Supplementary benefits

August 11th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, herbal remedies, scare stories, times | 16 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 11, 2005
The Guardian

· OK, it’s me and Susan Clarke from the Sunday Times, on the floor, mano a mano. This week someone is asking for alternative therapy wisdom for her husband, who is going into hospital: “Is there any natural product or foodstuff he could take prior to surgery to boost his immune system enough to fight off any infection?” Clarke jumps in. “Brazilian scientists,” she says – picture their wholesome indigenous ways, “have investigated the potential of plant extracts in the battle against … MRSA, and they suggest that the herb pau d’arco could have a role to play in protecting hospital patients from these infections. They identified active agents known as naphthoquinones, which, in laboratory tests, demonstrated not only good antibacterial activity against three different strains of the superbugs, but also more potency than similar, semi-synthetic chemicals that were investigated against the same strains …You can order pau d’arco supplements from Rio Trading (01273 570987); 120 capsules cost £15.99. Take four a day.”

· First, we all enjoy the suggestion that nature’s version is more potent than the patriarchal evil scientist semi-synthetic one, although I’d have been more impressed if the comparison was with a proven anti-MRSA antibiotic, rather than an a few suck-it-and-see derivatives of this plant one.

· Now. Think about the pathology, and how bacteria become resistant to anti-microbial agents: they’re exposed to them, and develop resistance through mutation and natural selection. I can think of few suggestions more stupid than giving potentially valuable new anti-microbials to people exposed to wild strains of MRSA in subtherapeutic, mail-order healthfood shop doses such that the bacteria can almost certainly survive, yet still be exposed to the new agents, and so become resistant. How does Clarke think MRSA became invincible to so many drugs in the first place? Perhaps she thinks the bacteria sensed their energy fields, or picked up their electromagnetic signature homeopathically through the water supply?

· Even better, she is suggesting this bloke take it prior to surgery, before he has been exposed to the high-risk environment for MRSA, presumably so all the other bacteria in his body can develop resistance to the bactericidal action of pau d’arco, and then share their resistance genes with the MRSA bugs, when they arrive in the body. That’s right, Clarke: bacteria share genes with each other – just one of the wonders of science.


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16 Responses



  1. amoebic vodka said,

    August 11, 2005 at 1:24 pm

    “Even better, she is suggesting this bloke take it prior to surgery, before he has been exposed to the high-risk environment for MRSA, presumably so all the other bacteria in his body can develop resistance to the bactericidal action of pau d’arco”

    A tip for any lazy bacteria reading your article. Plants produce antimicrobial chemicals for a reason – to stop themselves being infected with microbes. Are these supplements sterilised before they go on sale? If not, then we don’t think there’s any need for the body’s bacteria to bother developing their own resistance genes. They just need to borrow them from the bacteria growing on the pau d’arco plants that have had the advantage of years of natural selection to develop their own.

  2. MostlySunny said,

    August 16, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    bacteria can share GENES???

    There is just so much stuff I don’t know…

    *wishes she’d paid more attention in matric biology*

  3. Flammable Flower said,

    August 16, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Eek, just looked at her website (the whatreallyworks.co.uk site). A wonderful nightmare of psuedoscience and scare tactics. A few choice examples: “If this sounds like a drug addiction, it’s because it is. Sugar is a drug…”, “Cheap, mutant food makes for inferior, mutant performance.” and ,”My last message is, don’t wait for your child to develop behavioural problems in order to make these changes.”

  4. exemplar said,

    August 16, 2005 at 10:09 pm

    Yes bacteria can horizontally transfer genetic ‘information’….. problem is whose going to tell the people over prescribing antibiotics……or the agricultural industry…or people using antibacterial cleaners in their homes (bit of an environmental problem in the making there but thats another story) ……next public health scare unfolding as we speak community borne MRSA me thinks…….I wonder what the Tory party slogan for that will be !

  5. Edd Almond said,

    August 17, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    Do bacteria do gene swapping by putting all their genes in a fruit bowl and then taking it in turns to pick one out,, or is swinging not the universal metaphor I thought it was?

  6. amoebic vodka said,

    August 18, 2005 at 11:27 am

    We thought it worked like trading cards, we asked some bacteria. Apparently methicillin resistance is worth slightly more than vancomycin at the moment and they weren’t interested in our chloramphenicol resistance gene. It seems everyone’s got at least three of those. Um…we’ll swap kanamycin for our chloramphenicol gene and throw in some free vodka if any bacteria are interested.

  7. MostlySunny said,

    August 19, 2005 at 12:52 pm

    ok, now I just scraped a C for matric biology – but this thought occurs to me – if bacteria can build up resistance to us* – surely we can build up resistance to them?

    MS

    *ie our ways of killing them

  8. Psybertron Asks » Bad Science said,

    August 24, 2005 at 12:53 pm

    [...] A recurring interest of mine, this is a blog of that name, linked by Ray Girvan. This particular story about natural antibiotics that can beat MRSA super-bugs, debumked with some simple genetic evolution facts. [...]

  9. Buggs Alone said,

    August 25, 2005 at 11:02 am

    As usual, excellent stuff, and a well-chosen topic – and one that frequently buggs me. So many people seem to have misconceptions about what leads to some bacteria being highly-resistant “super-bugs”. As is pointed out in the article, the action taken by the general public (and even by some doctors in their over-enthusiasm to prescribe something for their patients) as a result of mis-information and misconceptions can be a significant factor in causing the problem.

    While explaining this, Ben Goldacre (slightly surprisingly, to me) seems to have missed a chance to ram home the point at the heart of the misconception which is, as I understand it, that an individual living thing, whether human or micro-organism, does not itself “evolve”. Evolutionary change can only be said to have come about once you consider more than one generation in a strain. I realise I don’t need to explain this to BG, but I have heard many intelligent and/or scientifically qualified people say things indicating that they have not appreciated this point. The statement: “Think about the pathology, and how bacteria become resistant to anti-microbial agents: they’re exposed to them, and develop resistance through mutation and natural selection….” while correct, almost hides the point referred to above, and I don’t think many people carrying the misconception would read it and realise they are wrong…

    While it’s not my technological field, and I’m not a writer, I’ve had a go at amending the statement such that the point I’m concerned about does get rammed home…:
    “Think about the pathology, and how a strain of bacteria becomes resistant to anti-microbial agents: members of the strain are exposed to them, and those that have developed resistance through mutation will have increased their chances of surviving and passing on that resistance to subsequent members of the strain through natural selection….”

    OK – now I’ve tried, and ended up with a clunky statement almost twice as long that still would be unlikely to convert the unconverted. I think I’ll leave it to BG in the future!

    -Buggs

  10. Administrator said,

    August 25, 2005 at 1:55 pm

    hmmm well bacteria is plural.

    and also, in four… hundred… words… its tricky to veer too far off the point…

  11. exemplar said,

    August 29, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    Ah firstly, Buggs alone what a pedant……This is my technical field, the evolutionary and philosophical implications of amongst others things horizontal transfer of genetic information in bacterium that is, not pedantry you understand….

    I do however occasionally take it up as a side line…… “as I understand it, that an individual living thing, whether human or micro-organism, does not itself “evolve”. Evolutionary change can only be said to have come about once you consider more than one generation in a strain.” Put very simply…..horizontal transfer of genetic ‘information’ in bacteria, and that includes transfer of resistance to anti-biotic’s, is intra –generational. Therefore you are not just getting inter-generational transference of resistance due to the passing of genetic ‘information’ from one generation to the next through reproduction but a passing of resistance between members of the same generation. Whether this horizontal transfer of genetic information is affected in the same way as reproductive dissemination, by natural selection is an area for debate. The whole issue of horizontal transfer throws into question our current understanding of evolutionary mechanisms and our metazoan focus when it comes to exploring these mechanisms.

    While all very interesting…..as for whether this is a debate to be held in a column in the Guardian –I have to agree with Ben four hundred words is not nearly enough.
    Also why should Ben have a encyclopaedic knowledge of a field, such as evolutionary biology, in which he has, I assume, little experience…..no offence!

  12. Delster said,

    November 21, 2005 at 12:44 pm

    one of the worst offenders for helping build drug resistance (other than over prescription) is not finishing a course of treatment. The bacteria that have a degree of resistance are the ones that will resist being killed off the longest.

    So if the drug is taken until symptoms disappear and then discontinued the ones that were most resistant are the only one’s left to reproduce themselves. Of course these carry the gene(s) giving restance and pass it right along.

  13. Penta_Water_UK said,

    December 4, 2005 at 10:38 pm

    Very interesting stuff!

    Can you avoid having to be operated on by dirty Doctors?

    I wonder if there are any newspaper reporters taking swabs from surgeons?…if its only the hospital I have to worry about, then I will have my next operation performed in a Hotel Room.

  14. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 23, 2006 at 12:09 am

    ok, i am actually a prescient genius.

    over at www.badscience.net/?p=136 i wrote about what a fool susan clark was for recommending artemisinin as prophylaxis against, rather than a treatment for, malaria. a prophylactic, for those who dont know, is something you take to prevent something, not to treat it. her suggestion would have caused exactly the same problems as i described above.

    and LO!

    this week the papers around the world are full of articles about how dangerous it is to give artemisinin alone, even as a treatment, because of the risk of drug resistance building up against artemisinin, leaving us with untreatable strains of malaria.

    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4627938.stm

    interestingly you can still buy artemisinin over the counter from many “health food” and alternative medicine outlets, advertised as a treatment for various spurious ills.

    putting lives at risk in the third world, through our own ill-informed indulgence, is, to me, the ultimate expression of western decadence.

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