Jeremy Laurance: The libel laws that threaten to stifle scientific debate

Medical Life

The spat between science journalist, Simon Singh and the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) hots up. In an article in 'The Guardian' last year, Singh criticised claims made by chiropractors about the efficacy of spinal manipulation for childhood conditions such as asthma, colic and ear infections. The BCA has sued for libel.

The 'British Medical Journal' has now entered the fray with a series of articles looking at how organisations are increasingly turning to the law to silence critics rather than engaging in open scientific debate. The current issue carries two pieces – one by vice president of the BCA, Richard Brown, who lays out the evidence for its claims. The second is by Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, who finds this evidence "neither complete nor, in my mind, substantial".

Fiona Godlee, editor of the 'BMJ', delivers the coup de grâce in her column: "Readers can decide for themselves whether or not they are convinced .... [Ernst's] demolition of the 18 references [cited by Brown] is, to my mind, complete." She adds: "Weak science sheltered from criticism by officious laws means bad medicine." Who could disagree?

Operation Stormgrand concluded last week with the sentencing of the seventh and final member of a gang responsible for Britain's largest known counterfeit drug operation. The fake drugs the gang was peddling were the familiar ones – Viagra and Propecia, a treatment for baldness – and between them the gang collected jail terms totalling 17.5 years.

But what caught my eye was the confiscation orders imposed in addition to the jail terms, amounting to more than £3m. That is on top of the £1.5m worth of fake drugs seized. There must be a lot of disappointed men out there, wondering why their Viagra hasn't done what it says on the tin.

One gang member, Zahid Mirza, 48, was jailed for two-and-a-half years and ordered to pay back the largest sum – a cool £1.8m – last April. Unfortunately for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which was trumpeting its success last week, he is still at large. Sentencing was held in his absence.

Easter island in the south Pacific turns out to be the source of an elixir of life – a drug made from its soil, called rapamycin. Used as an immunosuppressant to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients, researchers found it extended the lives of mice by around a third. Dubbed the anti-ageing pill, it sounds good – until you learn you would need to live your life inside a sterile bubble while taking it. The drug knocks out your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to every bug and virus doing the rounds. Age slowly – and die fast.

For elixirs of life, try this: take one litre of water, add eight teaspoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt. Mix. Drink. Salt increases the absorption of water and glucose from the gut and has saved the lives of millions of children suffering from dehydration caused by diarrhoea. As a miracle medicine, it is in a league of its own.

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