‘The Biophotonic Scammer’

saxophoneIn the summer of 2015, I received a message on Facebook from a faint acquaintance whom I got to know over the course of the previous year, having played in a jazz orchestra with the fellow. We exchanged the occasional pleasantry from across the trumpet section during rehearsals, and surely he knew that I studied medicine, though we lost contact with one another at the end of the school year. He had messaged me about a “new business project” with some “very interesting science type stuffs [sic].” We set up a time where he and his mentor could unload a 30-minute presentation on my easily impressionable mind.

We met in early September at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto. Amidst the low chatter of students preparing to return to classes, I sat, while protégé and mentor explained to me the miracle of ageloc technology, patent pending.

Based on Nobel-prize winning technology, the biophotonic pharmanex scanner can measure carotenoid levels in the skin, which I was told, correlates to antioxidant levels in the body. This medical technology, I was told, was used by some highly-regarded doctors here in Toronto were fervent adherents of the photonic scanner along with a pharmacopoeia of ancillary products to be pushed after paying for a scan. This dubious product, which after a scan would spew out spurious data hardly correlating to a client’s health becomes the perfect inroad to sell supplements to ‘improve’ one’s results. After a course of supplements, a client would scan themselves once again to see if their results had changed.

The scanner was one of the many flagship products offered through a company called Nu Skin (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, I was told), who’s chief quack Joe Chang has been discredited time after time. Another product, called the Galvanic Spa purports to alter the charges in collagen molecules, while their Ageloc Technology, alluded to before, fleetingly grasps at buzzwords like ‘epigenetics’ to for you to ponder at while your pockets are unsuspectingly emptied.

Having finished with the pseudoscience, we moved on to how I could get involved. I vibrated with excitement anticipating what I could only expect to be a phenomenal pitch. I was asked first whether I considered myself a successful person, and then to suggest reasons for what drove me to this success. It was most certainly my personality, of course! Now what if I could drive my success financially? Who would not be interested in that? Other doctors had taken advantage of offering the Nu Skin line of products, and it had benefitted them beyond their greatest expectations. For the low cost of $200 per month, I could lease my very own photonic scanner, and charge people $55 per scan. I could then grow a roster of clients to scan and enlist a team of my own to recruit other people who would scan even more clients. The mentor pulled out a small cardboard pamphlet and pointed at a six-figure number representing my potential earnings. I slowly sketched a pyramid in my notebook.

The pitch had finally concluded, and I was asked if I would like to have my antioxidant levels measured. I knew the machine to be harmless, but I declined, told them I would not likely be in touch, and walked out. On my way to the subway I began to ponder this curious encounter. Before the meeting I thought about how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this fall right before me – the chance to write an exposé on this most absurdflim flam. Was it really such a rare occasion as I had previously suspected? The reality is that pseudoscience is on the rise. Today, with the great advances we have made in medical sciences, with our armamentarium of treatments for diseases which were once deadly, doctors and scientists are losing the public battle to quacks of the highest order. The concern over this movement cannot be understated. It is clear however, that our greatest asset is a healthy balance of ridicule and education, and we must fight back.

Jason Gencher

University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine

Class of 2018

@jasongencher

Pseudoscience at its’ Deadliest: can sharks cause cancer?

Jason Gencher, U3 Bachelor of Music
@jasongencher

SharkFrom the great galanos that once tormented Hemingway’s Old Man, to the bloody scenes in Spielberg’s Jaws, a shark’s reputation always seems to precede it.

After channel surfing through shark week this past summer, I started thinking about all the pseudoscience that surrounds sharks. The soups, ointments, lucky fins; different sections hacked off, ground up, or liquefied for puerile human superstition. The answer to the question above, however, is quite clearly no. Whether you have heard it or not (and let’s hope this is all news to you), the word going around is that sharks…or more accurately ground up shark cartilage, taken as a dietary supplement, fights and/or prevents a variety of illnesses, most notably cancer. Let’s not dismiss this claim so easily; let’s treat it in the same way that any other drug claim would be treated.

  1. Clinical Trials:
    Yes. Indeed, a form of the drug made it as far the clinical trial stage. Neovastat, as it was called had showed ‘promising results as an angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) inhibitor in animal tests. It moved on to human trials and was unable to produce any positive results. In fact, it outright failed – twice.
  2. FDA Approval:
    No. The drug, in whatever manifestation it appears, be it Carticin, Cartilade, or BeneFin has not been approved by the FDA…or for that matter even been submitted for approval. You would think that such a miracle drug would be swiftly approved. For now, (and forever) it shall be labelled as a ‘dietary supplement.’

Perhaps you are wondering how this notion arose? A book, written by William Lane, PhD entitled “Sharks Don’t Get Cancer” in 1992 sparked the notion that, well, sharks are unable to develop cancer. If sharks cannot get cancer, then what is it about the shark that prevents it from developing the disease? Logically, it would follow that there might be a compound that can be isolated and purified from shark cartilage that could be used as a cancer preventative. The proponents of this concept claim that it’s a specific protein that prevents angiogenesis. What confuses me is that absolute misunderstanding of science and medicine that follows. If the compound is a protein, then why would you grind it up and ingest as a pill, where the polypeptide chain would be cleaved by the acidic content of our stomach, rendering the protein completely non-functional? Matters plummet into greater abjection the farther we analyze the issue at hand.

As chance would have it, there have been about 40 different kinds of cancers discovered in sharks. Studies have shown that shark cartilage (I refuse to henceforth call it a dietary supplement, as the definition of supplement involves the object enhancing or completing its subject, and it clearly falls flat in both instances) mirrors the effect of a placebo thus effectively rendering it as an expensive sugar pill. Recent studies on the placebo effect have suggested that there is very little correlation between cost of the placebo and its effectiveness, therefore making this something of a scam. Luckily, many of us are prudent enough to call these issues out for what they truly are. It looks like something smells fishy (I am so, so, very sorry) about shark cartilage.

Jason Gencher, U3 student
@jasongencher

FOLLOW DR. KO: I’m a Doctor. Trust me, not the Quacks.

Being a doctor, or even a medical student, means that friends, family members and roommates will inevitably ask you for medical or nutritional advice. I don’t mind giving quick and free medical advice when I can. Funny thing is, they’re likely to ignore what I say if it doesn’t coincide with their preconceived notions.

My roommate, for example, who is sharp in finance but is scientifically challenged, believes that detergent residues on dishes cause cancer, which is why she only washes her dishes with water. (Ironically, she will indulge without hesitation in cigarettes, fast foods and whiskey.) She stands by her beliefs even after I tell her that traces of detergent are highly unlikely to cause any ailment, and that there are many other things she can modify in her lifestyle that will be much more beneficial in safeguarding her health.

Perhaps I am lacking in the art of persuasion, but when it comes to science, it is not about persuasion, nor about faith. It is about facts. My Bachelor of Science undergraduate degree, my four years of medical training and especially my involvement with the McGill Office for Science and Society for almost a decade have taught me to have a very keen eye for spotting quackery. It isn’t always easy to recognize because quackery can masquerade as science.  Anyone can be taken in, even me.

When a Youtube video (see here) about Japanese scientists creating artificial meat by recycling fecal matter went viral on the Internet, I bought it.  Not the poop, the science. The idea wasn’t so implausible, after all. It turned out to be a spoof. Pranks such as the Japanese Poop Burger are more or less harmless, and are good for a laugh. I was amused and somewhat chastened by my own gullibility.  But there are too many claims and promises out there are not only false, but dangerous.

A friend recently told me that she learned from a supposedly scientific source that a vegan diet not only prevents, but also halts or even reverses numerous diseases, including cancer. If you already have cancer, she says, and you adopt a vegan diet, then your cancer cannot go past Stage II. And then my friend added that her friend who is studying nutrition agrees.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, which truly is not my intention at all, I do not have to do any research to know that cutting out meat and dairy from one’s diet to stop or reverse cancer is wishful thinking. It just does not make sense. More importantly, there is no evidence for it. Telling a patient that his coronary artery disease will be totally reversed if he adopts a vegan diet, or advising a cancer patient that her cancer cells will only multiply to Stage II if she eliminates animal protein from her diet is unscientific. Moreover, I believe that spreading unfounded claims is criminal. This is not to say that diet cannot play an important role in dealing with disease, but suggestions that that cancer can be beaten by following some sort of dietary regimen is not only unrealistic but can distract from effective therapies.

I don’t think I did a very good job at explaining the importance of following the scientific method to my friend. Neither did I get the message of “only the dose makes the poison” across. Perhaps I take the need to rely on evidence too much to heart and I get prematurely upset by those who instead rely on faith or hearsay, especially when human lives are at stake. But at least in my friend’s case, being young and healthy, a decision to forego fatty burgers and fried eggs for two weeks as a “cleanse,” is no big deal.

But what do I do about my future patients who are seriously ill, and who obstinately choose to follow their beliefs or the latest health fad, which might or might not be of any benefit, instead of following sound medical advice? How do you fight your patients from being seduced by supposedly miraculous remedies offered by doctors or scientists who have gone over to the “dark side,” either succumbing to self delusion or the promise of financial gain?

That is something they don’t teach you in medical school.

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