Patrick Swayze died yesterday after battling pancreatic cancer - by all accounts, he survived longer than expected, probably through a combination of his own genetics and the experimental chemotherapy he was trying. Best of wishes and deepest sympathy to all his family.
By great coincidence yesterday, the blog Respectful Insolence did a post about an "alternative" therapy trial on pancreatic cancer therapies that did not turn out so well for the CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) side.
I work for a foundation that does medical studies. We are bound by endless regulations that govern our treatment of the human beings who participate in our studies (animal studies have endless regulations, too, but we don't do animal studies), because it is well understood that we cannot cause harm to patients in our care, even if it means it is harder to test new therapies. The examples in the US alone of the Tuskeege Experiment and studies where radioactive material was injected into people (to study the effects of radiation poisoning) without their knowledge or permission (including special needs boys) should be warning enough that the need to develop new therapies does not, and should never justify unethical behaviour towards patients even if it gets quicker results.
Medicine practiced without ethics is torture.
Which is why I find it so hard to understand how the Gonzalez study ever got past any IRB (Independent Review Board); at least it was stopped early, when the alternative treatment was found to be no better than no treatment at all, but 32 people still suffered, and that is unconscionable. At a time when they were already sick and in pain, they were further subjected to coffee(!) enemas, massive numbers of pills, and a restrictive diet that increased their chances of malnutrition (a signifcant predictor of poor survival in cancer patients). The doctors that participated in this trial should be ashamed of themselves.
I am not a person who believes that medical advancement should be religiously approved; the idea that all scientific progress should first be run by some nebulous Big Guy In The Sky for approval (God's own IRB, I guess) is laughable. But, contrary to what the more fundamental of the fundamentalists try to claim, ethics is not predicated on religion, but on the humane treatment of all beings on the planet (not to mention the planet itself). Knowledge is good, but knowledge obtained at the expense of needless pain is tainted. We owe it to future generations to keep our work ethical. This does not mean no pain, but it does mean that every study, at every point, must be carefully vetted and held to internationally agreed-on standards of patient care.
(I'll even Godwin myself and point out that the Nazis did some interesting medical experiments, including being the first to link lung cancer and smoking, but that doesn't even begin to justify the intense and horrific torture they put their "patients" through. They also tried to breed women with German Shepherds. Fuckers.)
I'm not anti-animal testing, either - in the absence of viable alternatives, animal testing is one of the few living tissue ways we have of testing new life-saving drugs - but I'm deeply against animal testing "just because". Ethical scientists tend to agree with this view, not to mention that it is very poor science to randomly do horrible things to animals to see what happens.
When people ask "what's the harm?" in response to criticism of CAM therapies, the results of the Gonzalez study (and others like it) should show very clearly what the harm is - Patrick Swayze, if he had decided to forgo the chemotherapy that likely extended his life and instead tried the Gonzalez protocol, would have died sooner, in horrible pain (the guidelines of the study required the non-use of analgesics for the CAM group), and malnourished.
This is not medicine, this is magical thinking. It's great that we have clever brains that come up with all sorts of interesting theories, but those theories need to be proved. There isn't really any such thing as "alternative" medicine; medicine of any form, once proved to work, becomes simply medicine. Everything else is wishful thinking.
RIP, Mr. Swayze. We loved you in Dirty Dancing, Red Dawn, and Road House.