After reading up on biohacking and listening to its proponents, I have come to the conclusion that biohacking is not a real thing. It doesn’t really exist.
Here is how one biohacking site describes what they think it is:
Biohacking is a crazy-sounding name for something not crazy at all—the desire to be the absolute best version of ourselves.
The main thing that separates a biohacker from the rest of the self-improvement world is a systems-thinking approach to our own biology.
You know how coffee feels like a shot of energy to your brain?
Pre-coffee you is sleepy….zzzzzz…
Post-coffee you is WIDE AWAKE!!
The only difference is the coffee in your stomach.
The lesson is this: What you put into your body has an ENORMOUS impact on how you feel.
See what I mean? So, drinking coffee is “biohacking?” If you look at what is considered biohacking it essentially amounts to living a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise, with the addition of the usual assortment of pseudoscientific nonsense. This is nothing but a rebranding of standard self-help quackery.
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About 3,500 heart transplants are performed worldwide each year. This is the standard of care treatment for end stage heart failure. However, more people need hearts than receive them. About half of the recipients of a donor heart have been on the waiting list for more than a year. About a third for more than two years.
In short, there are not enough hearts to go around. Artificial hearts exist, but only as a bridging technology – keeping people alive while on the transplant waiting list. Stem cell therapy looks promising as a treatment for heart failure, but also is years away. Growing hearts is probably decades away.
Genetically modifying animal hearts is probably the option for a human donor heart replacement that is closest to becoming a reality. Recently researchers report that they have made progress along those lines – keeping a pig heart alive in a baboon for over two years.
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The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), formerly the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and prior to that the Office of Alternative Medicine, is developing their strategic plan for 2016-2021. They are seeking public comment, and my colleagues and I at science-based medicine (SBM) will be sending it to them.
The NCCIH is a center at the National Institutes for Health (NIH), which uses federal money to fund biomedical research. The center is largely the child of senator Tom Harkin, who is enamored of alternative medicine (I will use the term CAM for convenience) and wanted a separate office (then center) at the NIH specifically to fund research into CAM therapies.
About his center and its purpose, Harkin has famously said:
One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short. It think quite frankly that in this center and in the office previously before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving.
If anything science should be tilted toward demonstrating that any new claim is false, and only ideas and claims that survive dedicated attempts to do so should gain tentative approval. Harkin gives away the game in this statement – that the purpose of NCCIH is to put a huge ideological thumb on the scale of medical science, to give special preference to exactly those claims in medicine which are least plausible, and then flip science on its head by seeking to approve them, rather than critically testing them.
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This has been a typical saga, one we have seen played out many times. An organization (company, institution, etc.) provides a venue for an irresponsible anti-science article, speaker, or film. There is then a public outcry that the venue is being exploited to promote pseudoscience. The organization initially defends their decision, then reconsiders. The author, speaker, director then cries “censorship.”
It’s a predictable script.
Recently the Tribeca Film Festival announced its list of movies it will be screening this year, and among them was Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, a movie perpetuating the idea that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is covering up data that shows a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Orac discusses the content of the movie in detail, but here is a quick summary. The movie is produced by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced struck-off British doctor who published a study in the Lancet claiming evidence for a connection between MMR and autism. The paper was later retracted and found to be fraudulent.
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In a recent commentary, framed as an open letter to David Sackett (the father of evidence-based medicine), John Ioannidis argues that EBM has been hijacked by various interests. He also clarifies his position in an interview with Retraction Watch.
Ioannidis hits many interesting points: EBM has become a way to market products and services, clinical studies are largely in the hands of corporations with vested interests, academics are under their own pressures which emphasize getting grant money, practitioners are likewise struggling to survive in an era of managed care, and quacks and charlatans are exploiting the whole mess.
It is an eye-opening roller-coaster ride, including many personal stories, through the mind of perhaps the most famous current critic of the industry of medical science. I agree with much of what he says, and in fact they coincide with a great deal of commentary here and at science-based medicine. He takes a more cynical and pessimistic tone than I would, but that is subjective.
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On a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience (starting at the 2:10 mark), Rogan discusses an article I wrote previously on Science-Based Medicine about whole body cryotherapy (WBC). Rogan did not like my article, which he characterized as “poorly done and poorly researched.” He was discussing the article and WBC in general with his guest, Dr. Rhonda Patrick.
What this discussion revealed, in my opinion, is a significant lack of understanding of the roles of basic science research vs clinical research. Before I get to the discussion, here is a quick review of WBC.
Whole Body Cryotherapy
WBC involves exposing the whole body to extremely low temperatures, -200 to -240 degree F temperatures (-125 to -150 C) for 1.5-3 minutes. There are chambers where the head sticks out the top, and there are chambers that you step into entirely.
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Legislators in West Virginia passed a law legalizing the drinking of raw milk (but not the sale or distribution). Some of them drank raw milk to celebrate, and later came down sick with stomach symptoms.
This is one of those perfectly ironic stories that the internet loves. However, the lawmakers in question are denying that the milk is to blame. Instead they blame a stomach virus that has been going around their capital. A definitive answer is not yet available.
While the story is funny, it is irrelevant to the real question – is raw milk safe, and are there any health benefits beyond pasteurized milk? The answer to both questions is no.
Risks of Raw Milk Continue Reading »
Wind energy is on the rise as a clean renewable form of energy. It has many advantages – no carbon emissions (beyond construction of the turbines themselves), no pollution, no waste, and no use of limited resources. The three often-cited downsides of wind power are that the turbines can be an eyesore, they may cause symptoms in susceptible individuals (so-called wind turbine syndrome, WTS), and they can be a hazard to flying creatures.
The eyesore issue for me is not a big issue. I actually think wind turbines dotting the horizon look pretty, but even if you disagree that is a small price to pay for the advantages.
I’m a bird watcher, and so am very sensitive to the issue of protecting bird diversity. I wrote about this issue previously.
A review of scientific studies of the number of bird deaths caused by wind turbines estimates that 140,000 and 328,000 bird deaths are caused each year. This may seem like a lot, but a study published in 2013 concluded that domestic cats kill between 1.3 and 4.0 billion birds each year. Further, an estimated 100 million birds are killed each year by flying into windows.
This makes the number of birds killed by wind turbines a round-off error. Continue Reading »
Another innovative medical technology is on the brink of being applied to actual patients, and it is spawning the typical discussion about the ethics of altering human biology. I think this will likely take the usual course.
The technology is mitochondrial replacement therapies (MRTs). Mitochondria are organelles inside every cell. They are the power plants of cells, burning fuel with oxygen to create ATP, which are molecules that provide energy for all the processes of life.
Interestingly, mitochondria probably derived from independent cells that evolved a symbiotic relationship with eukaryotic cells. They are like bacteria living inside each cell with a specialized function of making ATP.
Mitochondria still retain some of their own DNA, which is partly how we know they were once independent organisms. Mitochondria contain 17,000 base pairs and just 37 genes (compared to 20,000 genes in human nuclear DNA). Over millions of years of evolution they have also outsourced some of their DNA to the nuclear DNA of cells, but also still retain some of their own DNA. Not only does this mitochondrial DNA affect the functioning of the mitochondria itself, it has implications for overall cell function through its interaction with nuclear DNA.
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In a recent blog post for the BMJ, Paul Glasziou wrote about the recent Australian review of homeopathic remedies of which he was head:
…I lost interest after looking at the 57 systematic reviews (on 68 conditions) which contained 176 individual studies and finding no discernible convincing effects beyond placebo.
He is not the first person to look at the totality of clinical evidence for homeopathy and find it wanting. Glasziou was chair of the working party that produced the 2015 NHMRC report on homeopathy, which concluded:
Based on the assessment of the evidence of effectiveness of homeopathy, NHMRC concludes that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.
So, after more than two centuries, and thousands of studies in total, no homeopathic treatment has crossed over the line of what would generally be considered sufficient evidence to prove that it works. That is very telling. I liken the evidence to other dubious claims, such as ESP. After a century of research and thousands of studies there is no clear evidence that ESP is real.
For both homeopathy and ESP there is a great deal of noise, but no clear signal. There are many flawed or small studies, but no repeatable high quality studies. Continue Reading »