If it’s “natural,” it must be better. It just has to be.

My dear readers, I beg your indulgence for the moment.

I had been planning on doing something a bit more serious than what I’ve been up to lately. Believe it or not, NaturalNews.com pointed me to a study that’s actually pretty interesting. It even challenges to some extend existing results. Of course, Mike Adams’ minion’s interpretation of the study was so wrong as to be not even wrong, as they say (so what else is new?). But therein lies the entertainment value with the educational value.

Sometimes, however, something happens, and a followup to something I’ve written before is demanded. It happens. As you may recall, yesterday I discussed a rather despicable attempt by a supporter of quackery named Tony Isaacs to appropriate Patrick Swayze’s misfortune to make the extravagant claim that Swayze is profoundly “misguided” for putting his faith in “conventional” medicine rather than “alternative” medicine. Much to the amusement of my commenters, Tony Isaacs himself showed up in the comments. His response is worth looking at more closely because it demonstrates something about the thinking of his ilk that is very important to understand. Isaacs begins with a typical appeal to anecdotal evidence. However, it’s lame, even by “alternative” medicine standards:

What would you have to say to the pancreatic cancer patients who are beating cancer with oleander – in many instances using a patented medicine version no less that has been used for over 40 years outside the US and is now in phase II testing in the US after having passed phase I toxicity tests?

I wonder if you would care to comment on the more advanced oleander medicine now in initial FDA testing at MD Anderson in Houston (and having great reports, btw)?

Or perhaps you would have some words of wisdom for the most recent two pancreatic patients who use the patented medicine available from Honduras by FDA exception rule who, after 6 months have either no cancer in one instance and completely halted tumor growth in the other?

I’ll have more to say about this “patented” version of oleander later. In the meantime until I get there, notice how he makes a claim that pancreatic cancer patients are “beating” cancer with oleander. Out of curiosity about whether I was missing something, I started looking into oleander. Doing a search on “oleander” and “pancreatic cancer” produced only one hit, an article looking at the effect of oleander extracts in pancreatic cell lines in dishes. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the way that most new compounds suspected of having antitumor activity are tested. However, it’s only the very first step. Many are the compounds that looked promising in in vitro studies tested against cancer cells on a dish that fail to make it past animal studies, and many more are the compounds that fail to make it past early clinical trials. There were even a phase I trial published for Anvirzel, an extract of oleander, but phase I trials are not therapeutic trials. They are not designed to detect efficacy, only toxicity (i.e., the maximal tolerated dose), pharmacokinetics, and side effects. In all, there were 15 studies found when I did a PubMed search of “oleander” and “cancer,” and that was the only one in which it was used in human cancer patients. There were also a couple of mouse studies, and the rest were all cell culture studies or reviews.

None of this is unusual for a woo-meister. They frequently cite impossible to verify anecdotes and extrapolate cell culture, animal, or very early clinical data to make claims of miraculous healings. In fact, I daresay that regular readers of this blog have seen this sort of thing dozens, if not hundreds, of times. What is unusual is just how blatantly he states a principal that advocates of “alternative” medicine lives by: If it’s “natural” (or perceived as “natural”) it must be better. Always. After all, Isaacs ranted about the “poison” of chemotherapy and the “burning” of radiation therapy; so what is is favorite “cancer cure,” this extract of oleander?

It’s a highly toxic plant, as described by the M.D. Anderson site:

Side Effects and Warnings:

Common oleander contains a strychnine-like toxin and a heart-active cardiac glycoside substance (similar to the prescription drug digoxin) that may cause the heart to beat rapidly or abnormally, or to stop beating. Common oleander has been used as rat poison, insecticide and fish poison and is toxic to mammals including humans. Animals (sheep) have died after eating as little as two to three leaves of Nerium oleander (common oleander). Children may die after eating a single leaf of common oleander. Eating the leaves, flowers or bark of common oleander may cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, pain, fatigue, drowsiness, unsteadiness, bloody diarrhea, abnormal heart rhythms, seizures, liver or kidney damage or unconsciousness. Death may occur within one day. Reports of toxicity and deaths in children and adults have been reported for decades in Australia, India, Sri Lanka and the United States.

Fruits of Thevetin peruviana (yellow oleander) are thought to be even more toxic to mammals, including humans. Based on human studies of intentional overdose (suicide attempts), eating eight or more seeds of yellow oleander may be fatal. Additional side effects of oleander ingestion include irritation and redness of lips, gums and tongue, nausea, vomiting, depression, irritability, fast breathing, sweating, stomach pain, diarrhea, headache, confusion, visual disturbances and constricted pupils. Abnormal blood tests, including tests of liver and kidney function (potassium, bilirubin, creatinine and blood urea), have been reported in humans.It is possible that plants grown in the same soil as oleander plants or in soil exposed to oleander may contain trace amounts of oleander.

Wow. That’s some seriously toxic stuff. In fact, it sounds a lot like…chemotherapy. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like. It has a lot of toxicity. However, unlike many chemotherapeutic agents, it’s unclear if oleander extracts have any actual benefit. It’s possible that they might, but the evidence isn’t there in the form of randomized trials showing a definite benefit. Certainly Isaacs’ anecdotes do not qualify as any sort of convincing evidence, at least not in the form he gave it. After all, we have no idea who most of these people are; we have no idea what stage of cancer they had; and we have no idea if they actually responded to oleander extracts or not. But, hey, it’s “natural”; so it must be better than all that nasty chemotherapy. Oh, wait. Lots of chemotherapeutic agents are natural products too. Taxanes, for instance. What’s the difference? They’re products of the big bad pharmaceutical companies, of course!

But wait, does that really matter to Isaacs? Apparently not. One of my readers pointed out that the clinical trial to which Isaacs referred in his comment is testing an agent dubbed PBI-05204. It is a phase I trial, which means that it is not testing efficacy, but rather maximum tolerated dose and pharmacokinetics. In any case, get a load of what Isaacs said about it:

I realize that oleander in raw form is highly toxic – but not so when processed into the medicine and supplement form (which is itself now made by a pharmaceutical manufacturing company to exact standards) and the FDA phase I trials found no doseage limit for toxicity, but rather stopped because the dose reached a size that was impractical to exceed.

As a point of interest, the very lates oleander medicine that has entered phase I FDA testing at MD Anderson clinic has no name yet, but is known simply as PBI-05204 (the PBI stands for Phoenix Biotechnology Inc).

In other words, PBI-05204 is a drug. Not only is it a drug, but it’s a drug made by a pharmaceutical company.. It may not be a huge pharmaceutical company like Merck or Bristol Squibb-Meyers, but it is a pharmaceutical company. In fact, it’s a startup biotechnology company that’s raising cash from investors just like any other biotech company and, presumably, hopes someday to make a tidy profit and grow into something much bigger. Moreover, PBI-05204 is a purified (and possibly modified) natural product, just like lots of other experimental compounds isolated, purified, chemically modified, and manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, both large and small. The only difference is that this particular patented natural product is derived from a plant something that Isaacs likes, extracts of which promotes in the form of oleander soup. it’s chemotherapy, pure and simple. In fact, it’s more than that; it’s chemotherapy made through the same process of natural products testing and discovery that was used to identify, test, and market any number of other drugs produced by that “evil big pharma” cartel.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. I’d like to say it’s astounding, but I’ve seen its like many, many times before. It doesn’t matter that the oleander plant is extremely toxic and that extracts from it can similarly be very toxic. It’s “natural.” So to Isaacs it must be good; it must be holy; it must be right. It must cure cancer, HIV, and other diseases. Just like colloidal silver, which Isaacs also sells. Funny how Isaacs fails to mention that chronic usage of colloidal silver can produce the Smurf syndrome.

The bottom line is that the belief that “natural” is better than the products of big pharma is far more akin to religion than to science, and it is this belief that drives so much of the “alternative” medicine movement. Mr. Isaacs himself epitomizes this belief through his hawking of various oleander extracts, even though oleander is extremely toxic, and his ability to see no conflict between his support of using purified components from oleander made by a profit-driven startup biotech company and his disparaging of chemotherapy and “mainstream” medicine. There is no difference. Oleander is chemotherapy, and it is being tested and marketed by institutions that are firmly part of the “conventional” biomedical industrial complex. The difference between Isaac’s oleander and chemotherapy is that at least there has to be hard scientific evidence that chemotherapy is effectve before it can be marketed. Oleander extracts have not yet passed that hurdle. They may, but they have not yet. Moreover, there is no evidence that I can find that oleander extracts are any more effective against, for example, pancreatic cancer than currently used chemotherapy regimens. Certainly there is no evidence that Isaacs can present of any miraculous-seeming “cures” that would make his previous bold claims that Patrick Swayze would do much better with “natural” therapies like oleander than he is currently doing using scientific medicine to fight his cancer.

Still don’t believe me that it’s about religion more than science. Then get a load of this statement from Isaacs:

Let me ask you, if nature is not effective at preventing and healing illness, exactly when did God become a quack?

That’s actually a rather interesting question, although not for the reason Isaacs probably thinks and no doubt Isaacs doesn’t realize why I consider it an interesting question. For one thing, no one is denying that nature and natural products can’t be effective against some diseases or in the promotion of health in general. What is in dispute is the specific claim that Isaacs’ “natural cures” can cure advanced cancers like pancreatic cancer.

In any case, I could easily retort: If nature is so effective at preventing and healing illness, then why does God allow so many people to become so sick and even to die of horrible diseases like AIDS and cancer? Oh, wait. I bet I know. It’s the person’s fault for not living “naturally” enough. Yes, that does appear to be the implication, as it is for so much woo, that disease is almost completely preventable or curable if only you eat the right foods, do the right exercises, take the right supplements, and believe the right stuff hard enough, so that if you get sick, it’s almost always because of a failing on your part, not because nature’s a bitch.

Perhaps Tony would clarify that point for me.