Federal center pays good money for suspect medicine
Feds dole out millions of dollars for questionable studies on treatments ranging from energy healing to acupuncture
Harry Bosk receives an acupuncture treatment for a pulled calf muscle from Marcos Y. Hsu, a licensed acupunturist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Center for Integrated Medicine. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)
But some experts questioned the study's findings, saying it lacked a clear question and had a flawed design. For example, the volunteers were allowed to pick whether they received chemotherapy or the other regimen. Originally, they were to be randomly assigned to a group, but few patients were willing to volunteer under those conditions.
Gonzalez is a critic of the project, calling it a disaster. Gonzalez, who participated in the study but didn't run it, argues that the patients in his group were sicker than those receiving chemotherapy.
"It was a waste of taxpayers' money and 10 years of our lives," Gonzalez said. "It served no one and nothing."
Dr. John Chabot, professor of clinical surgery at Columbia University, led the study and said it was worthwhile. "Identifying treatments that don't work remains valuable," he said.
As for Gonzalez's criticism, Chabot said: "Dr. Gonzalez was an active participant and strong advocate of the study until the data started to come through and begin to direct us toward a conclusion."
NCCAM's Briggs declined to talk about the study, calling it "even more ancient history" and a study that would have little chance at receiving funding from her center today. "I think our advisory council would have lots of concerns," she said. NCCAM's website contains barely any mention of it beyond a link to the paper and links to the National Cancer Institute website, which provides more information.
Today, patients continue to stream in to see Gonzalez about his cancer treatment. In the end, the study changed few minds and put volunteers at risk for little benefit to them or to the greater good — at a cost to taxpayers of $1.4 million, with $406,000 coming from NCCAM.
Critics of NCCAM say the project demonstrates how difficult it can be to study complementary and alternative medicine, and that precious research dollars could be better spent elsewhere.
"We have to be good stewards of public money for science," said Gorski, the cancer researcher. "I don't view NCCAM as being a good steward of our public money at the moment. Even if they are doing rigorous science, they are still looking at incredibly implausible things."