The Nobel Disease is a well-known tongue-in-cheek reference to the apparent tendency of Nobel laureates, who have obviously made substantial legitimate contributions to scientific knowledge, to develop strong irrational attachments to questionable theories or outright pseudoscience in their later years. The MD Disease is a variant strain in which ordinary doctors with real medical training and skills become champions of scientifically unsound theories or practices. All of this, of course, is just a way of pointing out why the argument from authority is a fallacy. Smart, educated, well-respected individuals, even with the best of intentions, are not reliably less susceptible to bias, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, or any of the mental quirks that lead us to passionately commit to dubious, even ridiculous ideas than the rest of us. The status or personal characteristics of a believer in any given idea is not a useful form of evidence in favor of the truth of that idea.
This phenomenon came to mind earlier this week when I was asked to look into a technique being promoted as a possible veterinary cancer therapy, the Nativis Voyager system, which is apparently the focus of a clinical trial, and some pretty optimistic promotion, by the accomplished and well-respected veterinary oncologist Dr. Greg Ogilvie.
It is difficult to find much information about this product, but it manifests many of the warning signs of pseudoscience. In particular, it is referred to by the company and Dr. Ogilvie as “revolutionary” and “ground breaking,” despite the lack of any substantive evidence to support this claim. And the emphasis of the research seems not so much to find out if the technology works but to find out how well and for which types of cancer: “Voyager is just beginning its voyage as we are beginning the process of identifying the cancers its most effective to treat. It seems to have a broad spectrum of efficacy while being quite safe.”
In a promotional Youtube video for Voyager, anecdotes purportedly showing dramatic improvements are presented, and claims are even made to suggest some patients might have experience complete remissions or a cure. I personally do not feel that contributing to promotional marketing videos for the company while conducting a supposedly objective, scientific clinical trial of that company’s product is appropriate. And the claims made are largely meaningless if they are founded solely on anecdotes, which are an unreliable guide to the safety and effectiveness of medical therapies for many reasons.
The plausibility of this device is not enhanced by the proposed mechanism described in the patent application submitted by Nativis. It is full of pseudoscientific nonsense such as this:
An aqueous anti-tumor composition produced by treating an aqueous medium free of paclitaxel, a paclitaxel analog, or other cancer-cell inhibitory compound with a low-frequency, time-domain signal derived from paclitaxel or an analog thereof, until the aqueous medium acquires a detectable paclitaxel activity, as evidenced by the ability of the composition (i) to inhibit growth of human glioblastoma cells when the composition is added to the cells in culture, over a 24 hour culture period, under standard culture conditions, and/or (si), to inhibit growth of a paclitaxel-responsive tumor when administered to a subject having such a tumor.
This appears to be a claim that one can somehow digitally record the curative properties of chemotherapy drugs in solution and then play them back to water, thus transforming the water into a therapeutic substance with none of the unwanted effects of the cancer drugs. Others have investigated such claims from this company and found more direct statements of this highly speculative and implausible idea:
Nativis has developed and patented a breakthrough technology that captures the unique photon field (signal) of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), or drugs. . .Every drug molecule in a solution is surrounded by a photon field that contains information unique to the molecule. With Nativis’ technology, the photon field, or “drug signal” can be recorded and then replicated for medical treatment. Nativis has proven in preliminary trials that the drug signal – or photonic signature – mimics the original chemical molecule and can unlock the same biological processes as the original to treat diseases, such as brain tumors. With the technology, the drug signal can be reproduced rapidly and flawlessly, each time containing all relevant biochemical information encoded into the new therapeutic signal to drive a biologic reaction. . .
If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’ because it bears an uncanny resemblance to the theories of some homeopaths that the magical healing energy of homeopathic remedies can be digitally recorded and transmitted by telephone or other electronic media. And by an astounding coincidence (or perhaps not?), at least one of the patent holders and key figures at Nativis has previous professional connections with Luc Montagnier and Jacques Benveniste.
Dr. Montagnier is one of the classic examples of Nobel Disease, a co-discoverer of HIV who later became a proponent of homeopathy in both traditional and digital forms. And of course Dr. Benveniste was the author of a famous study in the journal Nature which appeared to show a real biological effect of a homeopathic solution on cells in culture. This effect, however, was later demonstrated to be an illusion due to improper blinding of study personnel, and decades of attempts to replicate it have proven unsuccessful.
Nativis has previously announced a revolutionary new cancer therapy and supporting research evidence which have, in the three years since, not emerged and which are no longer mentioned on the company web site, now devoted to Voyager. A history of claiming revolutionary breakthroughs without published scientific evidence to support them, followed by closing up shop, moving to a new state, and setting up an entirely new product based on almost the same unproven theories, this time for the veterinary rather than human market, is not the behavior of a company I would trust. Certainly, it is not a sound basis for a respected veterinary oncologist to promote the product and make rather strong, optimistic claims about its benefits, raising the hopes of pet owners and using scare resources in the always struggling domain of veterinary oncology research.
Despite his well-earned status in veterinary medicine, Dr. Ogilvie has shown sympathy towards implausible practices in the past. He has been a regular lecturer, and even the Keynote Speaker, at the annual conference of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA). This is the same organization that has encouraged and promoted many ridiculous practices at its annual meetings and which recently mounted a major effort to defend homeopathy as a legitimate and scientific therapy. He is also on the advisory board of a “holistic” supplement company along with many of the most prominent spokespeople for homeopathy, so-called Traditional Chinese Medicine, and other alternative veterinary practices. This might explain why, despite his intelligence and unimpeachable credentials as an oncologist, he seems willing to jump on such a ramshackle bandwagon as the Nativis Voyager system.
Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If convincing and replicable clinical trial evidence eventually emerges showing a significant therapeutic effect for the Voyager, I will be thrilled to have a new and better cancer therapy to offer. If, as I expect is more likely, such evidence never emerges, and this “revolutionary” product goes the way of Dr. Sanden’s Electric Belt, I will be disappointed; both because of the failed promise of a better treatment for my patients and also because of the damage to the credibility of a brilliant veterinarian whose guidance I have often followed in my career.