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Foreign-born Biomedical Researcher in the United States, a Tale of Woe

It has been more than two years since I wrote about a tale of woe, the sad reality of being a non-immigrant biomedical researcher in the US. I chronicled the travails of my wife, who – even with a STEM PhD from a top-tier medical school in New York – was facing the murky uncertainties associated with doing science on a visa in the US. That uneasy disquietude still continues to haunt her; even though her Green Card application has been submitted, nothing is certain until she actually gets it in her hand – and we have no clue when that is going to happen.

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Sympathetic Practitioner, the Secret Weapon of Homeopathy and Other Alt-Med Modalities

ResearchBlogging.org

Last month, PLOS One published a study which held significant interest for me; as a long time sufferer from acid reflux (which is currently reasonably controlled by regular use of a PPI – Proton-pump inhibitor – class of prescription antacid), I was curious to dive into this Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) study from Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston, in which the investigators observed that Patient-Provider Interactions Affect Symptoms in Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) as well as dyspepsia and other acid-reflux related issues, which affect 2-4 out of every 10 people in Western world (similar statistics were observed in the Northern part of India). The name of the study medication, Acidil, wasn’t immediately familiar to me, but it turned out to be a ‘homeopathic preparation’, which – along with the placebo-controlled designed – piqued my interest further. Although the severity of GERD symptoms may fluctuate due to different reasons, it is usually not one of those self-correcting conditions in which homeopaths often claim beneficial effect. So, sufficiently interested, I delved deeper.

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Perception of Effectiveness of Homeopathy and Other Alternative Medicine Relies on Placebo Effect

The world of alternative medicine – nowadays more fashionably known as complementary and integrative medicine (CIM), replacing the erstwhile CAM (A = alternative) – encompasses a wide range of practices. Some of these practices involve physical motion of parts or whole of the body, such as massage, Yoga, and Tai Chi; if one subtracts the dollops of mysticism, especially of Eastern origin, that have come to be associated with these practices, one finds that they perform much of the same functions as any other regular exercise regimen, providing similar benefits. A few practices employ dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, various salts, et cetera) and folk-remedies based on herbal medicine (Traditional Chinese Medicine/TCM, Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani, Amachi, and so forth) – some of which may and do contain biologically active substances, but the evidence for those being functional, safe, and effective therapeutic modalities in actual clinical situations is extremely scant, and the wide-ranging claims made by the practitioners are mostly never backed up by solid, scientific empirical methods. (Further reading: 1. Veteran ScienceBlogger Orac explains how the multi-billion dollar Supplements Industry takes their adoring clients for a ride; 2. I argue how the recent accolades for work stemming from the use of herbal medicine as a resource is not a context-less validation that herbalism works.)

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2015 Nobel to Traditional Chinese Medicine Expert is a Win for Evidence-based Pharmacognosy

Yesterday, on October 5, 2015, one half of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to scientist and pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou (alternatively, Tu Yo Yo, 屠呦呦 in Chinese), for her discovery of the anti-malarial Artemisinin. (The other half went jointly to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura, for their discovery of a novel therapy for roundworm infection.)

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A Brushiness With Ogdenashiness

Frederick Ogden Nash (August 19, 1902 – May 19, 1971), often referred to simply as ‘Ogden Nash’, was an American poet with a signature style of whimsical light verses replete with puns, deliberate misspellings, strangely irregular meter, but always ending in rhymes. Having read Ogden Nash as a child, I always find his poems delightful and utterly enjoyable. I recently came to know that I have another connection to him; apparently, Ogden Nash, a New Yorker by birth, called Baltimore his home, having moved there in 1934, and the Johns Hopkins Hospital was where he was being treated for complications of Crohn’s Disease, and sadly, breathed his last. [Source: Ogden Nash Biography]

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ResearchGate, heal thyself… please? (UPDATED)

People reading this blog (I sure hope someone reads it *bites nails*) may be familiar with the name ResearchGate. It was envisaged as a social networking site focused on scientists; founded in 2008 by Ijad Madisch and Sören Hofmayer, both physicians, and Horst Fickenscher, a computer scientist, the site’s stated mission statement is: to connect researchers and make it easy for them to share and access scientific output, knowledge, and expertise. Although not unique (or the only player) in this field, ResearchGate offers several features which are valuable for academic collaborations:

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A Life Well Lived

The dénouement that was inevitable came to pass. I woke up yesterday to the sorrowful news that Professor Sacks, the neurologist and author extraordinaire, had passed away at the age of 82. Of the two obituaries in two leading dailies that I read one after the other, the NY Times Obit seemed more of a commemoration of his life’s outstanding work, whereas the Guardian Obit seemed (to me) a celebration of his amazing life, but both were moving in their descriptions of this ex-biker/weightlifter polymath physician/author I have long admired. My time at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, NY, overlapped the last five years of his presence there. I met him from afar a couple of times in the hallways, but never had the courage to approach him and talk. I wish I had. Journalist and author Steve Silberman, who has for years had close contact with Professor Sacks, expressed eloquently on Twitter what I have been feeling:

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Weird Lack of Proper Control in an Acupuncture Study Published in PLOS ONE

PLOS One seems to have done it again! I wrote a few days ago about how the peer review system at PLOS One seemed to give a free pass to acupuncture studies, when it came to seeking rigorous experimental evidence in support of the claims presented in the paper. I had shared the post via Twitter, and in response, someone from PLOS One had replied:

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Homeopathy – that “affordable”, “cost-saving” therapy? Not really, as the numbers say.

Classical homeopathy is scientifically implausible as a therapy, because there is no substance of any medicinal value left in the functionally-infinitely diluted nostrum. Naturally, there is no hard evidence supporting the therapeutic use of homeopathy, in terms of clinical benefit to the patient. Absent such support, homeopathy-peddlers generally push affordability and low cost as homeopathy’s unique selling point (USP). A large retrospective cost-analysis study, based on nearly 45000 individual German patients, gives lie to that myth.

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Lax standards at PLOS One for peer review of CAM research papers?

Serious question: has the peer review system at the PLOS journals been doing a less-than-stellar job when it comes to evaluating complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) research for publication? If the answer is ‘yes’, why? Or if ‘no’, how does a paper like this go through PLOS ONE without some serious revisions? I refer to the systematic review and meta-analysis on effectiveness of acupuncture for essential hypertension, done by a group of researchers from the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China, led by Xiao-Feng Zhao, published on July 24, 2015, on PLOS ONE. The authors conclude that there is acceptable evidence for use of acupuncture as adjunctive therapy along with medication for treating hypertension. My perusal of the paper led to some major reservations about that assumption, as well as indicated some instances of sloppy writing which should have been corrected at the stage of review – but, strangely, wasn’t.

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