There is a system in place to protect patients and health consumers from fraudulent, worthless, harmful, or misleading medical treatments or products. Most people agree that there should effective protections, and in fact they assume that there are. But there is also quite a bit of money to be made selling healthcare products and services, which creates a massive incentive to bypass these regulations. That is basically what the alternative medicine movement is – an attempt to bypass standards of regulation and create a narrative to convince the public this is a good idea.
One of the methods for protecting consumers is to have a science-based standard – drugs, for example, need to provide adequate scientific evidence of safety and efficacy prior to being allowed on the market. Scientific research, therefore, provides one portal of entry for snake oil into the system of regulated health product. I recently came across an excellent example of this – “release active drugs”. This is an attempt at taking homeopathy, which is well-established as completely ineffective, and dressing it up with new pseudoscientific jargon.
I was actually first made aware of this phenomenon by Alexander Panchin, who is the co-author of a new BMJ article exposing so-called “release active drugs” or RAD. He is also a member of the Commission on pseudoscience and research fraud of the Russian Academy of Sciences. They are doing good work in trying to root out pseudoscience from the sciences in Russia (including homeopathy!), and is a good model that should be replicated in every country (are you paying attention, AAAS?).
The article lays out how the company that manufactures RADs are gaming the system. These dubious products are manufactured by a single Russian company called OOO ‘NPF ‘Materia Medica Holding’ (MMH). The company has tried to flood journals with articles showing efficacy for various RADs, but they are almost all co-authored by a single person, Oleg Epstein, who is the founder of MMH. This, of course, is a huge red flag.
Here is one study found on PubMed. This is a typical study used to generate the appearance of an effect for a bogus product, with poor methodology, and just reeking of p-hacking. The authors, including Epstein, argue that the results show a RAD of diclofenac makes diclofenac more effective, but the results don’t really show this, and are barely significant across the board – a red flag for p-hacking. In any case, without independent replication by researchers with no connection or interest in MMH, none of these results should be taken seriously.
They should also not be taken serious because RADs are essentially magic – they are “ultrahigh” dilutions of antibodies or drugs to the point that no active ingredients remain. In other words – this is just homeopathy dressed up with new technobabble jargon. The authors of the BMJ article report:
This is another misleading way to say that the pill contains no molecules of the active substance. Simple calculations show that only one molecule of antibodies is expected in ~100 million anaferon pills. From personal communications, we are aware of patients who knew about the scientific criticism of homeopathy and wanted to avoid any alternative medicine but were still tricked by the misleading descriptions of release-active products, which are sold over-the-counter in multiple countries.
Russian regulators initially registered at least two RADs, anaferon and impaza, as homeopathic, but later, in 2009, the word ‘homeopathic’ disappeared from their descriptions, while the concentration of active ingredients did not increase.
This draws a pretty clear picture. The reputation of homeopathy is on the wane, in the wake of multiple reviews showing convincingly that no homeopathic product works for anything. Further, word is getting out (although not yet enough) of what homeopathy actually is. There is still a great deal of confusion, with many people thinking that homeopathy is herbalism or natural medicine. When most people learn that homeopathy is magic water, they correctly conclude that it is worthless. In fact, our campaign against homeopathy has largely consisted of just educating the public about what it actually is.
The strategy of RAD is just to repackage homeopathy to disguise what it is. They are further exploiting weaknesses in the system of scientific journals, with inadequate review allowing bogus studies to slip through. RAD is already a multi-million dollar international market, and they hope to break into the US and other Western markets. It is critical to raise awareness of what RAD is, that it is just homeopathy and not real medicine, in order to forestall its deceptive marketing. It should, at the very least, be properly labeled as homeopathic.
Of course – homeopathy is a complete scam and should be outright banned as fraudulent. The FDA and FTC have tightened their regulations of homeopathy, but have been unable or unwilling to completely eradicate this parasitic market. We need to keep the pressure on, continue to raise public awareness, and create the political will to finally rid ourselves of this harmful pseudoscience.
Meanwhile, we have to make sure that companies like MMH don’t just rebrand the same nonsense and start the cycle all over again.