Academic inflation

I had an interesting discussion with a senior endocrinologist on the relative ease with which heroes are made these days. We live in a fast world where anyone is just a viral post away from the pedestal. Of course, staying there is a different issue altogether. At least, everyone gets a chance to try – for that we must be grateful to the internet for being the great leveller.

The internet has had a profound effect on academia too. The doctors of the previous generation had to put in a lot of struggle to get a paper published. Today we have such marvellous tools at our disposal that the process has become quite simple.The number of journals has increased significantly. The publication process can be completed from the comfort of our living room with a laptop and an internet connection. All of this has predictably resulted in increase in the number of articles published.

Consequently the relative value of each individual publication has probably gone down. For example, if we consider the value of a  This is similar to inflation in economy. A ten rupee note was more valuable ten years back than today. These days, it isn’t uncommon to see a mid career academic with more than a hundred publications. (at least in my domain). To keep things in order, we have invented quite a few metrics.

In this era of hyperpublication, it is upto the reader to tell the diamonds from the dross. Still, the journals cling onto their role as the gate keepers of scientific knowledge. However, that role has been significantly weakened and the power has undeniably shifted to the reader.

What does all this mean for us?

It means it is no longer enough to get published. The question is not whether we get published. The question is who is reading our work? It is vitally important that students remember this distinction, lest they think publication is some form of digital brain dump. It takes a lot to raise the bar, when the publication houses would much rather lower them. As is true of many difficult things, the results are worth it.

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Painless pricks

Problem: Your diabetic patient is not checking blood glucose frequently. She is sick of pain in the prick sites and would rather not check blood sugar

Solution: Make the pricks painless and hope the patient will check blood glucose regularly

Some people might scoff at the solution. How can you make drawing the blood from your patient’s finger painless? It doesn’t make sense? You might perhaps think that making the needle thinner should help. Unfortunately that wouldn’t be enough. Because even thinner needles also have to prick deep enough to draw blood. Besides one might need a thinner needle that goes in just the right amount to draw blood. Often the patient squeezes the finger – which leads to more pain.

One option is to use Lancing pens – they are significantly better than just pricking with any old needle. However they still continue to be painful. This is a problem especially for children with diabetes – there is ample data to show that frequent glucose monitoring and corrective steps are necessary to achieve optimal glycemic control.

It is in this backdrop that a device has been introduced. It’s called Genteel – and it promises pain free blood glucose testing. How does it make a prick  pain free?

  1. It uses vacuum to draw the blood vessels
  2. It plunges only deep enough to hit the blood vessel ( for most people), and avoids the nerve endings*
  3. It has a vibration mechanism that distracts the patient from feeling the minimal pain. The end result is an almost painless prick. The device isn’t available in India at the moment, but it can be ordered online for a price of $ 119(after 10$ discount). (shipping costs extra).

Evidence:
I couldn’t find evidence that this device reduces pain/ improves the frequency of glucose testing /improves glycemic control. There are various testimonials by children who have used it and found it to significantly reduce the pain. Since they probably don’t have any commercial bias, I decided to take their testimonial at face value. However that doesn’t negate the need for some solid scientific evidence.

Realistically we have three choices
1. Wait for the evidence to accrue and avoid experimenting
2. Have a demo pen in the clinic and have the kids try it out. If they like it they can buy it.
3. Do a trial of the device in Indian setting – preferably including the soft end points such as pain and frequency of glucose testing and harder ones like HbA1c.

I favour option 2&3. The reason is simple – it isn’t too costly, there’s a 4 month trial period during which the device can be returned if found useless, and unlike non invasive glucose monitoring systems this one isn’t some black box approach to diabetes.

There are other approaches to relatively painless blood glucose testing. One option is Abbot Freestyle LibrePro. Unlike Abbot Freestyle LibrePro, Genteel is an one time investment. And it can be easily shared among family members*.(the lancets have to be changed)The advantages are obvious. In case you know some type 1 diabetic child who could benefit, please share it with your patient.

Disclosure: I have no conflicts of interest to declare.

Kudos

The Plain Language Movement & Law

The plain language movement started in both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s to make law easy to understand. The legal documents were plagued by legalese and were thus inaccessible to the commoner. This problem can be traced back to almost a 1000 years when William, the Duke of Normandy defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As William and his followers spoke a dialect of French, English became the language of the common and lowly folk.
The courts and lawyers soon followed suit. Within a few decades the Legal system had became inscrutable to the common man. With the ascendancy of English came the urge to rid the system of the French and Latin terms and replace them with crisp Anglo Saxon words. The push to make common sense in common language fashionable had a reasonable amount of success.
The legal system and the people benefited a lot from making things simple. Unfortunately, the Plain Language movement only focused on the law, not medicine.

Saving Medicine From Medicalese

Flip(or click) through the pages of any medical journal and you will see how hard our language has become for anyone outside our profession to make sense of. Even among doctors, each discipline has its own jargon and stylistic idiosyncrasies making it harder for others to understand. We live in a time when obfuscation is celebrated as a skill and straight talk is scoffed at.
To give an example, I was reading a top endocrinology journal yesterday and was dismayed to find that the pages have been hijacked by genes, genes and more genes or molecules,molecules and more molecules. It felt like the journal had written in 100 size font in invisible ink – look, this is for the experts. No one else is welcome.
I am not arguing that the top journals should dumb down their content or ask authors to keep click baity titles. However I’m certain that the scientific community will be better served by a Cochrane style plain language summary for every scientific article. In fact developing a written version of the elevator pitch is likely to narrow our focus on what matters. However, most journals don’t have the space/ inclination for such summaries. We need a plain language movement for medicine.

What can we do in the meantime?

kudos-greater-research-impact
Kudos. It is a free online service to explain about your research in plain English. Each paper gets these four pieces of information – Title, What is about, Why is it important and the Perspectives of the author. Kudos also provides shareable links and can automatically post to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It can even track the response your article is generating! (It’s like having your own Altmetric dashboard)
Here’s a plain language summary of one of our papers – Tumor(s) Induced Osteomalacia- A curious case of double Trouble
If you are an academic, check out Kudos. It’s free and the experience can help you focus on what matters.

The Insulin plant

Yeah..you read that right. There’s actually a plant called insulin plant and it’s supposed to reduce blood glucose levels(no surprise there).You have probably heard of several natural remedies for diabetes and are rolling your eyes now.. The diabetes armamentarium is brimming with antidiabetic agents which are effective and proven. Some like GLP1 analogues and SGLT2 inhibitors have even proven to have cardiovascular benefits.

So why bother about a plant?

For a couple of reasons

  • Research : There are many plants which have potential antidiabetic diabetic activity – infact there are at least 111 plants which are known to reduce blood glucose. (1). However the Indian patent laws do not allow patenting plants and more importantly medicines derived from natural products. I have always had trouble understanding the second clause – even if you do some fancy chemical extraction and make a useful substance that was essentially hidden underground for millennia, you wouldn’t get a patent in India. Consequently the incentive to exploit the “natural remedies” for commercial gain is very limited. Thus,most of these plants/plant based substances may never reach the market as a tablet. Does that mean we can’t study them or learn from them? Not really – one can essentially mimic a natural substance, tweak it, call it bioinspiration and pretend that the molecular structure was an epiphany during a coffee break ! Or at least apply for an AYUSH grant to do some research – I’m a novice here, but I guess there can’t a better time to apply for AYUSH grants than now. Even if we aren’t involved in the business of making drugs, if the natural form is safe enough, we can consume them. Even if the effect is modest.
  • Clinical: Apart from the research aspect, there is a huge public craze for cost effective natural remedies or drugs derived from plants. The runaway success of products like BGR34 is a testimony to this.

Now you might wonder, if this plant stuff is good, it should have a good scientific backing. Indeed there’s a good body of research behind this. But let’s be frank – research is often locked behind paywalls. Even when it is ‘accessible’ it isn’t truly accessible to those outside the profession – most people are turned off by graphs,tables and statistics. The idea of this post is to simply strip the complexity off the published scientific literature and bring the reader upto speed on this quirky plant.

Here’s a brief bio of the insulin plant in Q&A format

What exactly is the insulin plant?

This plant belongs to the Costaceae family – two species are common , the Costus igneus and the Costus pictus. The leaves of this plant are sometimes taken as supplements for reducing blood sugar. Known as the Spiral flag( insulin chedi in Tamil and Malayalam), the plant can grow upto 2 feet and has colorful flowers.

costus-igneus

What does the plant contain?

It contains triterpenoids such as α and β amyrin,lupeol, stigmatsterol.,Diosgenin etc. That’s a lot of active principles- but mostly we are yet to understand how these substances interact with one another and whether isolating them is more useful than the natural mixture in which they are found.

How do I get this plant?

The insulin plant can be obtained from a nursery or someone who is already using it. Care should be taken to avoid mistaking some other plant for this. For the purposes of research, the identity of the plant needs to be confirmed by the Botanical Survey of India,Coimbatore. They give an authentication certificate with a number and date.

Is it safe for human consumption?

Published Toxicity studies in animals show no major toxic effects in the short term (2). Anecdotal human evidence seems to support this. However one should remember that with plants/plant products, there are a lot of variables one must account for – subspecies,soil,part of the plant, extract or whole leaves, growth in shade vs sunlight etc. Since there are no published long term human studies, we are essentially on our own when consuming this. Consequently, those at risk of hypoglycemia (elderly, recurrent hypos, comorbid illness, kidney diseases) and pregnant women should strictly avoid experimenting on themselves.

Is it effective in reducing blood sugar?

Much of the published research on this plant is from animal studies. These animal studies generally show a reduction in blood glucose. You can get a gist of the published research in the form of table by clicking here

Homogeneity is hard to obtain in these studies. Only limited human data is available. The absence of data doesn’t mean absence of useful effect though.

Does it have any other uses?

These days plenty of drugs reduce glucose. It is only natural to expect more !. Plant products tend to have pleiotropic effects and may well have off target effects which we don’t want. There are some of the effects of the insulin plant.

  1. Hypolipidemic effect
  2. Antioxidant effect
  3. Diuretic effect
  4. Anticancer effect
  5. Reduces TSH (3)

What does the current research mean?

Very little is known about the insulin plant – especially the human use of it. However, with the public clamor for natural remedies, there may be a future for this plant/its products. Because of its pleiotropic effects, it might have a role in conditions such as prediabetes,subclinical hypothyroidism apart from diabetes.

To conclude, the insulin plant is a potential plant therapy for diabetes. However at present we don’t know much about its human use and thus must proceed with caution.It opens up several research areas. If found useful in raw form, it may become one of the cheapest ways of treating diabetes.

Further Reading

1. Eddouks M, Bidi A, El Bouhali B, Hajji L, Zeggwagh NA. Antidiabetic plants improving insulin sensitivity. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2014 Sep;66(9):1197–214.

2. Hegde PK, Rao HA, Rao PN. A review on Insulin plant (Costus igneus Nak). Pharmacogn Rev. 2014 Jan;8(15):67–72.

3. Ashwini S, Bobby Z, Sridhar MG, Cleetus CC. Insulin Plant (Costus pictus) Extract Restores Thyroid Hormone Levels in Experimental Hypothyroidism. Pharmacognosy Res. 2017 Mar;9(1):51–9.

Medicalruminations turns one

It’s been a year – of great fun and learning.Medical ruminations turns one today! I have benefited immensely from your words of wisdom.

Just wanted to take the time out to say a Big Thank you 🙂

Thank you card

Love,

Karthik

An antidote to apathy

Sometimes your moment of epiphany comes in the most unlikely of places. And things are never the same again.

It was November 2012. I had just gotten married and booked tickets to Andamans. On day 2 , we had gone to the Cellular Jail. Little did I know that the night would mark a tectonic shift in my world view. They had arranged a light and sound show to show the tourists about the struggles of countless men incarcerated there during India’s darkest years. The sheer impossibility of escape and the brutal conditions of the jail would break even the strongest men.

I was transfixed and with great respect visited Savarkar’s cell. Veer Savarkar was kept in a cell (strategically) just opposite the gallows – so that he can see the prisoners getting hanged. The man had written  – in Hindi – a poem to the birds,

“I don’t know your language, but If I did, I would teach you the Indian National anthem”

Even now, it’s hard for me to say in any language,including my own, what I felt at that moment. Perhaps a gush or respect , a wave of pride,love for the nation all mixed in intoxicating proportions, that I almost lost balance. It was then that the unthinkable happened.

Several people behind me had been making noises, smoking and making fools of themselves generally. In spite of admonition from the guide, they paid little heed to the sanctity of the ground they were treading. It was a generation that didn’t have to deal with British atrocities. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me – that they were able to do that in Cellular jail only because of the sacrifice of thousands of freedom fighters. Sometimes when you get something, without toiling for it, you hardly understand its value. These ungrateful brats had the temerity to go to gallows and make some stupid jokes!

Life had come a full circle. From the time when we were united and used every means to wrest freedom from a cold empire, we had become a nation with no pride or self respect. I,Me and Myself had become the dominant personal ideology. The government had embraced a politics of anything goes and by natural progression, scams rocked the country. The regularity of these scams would put any Swiss watch maker to shame.

I had little idea of Modi or BJP then. Nor was I particularly aware that nationalism was an antidote to the plague I was witnessing. I was one of those happy go lucky guys whose life revolves around a book, a laptop and a cup of coffee. I was decidedly apolitical. Of course, just because we don’t take interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take interest in us.

The questions kept haunting me through out my honeymoon – just like the rhythmic waves that hit the beautiful beaches of Andamans. Why did these people feel no respect or love for the freedom fighters? Why were they not proud of their heritage? Where did we lose the plot? More importantly, what is the solution?

Of course, it was apparent that in a vast and diverse country like India, it is juvenile to expect a knight in shining armor to come and change things. It was also clear that we were at cross roads in history – a decisive moment – when things can only change for the better, if there is a thorough overhaul of the dominant narrative. The political discourse needed some shaking up. We needed to find some way to unite the country – the sleeping giant – and gear up to take a larger role in the world stage.

It was then that Modi happened. The social media powered campaign was a blitzkrieg. Like so many of my country men, I came under his spell. We see only what we want to see, and believe someone who says what we want to hear. He was a master orator and I cursed myself for not knowing enough Hindi to understand his speeches.

Three years on – when I look around – I am happy that things have finally started to change.But sometimes it’s hard to shake off the feeling that we might have gone overboard. The duality has become quite stark – not that is always bad – after all , if you looking at good and bad, you can’t complain of them being totally different. The media has become more polarised – so much so that it’s hard to tell what is true these days. The quality of public discourse is laughably poor – incessant fights on language, religion and caste continue to plague us.

As India has become a global power to reckon with, our vulnerability to external threat has diminished substantially. To put it in our PM’s words, India of 2017 is not the same as India of 1962. The standoff in Doklam and China’s cautious approach is ample testimony to this fact. Our growing clout is undeniable.

Unfortunately we are quite vulnerable to ourselves and our folly. We may have become more divided nation – or so it seems. The very drug of nationalism which was intended to treat the apathy has now reached militant heights. The shrill cry of hypernationalism is threatening to tear the fabric of our cherished diversity. After all, our flag is a tricolor, not some monochrome.

I was and still remain a subclinical sanghi. I do wonder if my political pendulum is beginning to swing towards the centre. On this glorious Independence day, we must realize that our differences don’t matter as much as our shared history and bonds. We need to tell our kids that we take great pride in our Indian identity- the primary identity of all of us.Just like our forefathers who toiled hoping that their children and grandchildren would one day live in a free India, we need to work hard to ensure that we don’t drop the baton. We owe it to those brave souls who shed their blood and sweat in cellular jail.

Happy Independence day!

Jai Hind!

 

Daring to look beyond evidence

Today I attended, along with a lot of others, the much awaited debate about the Paleo diet in Trendo 2017(The Annual Endocine Conference). The hall was jam packed and both the speakers did a fantastic job. This is an issue that I have been ruminating for quite a while now.I had been skeptical about the Paleo diet – the scientific aspect of it. It was a knee jerk reaction. Knee jerk reactions are rarely right – so I decided to do what every doctor has been taught : look at the evidence.
I started the search at a familiar place – PubMed. As expected, there weren’t many studies. . There were studies of short duration, some of which showed great effect and others didn’t. Even the pattern was familiar, just like the place where I started. In fact I couldn’t find a single trial from India. I guess we are content to ask questions and want others to come up with answers.
However, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of effect.
Like all searches, I was left with more questions than answers. What exactly is Paleo diet? How far back in human history do we go? Should we just emulate the caveman’s diet or his whole life style? Somehow, drinking butter tea in plush AC rooms alone without working hard like the cave man seemed counter intuitive.
It was at this stage, that I stumbled onto a Facebook group called Arokiyam Nalvazhvu(Healthy Life in Tamil). I can hear the evidence based snobs scoffing . After all , a social network isn’t a traditional place to find answers to one of the fundamental questions of science – how and what should we eat? The group had over 3.5 lakh members, almost all of whom are either taking Paleo diet or planning to. [Talk of big data :-). This would be brilliant data mining project, for those who love to work with unstructure data]. Now this diet isn’t a standardized intervention, these were mostly prescribed by hobbyists who had no background in medicine. I saw some doctors as members of the group too. I decided to become a lurker.
Here’s how the group works:
Members post the pre and post images of themselves and their blood test reports. Several admins are there who approve the post and given them a unique id. The member has to take the requisite blood tests and post in the same thread. Within a couple of days, a paleo diet chart is given. It has its own menu and can be expensive, but if the member requests there are cheaper options as well. After 100 days, the member posts his lab tests/photos or both.The remarkable thing is the dedication of the admins. I have never seen patient empowerment on such a grand scale. Those who follow the diet religiously and lose weight, in turn become evangelists of Paleo and welcome new comers and start mentoring. It is a virtuous cycle. The best part is all of this is done absolutely free of cost.
Interestingly, Paleo has spawned several entrepreneurs as well. The people are home delivering Paleo ingredients. There are even a few Paleo diet hotels around. The members and admins actively go out and raise awareness.
I must say that the photos of people weighing over 150 kgs and becoming 90 kg after paleo are far more impressive than p values <0.05. Of course, this is not to say that statistics is unimportant – quite the contrary. It is to emphasize that just because the data is not available in nice and easy spreadsheets or published in some top tier journal, doesn’t mean there is no data.
In the most unexpected of places, I did learn a few things that aren’t readily understood about Paleo diet. These are not the attributes of the diet itself. They are the extras- the sidekicks. Just like in the best of tales, the sidekicks save the day, even when the hero is down and out.

  •  Paleo diet is like a religion. It’s more a way a life than a diet. Just like religion acts as a vehicle to take good ideas and principles to the masses, the Paleo brand helps in bringing common sense and not so common sense dietary principles to the masses. Just like religion, there are high priests,evangelists and followers. Just like religion, there is a strong sense of belonging – for which people give their love and labor for free. Just like religion, it has spawned a parallel economy, where members enrich themselves and others through innovative business models.
  • Just like religion, Paleo has its own issues. Since there’s no universal agreement on even what constitutes Paleo diet ( you can be pretty sure that the cave man didn’t take butter tea!), there are often conflicting views on some topics. These conflicts are resolved not through research, but personal experience of the admins and volunteers. However unlike religions, the group and the shared culture, ultimately puts the power in the hands of the people. 
  • Paleo diet groups are like corporations – they work with a clear hierarchy. They use data to continuously refine the advice and through rapid iteration understand what works and what doesn’t.Unlike corporations, they don’t operate for profit and don’t chase the bottom line. 
  • Paleo diet groups are like cooperative societies. Through the sheer strength of numbers, they are able to bargain with the labs and vendors and reduce the prices.
  • Paleo diet groups are like schools – where the pupils are educated on a radically new diet and the pitfalls to watch out for. The advice may not always be in sync with what the medical community believes, but there can be no denying that it has worked in the short term for many people. The long term health effects of ketosis are largely unknown.

In short, the Paleo diet clearly goes beyond the boundaries of a diet – it’s more of a subaltern lifestyle. Some would even call it a social revolution – for it is of the people,by the people and for the people. There in lies its strength. It’s not an edifice built on multicenter clinical trials – but a belief system that has surprisingly worked for many people and continues to do so. Evidence is accumulating that it is effective in many lifestyle diseases. Even as the neo converts to the EBM decry the lack of evidence, we cannot forget that evidence often takes time. Seeing is believing ,but the reverse is true too – you need to believe in something strongly enough to see the results. For instance, if Gandhiji had asked for evidence that ahimsa can wrest political power from a powerful empire before embarking on the struggle, he would have come up with a nought – after all, there was no historical precedent- and we might have remained under imperial rule!

Our diet is very dear to us – which explain why we have a strong bias towards the status quo. When I see a morbidly obese man becoming fit in the short, without going under the surgeon’s scalpel, I know that’s special. It’s life changing. The biggest impact this search had on me was that now I find it impossibly hard to recommend bariatric surgery to anyone before a paleo trial – I cannot unsee the photos after all !
Of course, the jury is still out on the science of Paleo diet. However I am convinced that even good principles and ideas,like religion, require good packaging and branding. The social component of the Paleo groups is incredibly hard to replicate. We just can’t peddle good advice to people and expect it to catch on like wildfire. In that sense, Paleo might have already transcended the outer limits of conventional medicine.
I still remain a lurker in the group. I eat normal diet. I love statistics. However, when people quote meta analyses and p values, merely to buttress their belief system and show no effort to search for the truth, I chuckle inside. It takes a bit of humility and guts to say we don’t know. May be deep down, we don’t want to know.
May be we don’t want to look beyond evidence. When we do dare to look, the view is breathtaking.