear.

Well, part of me hopes that statins really don’t do that. But, frankly, I don’t believe it. I believe that mass statination of the entire adult population is an absolute medical disaster. I shall continue the fight.

Another backlash begins

Recently I was the author, and co-signee, of a letter sent to NICE (the National Institute for Care and Health Excellence) asking that their recommendations on primary prevention of cardiovascular disease should be withdrawn. Mainly the advice on the use of statins for those at low risk of a heart attack, or stroke. Those in the UK may have seen a bit a stir in the media.

Others who signed this letter included: Sir Richard Thompson, Chairman of the Royal College of Physicians, Dr. Clare Gerada, past president of the Royal College of General Practitioners and Dr. Kailash Chand – deputy chairman of the British Medical Association. [I have included this letter for you to read, if you wish]

So, we are not talking about a bunch of mavericks here – apart from me, of course. When people who are as much a part of the ‘establishment’ as this are willing to put their names to such a letter then you know that people are getting very concerned. Very concerned indeed.

NICE wrote back to me saying that their guidance was completely wonderful and that nothing should change [I paraphrase, but not by much]. This was pretty much as expected. However, in parallel with this letter, the organisation that represents all GPs in the UK (the General Practitioner’s Committee of the BMA) voted unanimously to reject the NICE guidelines. This happened in May.

Now, very recently, the Annual Representative Meeting (ARM) of the British Medical Association debated the NICE guidelines. The motion put to the meeting was,as follows:

‘This meeting believes that in any advisory committee of NICE, when guidance on any drug is issued it must be made clear that none of the members must have a financial interest in pharmaceutical companies which manufacture the drugs’.

Here is the speech made by Kailash Chand to the meeting:

‘Chairman, Representative Body (RB). This is a chosen motion for a purpose. Some of you will have been very concerned about the general direction of travel by NICE, others will have been concerned simply by the issue of conflict of interest.’

This motion calls for clarity in the role of the pharmaceutical companies and their relationship with those individuals who hold positions of considerable influence on the advisory committees of the NICE, which describes and defines what many consider to be best practice.

This motion is NOT seeking to discredit people who advise NICE or indeed to diminish the Institute itself, which has a vital role in interpreting complex modern clinical evidence.

In fact, it is precisely because we should value the Guidance provided by NICE, that it is absolutely essential for it to carry the TRUST and complete CONFIDENCE of the profession. Guidance which has the power to influence our everyday practice, and against which many of us are performance managed must be based on the highest principles of INTEGRITY and TRANSPARENCY.

It is possible that those involved in an advisory capacity to NICE believe that they are able to manage their conflicts of interest, but it is absolutely imperative that NICE should not only be free of even subliminal influence from the pharmaceutical industry, but perhaps even more importantly, be SEEN to be completely independent and not reliant on partial data disclosure of pharmaceutical industry trial data.

Today, we see a lack of confidence from the profession in NICE’s capacity to analyse data and provide reliable advice, when only selective trial information from drug trials is made available.

Recently, the conference of LMCs unanimously passed a motion calling upon NICE to defer a decision to recommend a reduction of the threshold for prescribing statins for primary prevention in the general population.

The BMJ, the Cochrane Institute and indeed this Conference last year called upon the pharmaceutical companies to release ALL data, as a means to increase transparency and to allow more independent verification of results. In fact NICE itself has joined this coalition to call for access to this data, yet continues to place itself in a position of advising with access to only limited information – the pharmaceutical industry have widely ignored these calls for transparent disclosure.

We know that pharma sponsored trials are twice as likely to produce positive results for a drug, and we also know that only half of trials are available in a published form for peer review. This excludes trials which may be stopped prematurely or have end points altered by the sponsors.

Earlier this year the Cochrane Review concluded that the early evidence which had shaped the advice from NICE before the Flu pandemic, had been flawed and had resulted in an exaggerated impression of the usefulness of these medications. The absence of transparency in the process by which data was released and then interpreted has been deeply regrettable. Some have called it a gross betrayal.

So, please support this motion. It is a call for NICE to review its methods where advisory boards may be populated by individuals with links to industry. NICE needs to recognise that those of us tasked to implement its guidance must have full confidence in the transparency and integrity of those individuals providing advice. NICE must be beyond reproach. It should not just be SEEN to be independent, it MUST be independent.

Otherwise its advice which most of us have to implement or adhere to, will continue to affect the lives of millions of patients.

I move.’

This motion was passed unanimously.

Once again, NICE is under fire. This time from the entire medical profession, and those who represent them. It seems that doctors are deeply concerned about the medical evidence. They feel it has been corrupted, and that those who sit on the guideline committees are, themselves, under the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.

Hoorah. Will anything change? I shall keep throwing rocks, or course. Now a few more powerful rock throwers are joining in. Perhaps the citadel will crumble.

Letter sent to NICE:

Professor David Haslam, Chairman
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence
10 Spring Gardens
London, SW1A 2BV

cc. The Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, MP
Secretary of State for Health
Department of Health
Richmond House                                                                                                                                         79 Whitehall
London, SW1A 2NS

10th June. 2014

Concerns about the latest NICE draft guidance on statins

Introduction:

We are concerned about your draft guidance on CV risk for discussion and debate. We would ask for a delay until our concerns are addressed. Whilst we agree with much of the guidance, our concerns focus on six key areas: medicalization of healthy individuals, true levels of adverse events, hidden data, industry bias, loss of professional confidence, and conflicts of interest

The draft guidance recommends offering statin treatment for the primary prevention of CVD to people who have a 10% or greater 10-year risk of developing CVD.

1. Medicalisation of five million healthy individuals.

Firstly, we believe that the benefits in a low risk population do not justify putting approximately five million more people on drugs that will then have to be taken lifelong.

The important questions for clinicians and for patients include: (1) does treatment of elevated cholesterol levels with statins in otherwise healthy persons decrease mortality or prevent other serious outcomes? (2) What are the adverse effects associated with statin treatment in healthy persons? (3) Do the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks? Recent papers have suggested that statin therapy should not be recommended for men with elevated cholesterol who are otherwise healthy.2

Furthermore, Atorvastatin 20mg is also recommended as the first-line treatment. This appears counter intuitive, as Atorvastatin has never been demonstrated to reduce mortality for primary prevention any clinical study. (3b)

2. Conflicting levels of adverse events

In emphasising the cost per Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY), NICE is clearly making a major assumption that the key issue is mortality reduction, and that statins lead to very few adverse effects. We would question this very strongly.

The levels of adverse events reported in the statin trials contain worrying anomalies. For example, in the West of Scotland Coronary Prevention Study (WOSCOPS, the first primary prevention study done), the cumulative incidence of myalgia was 0.06% in the statin arm, and 0.06% in the placebo arm3.

However, the METEOR study found an incidence of myalgia of 12.7% in the Rosuvastatin arm, and 12.1% in the placebo arm4. Whilst it can be understood that a different formulation of statin could cause a different rate of myalgia, it is difficult to see how the placebo could, in one study, cause a rate of myalgia of 0.06%, and 12.1% in another. This is a two hundred fold difference in a trial lasting less than half as long.

Furthermore, the rate of adverse effects in the statin and placebo arms of all the trials has been almost identical. Exact comparison between trials is not possible, due to lack of complete data, and various measures of adverse effects are used, in different ways. However, here is a short selection of major statins studies.

AFCAPS/TEXCAPS: Total adverse effects losartan 13.6%: Placebo 13.8%

4S: Total adverse effect simvastatin 6%: Placebo 6%

CARDS: Total adverse effects atorvastatin 25%: Placebo 24%

HPS: Discontinuation rates simvastatin 4.5%: Placebo 5.1%

METEOR: Total adverse effects rosuvastatin 83.3%: Placebo 80.4%

LIPID: Total adverse effects 3.2% Pravastatin: Placebo 2.7%

JUPITER: Discontinuation rate of drug 25% Rosuvastatin 25% placebo. Serious Adverse events 15.% Rosuvastatin 15.5% placebo

WOSCOPS: Total adverse effects. Pravastatin 7.8%: Placebo 7.0%

Curiously, the adverse effect rate of the statin, it is always very similar to that of placebo. However, placebo adverse effect rates range from 2.7% to 80.4%, a thirty fold difference.

3. Hidden data

Without access to the raw data, it is difficult to understand how statin related adverse events, and placebo related adverse events can mirror each other so precisely, whilst the absolute rates can vary thirtyfold (almost three thousand per cent). These data most certainly require analysis by a third party with appropriate expertise.

A further serious concern is that the data driving NICE guidance on statins comes almost entirely from pharmaceutical company funded studies. Furthermore, these data are not available for review by independent researchers, only those who work for the Oxford Cholesterol Treatment Trialists Collaboration (CTT).

The CTT has commercial agreements with pharmaceutical companies which apparently means that they cannot release data to any other researchers who request to see it. Which, in turn, means that the latest reviews of the data by NICE and also by the Cochrane group are totally reliant on the CTT 20121 meta-analysis analysis of this concealed data?

4. Industry bias

The overdependence on industry data raises concerns about possible biases. Extensive evidence shows that industry funded trials systematically produce more favourable outcomes than non- industry sponsored ones.5,6

Notably, only one major non-industry funded study on statins has been done. ALLHAT-LLP. The main findings were summarised: ‘Although pravastatin has been shown in multiple large clinical trials to reduce CHD morbidity and mortality, NO benefit was demonstrated in ALLHAT-LLT, the largest clinical event trial of pravastatin published to date.’ (6b)

True levels of adverse events

We are also concerned that the rate of adverse effects in post-marketing studies is, in most cases, far higher than that found in the pre-marketing studies. In part this is due to the fact that the clinical trial populations studied in premarketing trials are highly selected. Furthermore, industry sponsored trials include pre-randomisation run-in periods where those who fail to tolerate statins are excluded.RCT patientsmay therefore not represent the population that will actually take the drugs in the real world. RCTs may thus grossly underestimate adverse effects such as myopathy or cognitive impairment,7 and fail to detect drug interactions e.g. amlodipine and statins.

Important findings from some other non-industry sponsored studies

A double blind randomised controlled trial that compared 1016 low risk patients receiving simvastatin 20 mg or pravastatin 40 mg with placebo showed that both drugs had a significant adverse effect on energy/fatigue exercise score with 40% of women reporting reduced energy or fatigue with exertion.9 Reducing exercise capacity in a healthy group when physical inactivity is a major contributor to the development of cardiovascular disease is extremely counterproductive.

A large observational study involving 153,840 postmenopausal women aged between 50 and 80 years enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative study found that statins were associated with a 48% increased risk of developing diabetes.8

Potential psychiatric symptoms including depression, memory loss, confusion, and aggressive reactions have also been associated with statin use.(10)

Erectile dysfunction, to take another significant adverse effect, is not mentioned in the statin trials. Yet, when it was specifically looked for, around 20% of men appeared to be affected.(11)

5. Loss of professional confidence

We are also concerned that GPs feel that this guidance is a ‘step too far. It is instructive to note that a survey of 511GPs carried out by Pulse magazine revealed that ‘….almost six out of ten (57%) oppose the plan to lower the current 10-year risk threshold for primary prevention, while only 25% support it. Furthermore, 55% would not personally take a statin or recommend a family member does so based on a 10% 10-year risk score.’ (11b)

More recently the General Practitioners Committee (GPC), which negotiates on behalf of GPs in the UK passed the following resolution: ‘In light of the Cochrane review of the effectiveness of antiviral influenza treatments, the GPC will request that NICE refrain from recommending a reduction to the current treatment threshold for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with statin therapy unless this is supported by evidence derived from complete public disclosure of all clinical trials’ data’ (11c)

Asking GPs to meet targets that they feel uncomfortable with risks a damaging split within the profession, and a loss of confidence among the public, who are likely to recognise increasingly that GPs are being asked to prescribe statins despite feeling it is inappropriate.

6. Conflicts of Interest (real and perceived)

We are also seriously concerned that 8 members of NICE’s panel of 12 experts for its latest guidance have direct financial ties to the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture statins. Furthermore, some members of the guideline panel are also involved in next generation, more expensive, cholesterol lowering drugs, which are not yet on the market. If cholesterol lowering becomes established in low risk people, the indications for these new cholesterol lowering drugs such as the ApoB Antisence drugs and PCSK9 inhibitors will probably expand as well. We feel that parties with industry conflicts should not be participants in generating recommendations regarding drug use that will influence medical care across the population.

We fear that the CTSU could be perceived as having a major conflict of interest in the area of cardiovascular disease prevention/lipid modification, which has an impact on the Unit’s perceived objectivity. We strongly urge that other researchers, for example, the Cochrane Stroke Group and Cochrane Heart Group, should be able to scrutinize and assess all the data that the CTT has utilised over the years to produce their extremely influential studies.

CTT is a part of the Clinical Trials Service Unit (CTSU) in Oxford, which has carried out many very large studies on statins, and other lipid modification agents with pharmaceutical company support, and has received hundreds of millions in funding over the years. To consider just one such study (REVEAL). REVEAL is being funded by Merck Sharp & Dohme, which developed anacetrapib. A grant of £96 million towards the cost of this multi-million dollar study has been provided to the University of Oxford.

We are concerned that financial conflicts of interest and major commercial bias may have corrupted the database on statins, resulting in an underestimate of the incidence of statin side-effects. Unless all of the data are made available it is impossible to establish a cost per QALY, as there may be DALYs [disability adjusted life years] not accurately accounted for.

We call for all of the data from the clinical trials to be made available to credible researchers, for example, the Cochrane Stroke and Heart Groups. We believe that there is a need for a more robust post-marketing analysis of suspected adverse effects from statins prescribed in a community setting.

To conclude we urge you to withdraw the current guidance on statins for people at low risk of cardiovascular disease until all the data are made available. The potential consequences of not doing so are worrying: harm to many patients over many years, and the loss of public and professional faith in NICE as an independent assessor. Public interests need always to be put before other interests, particularly Pharma.

Yours Sincerely

Sir Richard Thompson, President of the Royal College of Physicians

Professor Clare Gerada, Past Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and Chair of NHS Clinical Transformation Board

Professor David Haslam, General Practitioner and Chair of the National Obesity Forum

Dr J S Bamrah, Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust

Dr Malcolm Kendrick, General Practitioner and Member of the British Medical Association’s General Practitioners sub- Committee

Dr Aseem Malhotra, London Cardiologist.

Dr Simon Poole, General Practitioner

David Newman, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine and Director of Clinical Research, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York

Professor Simon Capewell, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology, University of Liverpool

 

References (may require site registration or membership to access)

1: Mihaylova B, Emberson J, Blackwell L, Keech A, Simes J, Barnes EH, Voysey M, Gray A, Collins R, Baigent C: ‘The effects of lowering LDL cholesterol with statin therapy in people at low risk of vascular disease: meta-analysis of individual data from 27 randomised trials.’ Lancet. 2012 Aug 11;380(9841):581-90. May 17.

2: Redberg RF, Katz MH. Healthy Men Should Not Take Statins. JAMA. 2012;307(14):1491-1492. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.423.

3: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199511163332001#t=articleDiscussion

(3b) http://www.health-heart.org/Pfizer’s49LipitorStudies.PDF

4: John R. Crouse, MD; Joel S. Raichlen, MD; Ward A. Riley, et al: ‘Effect of Rosuvastatin on Progression of Carotid Intima-Media Thickness in Low-Risk Individuals With Subclinical Atherosclerosis’: The METEOR Trial JAMA. 2007;297(12):1344-1353. doi:10.1001/jama.297.12.1344

5: Smith R. Conflicts of interest: how money clouds objectivity. J R Soc Med 2006;99:292-7.

6: Bekelman JE, Li Y, Gross CP. Scope and impact of financial conflicts of interest in biomedical research: a systematic review. Jama 2003;289:454-65.

(6b) http://www.lipidsonline.org/commentaries/cme_pdf/commentary_039.pdf:

7: Mansi I, Mortensen E. The controversy of a wider statin utilization: why? Expert Opin Drug Saf 2013:12:327-37.

8: Culver AL, Ockene IS, Balasubramanian R, Olenzki BC, Sepavich DM, Wactawski-Wende
J, et al. Statin use and risk of diabetes mellitus in postmenopausal women in the Women’s
Health Initiative. Arch Intern Med 2012;172:144-52.

9: Tatley M, Savage R. Psychiatric adverse reactions with statins, fibrates and ezetimibe implications for the use of lipid-lowering agents. Drug Safety 2007;30:195-201.

10: Golomb BA, Evans MA, Dimsdale JE, White HL. Effects of Statins on Energy and Fatigue With Exertion: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(15):1180-1182. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.2171.

11: Solomon H1, Samarasinghe YP, Feher MD, et al: ‘Erectile dysfunction and statin treatment in high cardiovascular risk patients.’ Int J Clin Pract. 2006 Feb;60(2):141-

(11b) http://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/clinical/therapy-areas/cardiovascular/majority-of-gps-reject-nice-proposals-to-extend-statins-to-millions-more/20005985.article#.Ux3eGPmKVcY

(11c) http://webappmk.doctors.org.uk/Session/2779737-8NrQN5n75yPDD0RVnLZy-aoqmids/MIME/INBOX/125049-02-B/News%2014%20-%2022%20April%202014.pdf

Calling All Physicians: The Salt ‘Debate’ Must Stop

My last blog highlighted the bully boy tactics used to silence critics of mainstream medicine. Normally by threatening anyone who dares question the experts of ‘killing patients’, or words to that effect. It is a well-worn tactic which, surprisingly, seems to work every time.

‘If you dare to question breast cancer screening, women will die.’

‘If you question the use of statins, millions will die.’

‘If you….’ well you get the general gist.

There are of course slightly more subtle versions of this. However, when a medical ‘expert’ deigns to address mere mortals, we know what they mean when they say ‘The salt ‘debate’ must stop.’ What they are saying, albeit indirectly, is that if you don’t stop questioning what I say, millions will die. Maybe billions…..over the years, perhaps an entire Google.

On this note, several different people pointed me at a recent debate at the conference of the European Society of Hypertension (ESH) and the International Society of Hypertension (ISH) in Athens. Well, not a debate really, more of a tirade. Here is one part of the report

‘Any “controversy” over whether dietary salt is a cause of heart disease and stroke is the result of weak research methodology or commercial interference, Dr Norm Campbell (Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta, Calgary) and Dr Graham MacGregor (Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, London, UK) argued here….’1

I shall translate their statement. If you do not believe that excess salt consumption is a cause of heart disease and stroke you are a flawed and misdirected scientist (weak research methodology), or you are corrupt (commercial interference). No other explanation is, of course, possible. You are either an idiot, or corrupt, and therefore – by definition – should be ignored. Or perhaps stoned to death for being an unbeliever.

Ah well, that put me in my place. Along with anyone else who dares to disagree with the mighty Norm Campbell and Graham MacGregor. Now Graham MacGregor makes great play of the fact that grubby commercial companies are pushing hard to get us to put more salt in his food. He, of course, has no commercial affiliations.

Hold on. Is he not on the board of the Blood Pressure Association? An organisation that receives funding from various different sources……

You may like to know that we have been very fortunate to have received substantial funding from a number of organisations who have helped the Association get off the ground. These Founder Members are listed below:2

  • Astra-Zeneca UK Limited
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceuticals Limited
  • Merck Sharp & Dohme Limited
  • The Community Fund
  • Omron Healthcare UK Limited
  • Pfizer Limited
  • Servier Laboratories Ltd
  • Solvay Healthcare Limited

Would some of these companies not be pharmaceutical companies? Would some of them make tablets to lower blood pressure? Well, gosh, let me think….

Astra-Zeneca, just to look at the first company on the list. They make:

  • Candestartan
  • Lisinopril
  • Felodipine
  • Metoprolol
  • Atenolol

Well, that’s only five blood pressure lowering agents. Which means that Astra-Zeneca clearly have little interest in blood pressure lowering….not. If you were being a little cynical, you would think that an organisation almost entirely funded by pharmaceutical companies might be considered to have a dog in this fight? You might think that Graham MacGregor could, just possibly, have a little conflict of interest going on. No, surely not.

As for Norm Campbell.

‘Dr. Norm Campbell has given talks sponsored by Bayer, Sanofi Aventis, Biovail, Bristol Myers Squibb, Pfizer, Novartis and Merck Frosst and also has been on advisory boards for Novartis, Pfizer, Servier, Boehringer Ingelheim and Schering Plough.’ 3

As per usual. Seek the commercial conflicts, and ye shall find. You don’t get to be the sort of professor who gets to stand up, command the stage, and intone your words of wisdom at an international medical conference without a little background helping hand from a few pharmaceutical companies. Anyway, what were these two saying about commercial interference again? Difficult to think with the sound of all these cash registers ringing in my ears.

Of course, if confronted, these two will state that all the money they receive goes to charity, or that any funding makes no difference to what they say….or suchlike. As Robbie Burns once remarked. ‘Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us.’

You, are corrupt because you have accepted money from a commercial source; I, on the other hand, am not. Because I am a superior being incapable of being tainted by money.’

However, the main point here is the fact that we have more bully boy tactics going on. Two ‘grand fromages’ take the stage to beat the opposition into pulp.

‘When a member of the audience pointed to the PURE analysis showing that most of the world eats much higher levels of sodium than those recommended by most international organizations, MacGregor and Campbell leaped on this as an example of a study that had radically failed to measure salt in an appropriate fashion, even devising a new “formula” to estimate salt intake because even spot urine testing had been inadequate. “Please let [PURE principal investigator Dr] Salim Yusuf [McMaster University, Hamilton, ON] know that he should stop using spot urine analysis,” MacGregor said curtly.’

I do hope that everyone in the audience made their own minds up about what they were hearing. I suspect the reporter had their own view, by including the word ‘curtly’.

May I make, yet another, plea for medical experts to stop, cease and desist, attempting to bully into submission anyone who dares disagree with them. It is demeaning.

References (may require site registration or membership to access)

1: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/826970?src=emailthis

2: http://www.surgerydoor.co.uk/advice/living-with/living-with-high-blood-pressure/what-blood-pressure-association-do-for-you/

3:http://archive.cme.mcgill.ca/html/videos/2009.rural_en/20090923_JacquesGenest/homeblank.html

You are killing patients

(Who me?)

Debate in science is essential. You would hope it were the very lifeblood of progress. One would also hope that researchers could disagree with each other in frank and open debate. But it has become increasingly obvious to me that if you criticise the experts in medical research you can expect a very rough ride indeed. You certainly risk being stomped into silence.

I have witnessed this quite a lot recently, and have found that the ‘stomping’ game is very simple. If a critic of an area of mainstream medicine seems to be gaining some traction with the public, they are very rapidly accused of ‘killing patients’ by various professors a.k.a. ‘experts.’

Sadly, it has become an article of faith that ‘experts’ cannot be argued with. For they have attained the status of demi-gods. Recently, I was reading an article about Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in economics. He was discussing the irrationality of the financial system. He made many interesting points. For example:

The way scientists try to convince people is hopeless because they present evidence, figures, tables, arguments, and so on. But that’s not how to convince people. People aren’t convinced by arguments, they don’t believe conclusions because they believe in the arguments that they read in favour of them. They’re convinced because they read or hear the conclusions from people they trust. You trust someone and you believe what they say. That’s how ideas are communicated. The arguments come later.’

Slightly later on, he talks about his own belief in global warming:

‘Why do I believe global warming is happening? The answer isn’t that I have gone through all the arguments and analysed the evidence – because I haven’t. I believe the experts from the National Academy of Sciences. We all have to rely on experts.’

We all have to rely on experts? So says Daniel Kahneman. A man whom I generally greatly admire. In this case though, I could not disagree more violently. In one breath he states that people aren’t convinced by arguments; they’re convinced because they read or hear conclusions from people they trust. Then he says that we all have to rely on experts. But he does not link these two thoughts together to ask the obvious question. Just how, exactly, did the experts come to their conclusions?

By listening to people they trust? And who might they be? Other experts presumably. And how did they come to their conclusions….by listening to other experts. And how did they come to their conclusions. Hold on, it seems we are trapped in a loop of self-reinforcing logic. There is no escape.

In this area, I tend more to go along with Professor David Sackett:

According to the founder of Evidence Based Medicine experts are hindering the healthy advancement of science.

Writing in this week’s British Medical Journal (BMJ), Canadian-based researcher, David Sackett, said that he would “never again lecture, write, or referee anything to do with evidence based clinical practice”. Sackett is not doing this because he has ceased to believe in evidence based clinical practice but, as the BMJ comments, because he is worried about the power of experts in stifling new ideas and wants the retirement of experts to be made compulsory.

Sackett claims that the prestige of experts (including himself) gives their opinions far greater persuasive power than they deserve on scientific grounds alone.”Whether through deference, fear, or respect, others tend not to challenge them, and progress towards the truth is impaired in the presence of an expert,” he writes.

He also argues that expert bias against new ideas operates during the review of grant applications and manuscripts. “Reviewers face the unavoidable temptation to accept or reject new evidence and ideas, not on the basis of scientific merit, but on the extent to which they agree or disagree with the public positions taken by experts on these matters.” 1

My rather cynical view is that experts can be compared to those men (usually men) who have grabbed hold of the microphone at the front of a mob during a protest march. With this simple act they have managed to gain status and authority. Shortly after they become spokesmen for the revolutionary movement, then leaders…then despots.

However, most newspapers, journalists, television producers never ask they question, how did an expert become an expert – what makes them so. Instead, they are completely in the thrall of the ‘expert, and greatly fear their power. Which means that when an eminent professor loads and fires the ‘you’re killing patients’ gun, all hell breaks loose and panic stalks the land. Journalists, newspaper editors, TV producers and suchlike quiver in fear. They instantly retract everything they have ever published on the matter, and promise never to do it again.

The example of Andrew Wakefield is familiar to all. He stands accused of causing the deaths of thousands of children. Fewer people have probably heard to Peter Gotzsche, who is a professor and head of the Nordic Cochrane Collaboration (yet, not an expert). He has long been a critic of a breast cancer screening. Which has not endeared him to many who work in that field. He is regularly accused of killing thousands of women.

He was forwarded a copy on e-mail by a colleague. It has been written to one of his greatest critics Lazlo Tabar by another ‘expert’. It contained this section – which I have reproduced in full from Professor Gotzsche’s book ‘Mammography screening, truth lies and controversy’

‘What is remarkable to me is that this man (i.e. Dr G) calls himself a scientist since he obviously and knowingly ignores the scientific method in order to further his own agenda, whatever that may be. I cannot believe he is so intellectually deficient that he cannot grasp the plethora of evidence that so strongly supports the benefits of screening. What then drives him so blindly in his crusade to convince us that all the world is flat? To become infamous as a contrarian, standing lonely on the curvature of the as he denies is spinning under his feet? Or is it something even more petty? An all-consuming hatred and jealousy of Lazlo Taber, whose impeccable trial facilitated by meticulous Swedish record keeping and a socialist society provides a setting unparalleled in the world for a scientific trial? What is tragic and make G’s ravings sinister is that I am sure his influence has resulted in women’s unnecessary deaths somewhere in the world. The Scandinavians are known for their fair-minded, progressive concern for women, as well as for their intellectual integrity. IN this regard, PG is certainly a Nordic contrarian.’ [G or PG in this case refers to Peter Gotzsche]

Well, that’s very pleasant. However the part that I wish to draw attention to is this short section…’I am sure his influence has resulted in women’s unnecessary deaths somewhere in the world.’ A difficult statement to either prove, or disprove – I would think. However, the weapon is familiar ‘You are killing patients.’

On pretty much the same lines, I reproduce two short sections from a letter written to Dr Uffe Ravnskov by Professor John Kastelein (A big noise in CV research). He is objecting to Ravnskov’s view that raised cholesterol does not cause heart disease:

‘If this was a joke, I could have laughed about your statements heartily, but they are in fact criminal and bordering on the insane….. I insist that you refrain from any advice to any patient anymore. You are lucky not to live in the Netherlands. I would have dragged you to court.’

Once again, a nice polite scientific debate. Accusing someone of being criminal bordering on the insane. More recently, you will have noted the successful attempt to crush the Australian Catalyst programmes. One of which criticised the diet heart/cholesterol hypothesis. The second program was critical of the ever increasing prescribing of statins. I mentioned it in my last blog

The controversial Catalyst program on statins and heart disease, The Heart of the Matter, was attacked by health experts even before it aired last year.

The presenter of ABC radio’s Health Report, Norman Swan, warned “people will die” as a result of the TV program’s messages about heart medications.

Swan, whose criticism of the program has been vindicated by the independent Audience and Consumer Affairs Unit report, had said the program made him “really angry” because it might affect Indigenous Australians, who are especially likely to suffer from high cholesterol.’

Once again the ‘you’re killing patients’ gun was prepped and fired to pretty devastating effect. Both programmes were pulled from the air with humble apologies all round. Even the first episode ‘dietary villains’ was pulled,which was found to contain no errors at all. Guilt by association I suppose.

A similar battle is being fought in the UK between the statin experts, and those who would criticize them. It has been going on for some time. In 2011 the Cochrane Collaboration published a report very critical of the benefit of statins in low risk/primary prevention patients.

Professor Sir Rory Collins, the most eminent statin expert took great affront, and started to pick the paper apart, claiming it was highly dangerous and damaging. At one point claiming it was far more dangerous than Andrew Wakefield’s Lancet paper.

I quote from 2011:

In public health terms it is potentially a far more serious misinterpretation than that of Wakefield and the MMR in the Lancet.’2

He doesn’t state that the Cochrane collaboration is killing patients directly, but by using the example of Wakefield, we know exactly what he means. ‘You are killing patients.’

Professor Collins has warmed to this theme more recently. As you may be aware he has been attacking the BMJ recently for publishing articles about statins which claim that they have significant side-effects. He vehemently protests that they have virtually none. I quote him again, this time from the Guardian:

“It is a serious disservice to British and international medicine,” Collins told the Guardian at the time, claiming that the alarm caused was probably killing more people than had been harmed as a result of the paper on the MMR vaccine by Andrew Wakefield. “I would think the papers on statins are far worse in terms of the harm they have done.”3

He has been recently followed on this theme by Professor Magdi Yacoub (A famous heart surgeon, now retired from this job). Who is pressing the ‘you’re killing patients’ button with great enthusiasm.

Hey guys, engage in scientific debate, or shut up. Accusing people of killing patients is a terrible and horrible insult, and should play no part in any discussions of this sort. It is the tactics of the playground bully. Yes, I mean you.

References (may require site registration or membership to access)

1:http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/health/HealthRepublish_124166.htm

2: http://webappmk.doctors.org.uk/Session/3366252-XXkGXnwQtec5BtkDi3av-aoqmidr/MIME/Trash/146856-02-B/collins%20statins%20exchange%20with%20cochrane.pdf

3: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/may/15/statins-bmj-statement-professor-collins-side-effects

The dog that did not bark

Sorry that I have been a bit quiet recently. Just been finishing off my latest book ‘The dangerous book for grown-ups.‘ [Plug]. Anyway, I most amused to see the latest headline from a study that appeared in my inbox. I felt I had to comment.

‘Onglyza offers unparalleled confidence in a broad range of patients with Type 2 diabetes, delivering effective glycaemic control, without the worry of increased risk of CV events.’ This headline was from a site called MDLinx that pushes stuff at me – whether I want it to or not. Actually I did subscribe, as I am always interested in what the pharmaceutical industry is saying about itself.

Onglyza by the way is one a range of new drugs designed to lower blood sugar levels in diabetes. It works in a complicated fashion. However, the bottom line is that is increases insulin release – mainly after mealtimes. Onglyza also goes by the generic name saxagliptin.

Anyway, to return to the main point here. We have this wonderfully positive headline about a new trial on Onglyza, and what could be wrong with that, you may ask yourself? Well, once upon a time, it was assumed that if you lowered that blood sugar you would also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Heart attacks and strokes mainly. This was because a raised blood sugar (or type II diabetes) is seen a very strong risk factor of cardiovascular disease.

Which means that you would kind of expect that if you lowered blood sugar using Onglyza, you might also see a reduction in heart attacks and strokes. instead we have a headline proudly announcing that doctors need not worry about Onglyza increasing cardiovascular risk. My but life does move on.

So what the bloody hell does it do then, exactly? Well, there is much concern that it might increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.  Anything more? Well, here from Wikipedia:

In February 2012, Bristol-Myers/Astra Zeneca distributed additional safety information on saxagliptin use in South Africa. The package insert is to be edited for South Africa. Contraindications will now include a history of sensitivity to saxagliptin (or another DPP4 inhibitor) as well as pancreatitis. Spontaneously-reported adverse events in South Africa have included anaphylaxis, angioedema and acute pancreatitis.

In a cardiovascular outcomes trial, saxagliptin treatment let to a small but statistically significant increase in the risk of being hospitalized for heart failure. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxagliptin

Blimey, is there nothing this drug cannot do? Well, one thing it does not do, hooray, is that it does not actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Just as well really, otherwise every effect that Onglyza has would seem to be completely negative. Heart failure, pancreatitis, possibly even pancreatic cancer.

We have reached an interesting point in drug development when the fact that a drug designed to prevent a disease (CV disease) is hailed for not causing an increase in that very disease. Has this really become the limit of our ambitions.

Having thought about this for a while I decided to create my new generic headline that pharmaceutical companies can feel free to use if they wish. Are there no limits to my generosity?

‘A groundbreaking study has found that (insert name of drug here) does not kill people from the disease it is supposed to be preventing. Internationally famous opinion leader (insert name of opinion leader here) says this is a landmark study and strongly recommends that (insert name of drug here) should become the drug of choice for (insert name of disease here)