Novel Medical Advance?

A truly novel medical advance is always exciting and newsworthy, but the New York Times was insufficiently critical in “Can the Nervous System be Hacked?” by Michael Behar (May 25).

The concept that the nervous system has an effect on inflammatory diseases has been known for a very long time. We have known for more than a century that, if a person with rheumatoid arthritis suffers a stroke, the disease diminishes on the affected side. A number of scientists have reported on the role of the neuroendocrine system for more than a decade. However, as the Times‘ article failed to point out, there is to date nothing published in the medical literature about the “18 patients currently enrolled in the ongoing trial, [of which] two-thirds have improved.” This absence prevents other doctors from evaluating and thereby confirming or refuting the claims made in the Times‘ article.

The investigators described in the article do not lack opportunity to publish their results. According to PubMed, a national database of medical articles, Dr. Kevin J. Tracey has published 298 articles, 7 in 2014 and Dr. Peter-Paul Tak 462, 14 in 2014. None of these articles discussed use of the vagus nerve stimulator for rheumatoid arthritis.

The only two papers published about the stimulator were both by Dr. Ralph Zitnik, the Chief Medical Officer of SetPoint Medical, and both were concept papers in supplements to medical journals, i.e., in the non-peer reviewed pages, with no actual patient data; both were published in 2011.

My colleagues and I would eagerly pursue an advance in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis as exciting as that suggested—if we are able to see and judge the data for ourselves. Unfortunately, the Times‘ article as written offers unjustified hope to seriously ill patients. Perhaps the theory offered will be someday proven correct, or perhaps not. By failing to place the reported finding in context, the Times‘ article seems more like a press release for SetPoint Medical than a report of a likely important medical advance.

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