Addiction is hard to treat. Like other chronic illnesses, relapses are common, and frustrating to both the patient and the family. Substance use disorders cause considerable disability and even death. Treatments do help many people, especially medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, but still aren’t as successful as we’d like.
Scoundrels looking to make a quick buck often prey on patients with diseases that are difficult to treat, like cancer, multiple sclerosis, substance use disorders, and the like. Sometimes bogus treatments have no basis in science at all. Sometimes minimally helpful treatments are touted as being more successful than science shows that they are. In all these cases, bad science is used to cover questionable, usually financial, motives.
I hate bad science. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m defining bad science as when people attempt to give their treatment, or method, or viewpoint, a sheen of scientific validity by using or misusing data, or by having no relevant data at all.
Some examples are more outrageous than others, and bad science has been used for decades.
Charles B. Towns, together with Dr. Alexander Lambert, declared the Towns-Lambert cure for alcohol and drug addiction to be 90% effective. The Towns-Lambert cure was a mixture of belladonna, hyoscyamine, and herb called prickly ash, castor oil, and mercury. Patients were also given chloral hydrate, a sedative similar to a barbiturate, along with morphine and paraldehyde. It fact, it was while he was a patient in Towns’ New York hospital that Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had his vision that lead to his spiritual awakening, which in turn lead to the formulation of the Twelve Step program of AA.
Eventually, the number of repeat patients undermined claims of the cure rates of the Towns-Lambert method. Despite his lack of evidence, Towns’ claims became ever more extravagant, leading Dr. Lambert eventually to disassociate himself from Townes. Eventually, the Towns cure was discredited and disappeared.
This wasn’t the first treatment with better marketing than science, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
I had the displeasure of seeing a product being promoted at a recent conference I attended. This device, and I’m not going to give the name since I don’t want to give the promoter any free publicity, generates electrical pulses to the head. Three electrodes are placed just under the skin, and the device is worn for five days while the patient receives intermittent electrical stimulation. This supposedly gets rid of opioid withdrawal symptoms.
The person peddling this new invention shot himself in the foot in my view as soon as he said this device worked 100% of the time. When I asked for studies which had been published in peer-reviewed journals, he said they had loads of studies. Sadly, none were yet published that had been done in humans. He did have human data, but it wasn’t published yet, since an IRB (internal review board) hadn’t approved the study design before they undertook the study, so they had to find someone to approve the study after it was done.
Huh? No, that’s not the way review boards work. Review boards review studies before they are done, to assure no patient will be put in danger needlessly. I’ve never heard of a post-study review board.
So anyway, their human data hadn’t yet been published.
I hinted (oh OK, I came right out and said it) that perhaps it was a bit unethical to promote and expensive treatment ($500, not covered by insurance) unless they had human data, approved and reviewed by the research community, showing efficacy. The promoter of the item countered by saying it was unethical NOT to provide this device, given the benefit it provides.
He didn’t understand that my objection was to the lack of scientific process that all new treatments should undergo, to show they are of at least some benefit prior to use in clinical practice. This should be done before the treatment is marketed. But he pointed to all the success stories on their website, testimonials by patients of how effective this treatment was at preventing opioid withdrawal.
These testimonials are called anecdotal data in the scientific community. Anecdotal data isn’t nothing. It is a type of information that can suggest a potential effective treatment. But anecdotal data alone isn’t sufficient to claim efficacy. It’s only a potential starting point.
People tend to give testimonial type of anecdotal information more credence than they deserve. Hearing a story of miraculous healing touches our hearts. If we are also desperate for a similar cure, we risk making emotional decisions rather than rational ones.
I wasn’t trying to tell this salesman his product didn’t work. For all I know it will be the greatest breakthrough in addiction medicine in the last one hundred years. What I’m saying is that we don’t yet know if it works, because it hasn’t yet been properly tested. And therefore, I thought it was unethical to sell it before testing it.
Does anyone remember Prometa? It was all the rage ten years ago. News articles asked if it was the big breakthrough in addiction treatment. Anecdotal stories from former methamphetamine addicts were heart-warming. The company that supplies Prometa, Hythiam, was created by a former junk bond salesman, which could have been a red flag. That salesman heavily promoted Prometa with the anecdotal stories from addicts who had lost everything but were now drug free and happy.
The medications that made up Prometa are hydroxyzine (an antihistamine with sedating properties), gabapentin (an anti-seizure medication also used for neuropathy) and flumazenil ( a benzodiazepine antagonist). All three are FDA approved for uses other than addiction, but the proprietary combination of these made up Prometa, and it was sold as an addiction treatment cure without FDA approval. This is perfectly legal, by the way.
One drug treatment court, in Tacoma, Washington, paid $400,000 to buy Prometa for its participants. When it was discovered that several of the people making decisions for the drug court also owned stock in Hythiam, it left some people believing there was a conflict of interest. And after results from that drug treatment court were available, Prometa performed no better than traditional (and much cheaper!) treatments. 
Ten years later, I rarely hear the word Prometa. Hythiam changed its name to Catasys. Dr. Walter Ling, a very respected scientist in the addiction treatment world, completed a double-blind placebo-controlled studies showed Prometa to be no more effective than placebo.
But all this happened after that former junk bond trader made up to $15,000 for every Prometa patient treated. All those patients and their families were disappointed by another treatment that promised much and delivered nothing better than placebo.
I think it’s unethical for a company to bring a product to market before there’s adequate science to prove that it works. This rather rigorous process is what makes a product or procedure or methadone evidence-based.
Until you’ve got something that’s evidence-based, please don’t waste my time by trying to sell it to me.
When the marketing of a medication outpaces the research supporting it, watch out. We are in snake oil territory.
If a salesman blathers about how good his product is, but can’t hand you a good study published in a peer-reviewed journal, beware. With science, you’re supposed to do the studies first, then present at a conference of your peers, or in a peer-reviewed journal. The data should be able to be replicated by other facilities before we can see it is an evidence-based treatment. Barring that, it’s only a possible treatment among many possible treatments.
- “Prescription for Addiction,” 60 Minutes, CBS News, December 9, 2007 http://www.cbsnews.com/news/prescription-for-addiction/3/
- Ling et. al., “Double-blind placebo-controlled evaluation of the PROMETA program,” Addiction, 2012 Feb;107(2):361-9