Naturopathy, functional medicine, and other quackademic medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but somehow now seems to be the right time, particularly after doing such a long post yesterday on the intellectually dishonest promotion of “brave maverick” cancer doctor Stanislaw Burzynski. Unfortunately, dubious clinics like the Burzynski Clinic are not the only place where I find highly questionable medicine. Sadly, as I’ve discussed many times, there is a phenomenon known as “quackademic medicine,” in which quackery is administered and studied in actual academic medical centers. Indeed, it’s hard for me to believe that it was nearly years ago that I came up with what I like to call the Academic Woo Aggregator, basically a list of centers of quackademia, along with a description of what each center offers in the way of quackademic medicine. It’s been a really long time since I’ve taken a look at academic medical centers that offer “integrative medicine” programs, or, as I like to call them, “integrating” quackery with scientific medicine. Oddly enough, this time around, the quackademic program that I became aware of wasn’t even on my Academic Woo Aggregator.

I’m referring to the University of Kansas Medical Center and its Integrative Medicine Program. The first thing I noticed when I perused its website was this:

Nourishing the whole person — body, mind and spirit — and stimulating the body’s natural healing response, is our mission at KU Integrative Medicine. We combine the best therapies from conventional medicine with our integrative medicine approach, to form a comprehensive system of biomedical care.

From a patient’s very first visit with us, we attempt to uncover the underlying story that set the patient on their journey from wellness to disease. We listen. Based on our findings, we tailor a plan for each individual patient based on their lifestyle, their needs and their preferences. We consider the patient an integral part of the treatment team, and encourage patients to take control of their medical care.

Practitioners at KU Integrative Medicine include physicians, a naturopathic doctor, nurses, certified neurofeedback technicians and registered dietitians. We hope that you want to learn more about us, our services, and how we can help you forge a new path to healing and wellness.

Because Integrative Medicine attempts to dig deeper, very specialized lab work is often ordered. This also enables us to personalize your care and cater to your biochemical individuality.

Yes, it’s the same old tropes. KU claims to combine the “best of both worlds. Unfortunately, whenever I hears that phrase, there’s another “best of both worlds” that I can’t help but think of, and it involves assimilation. Sadly, in this case the assimilation appears to involve science-based medicine being assimilated by quackery. After all, there’s a naturopath there, and naturopathy is nothing more than a cornucopia of pretty much every quackery imaginable under the sun, be it homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, “energy healing” modalities, and, of course “detoxification.”

However, it isn’t the fact that there’s a naturopath based at an academic medical center promising to “listen” and provide “individualized care.” That’s pretty much par for the course. In fact, it’s probably hard to find an “integrative medicine” program that doesn’t claim to “listen” and provide “personalized” or “individualized” care. Nor was I particularly surprised to see “healing foods” or neurofeedback. Nor was I even particularly surprised to see that KU offers detoxification. No, what caught my interest was the fact that KU offers “oral and intravenous vitamin and mineral therapies.” What further caught my interest was exactly what sort of “oral and intravenous vitamin and mineral therapies” that are offered there. Here’s something that will give you a hint. The director of the KU Integrative Medicine Program is Jeanne A. Drisko, MD, and she is the Riordan Endowed Professor of Orthomolecular Medicine.

Orthomolecular medicine? Yes, Orthomolecular medicine, a form of quackery that posits that if the body needs some vitamins and minerals that more, more, more would be better. Indeed, it’s the quackery espoused by Linus Pauling that features, in particular, high dose vitamin C as one of its favored modalities, as I’ve written about on multiple occasions before (for instance, here, here, here, and here). So let’s see… Dr. Drisko is a believer in orthomolecular medicine, and she’s head of the integrative medicine program at KU. So what do you think that KU offers to its patients?

You’ve got it! High dose intravenous vitamin C, baby:

The infusion clinic, designed to accommodate 10 infusion patients at a time, includes two isolation rooms where infectious patients can receive treatment. Oncology patients are frequent visitors to the clinic where they receive intravenous ascorbate (vitamin C), which works as a pro-oxidant in cancer treatments.

In addition to vitamin C infusions, our clinic also provides IV Magnesium and Glutathione. Magnesium infusions are a beneficial therapy being used for muscle pain, anxiety, headaches as well as to correct mineral imbalances. IV Glutathione has a large range of benefits for individuals struggling with neurologic symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease, metal and environmental toxicity, and impaired liver detoxification.

I couldn’t believe this when I read it. In a post a long time ago, I discussed a couple of studies that were represented by supporters of vitamin C therapy as a “vindication” of Linus Pauling. However, as I described at the time, it was totally a long run for a short slide, requiring huge doses of vitamin C to achieve equally huge concentrations of ascorbate in the blood, all with at best very modest effects in mouse xenograft models. Overall, it’s very unimpressive, needing huge osmotic loads even greater than that produced by Stanislaw Burzynski’s antineoplaston therapy to achieve even the modest effects that it achieves. Even if that effect is real and reproducible, it’s so unimpressive that even if vitamin C were a new, patentable drug no drug company would bother with it, so unimpressive have the results been whenever tested by reputable scientists. Yet still people keep testing it. Why the fascination with high dose vitamin C, I’ll never know, but apparently Dr. Drisko shares it.

What’s really scary, however, is this:

How do I know if the intravenous vitamin C therapy will work for my cancer? (-)

Each individual responds differently, and we can’t predict how different tumor types will react. A PET scan is usually a guidepost. If the PET is positive, the tumor usually responds to the vitamin C. If the PET is negative but there is active tumor present, the vitamin C is less effective in most cases. Vitamin C works best in the early stages of cancer when used in conjunction with chemotherapy or radiation. They will only consult patients who are also following along with a traditional oncologist.

And on what evidence does Dr. Drisko claim this? None that I can see. It’s even said that there is “no contraindications to giving intravenous vitamin C with any chemotherapy when proper protocol is followed” and that the only chemotherapy that intravenous vitamin C doesn’t work with is methotrexate. She states that at the doses used ascorbate is a pro-oxidant, not an antioxidant, and that it therefore increases the efficacy of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. On what evidence? Again, none is presented. It is mentioned that there are studies by Dr. Drisko looking at intravenous vitamin C in cancer, but no links are provided.

Regular readers know that whenever I encounter such a situation, with claims made but no references or links provided to literature to support those claims, I try to see if I can find out what the evidence base is. The first place to look, of course, is PubMed. So I searched for Dr. Drisko’s publications on PubMed, and was shocked at how thin her publication record is, just seven publications. One of them was a publication on the design of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy. (Remember TACT?) I could only find three studies by Dr. Drisko. One study examined on intravenous vitamin C. It was an in vitro and xenograft study (i.e., preclinical), and Dr. Drisko wasn’t even the corresponding author. Another study was a case series involving two patients. The third was a review article. None were particularly impressive.

Next, I looked on ClinicalTrials.gov for studies for which Dr. Drisko is the principal investigator. I found a study of bioidentical hormones in menopaus, a terminated study of high dose vitamin C to treat hepatitis C, and a couple of studies involving combining vitamin C with chemotherapy, one a phase I trial in pancreatic cancer and another a phase II trial in gynecological cancers. It’s truly sad to see such a dubious therapy apparently so prominent at KU that there is a whole infusion center devoted to it and research money that could be used for treatments that might actually be efficacious being used to support such useless and uninformative studies.

But that’s not all.

It turns out that Dr. Drisko has a rather dubious honor (dubious, at least to me; no doubt she doesn’t consider it so). I’m referring to her title of Chair of the Alliance for Natural Health USA. Yes, ANH-USA is one of the premier “health freedom” organizations in this country, “health freedom” in reality meaning advocating for freedom from pesky government regulation that might interfere with the selling of supplements. She’s also an advisory board member for the Institute for Functional Medicine. Functional medicine, a nebulously defined “specialty,” is pure quackery, as has been described before. Perhaps the most famous practitioner of “functional medicine” is Dr. Mark Hyman, who promotes it under the title of “Ultrawellness.” In fact, the sad thing is this:

Dr Drisko teaches a fourth-year medical student elective in integrative medicine along with other teaching duties to 1st and 2nd year students, nursing students, and practicing physicians. A fellowship program in integrative medicine for primary care physicians began in 2008 under Dr Drisko’s leadership. She was nominated by the University of Kansas Medical Student Assembly to receive the Rainbow Award for Excellence in Teaching the Art of Medicine.

Dr Drisko serves the School of Medicine at KU Med by sitting on multiple committees, provides guidance for the State of Kansas on topics in integrative medicine, and participates at the national level on CAM initiatives. Dr Drisko is a member of the Kansas Cancer Research Institute and an advisory board member of the General Clinical Research Center at the University.

Yes, Dr. Drisko is intimately involved in the education of the next generation of doctors in Kansas and has started an “integrative medicine” program for primary care physicians, the better to “integrate” woo into real medicine. A lot of these developments must be new, as I don’t recall KU showing up so prominently in the annals of quackademic medicine the last time I updated my Academic Woo Aggregator, admittedly too long ago. Seeing that reminds me that I really need to revisit the Aggregator and update it. The problem is that I fear what I will find.