Reiki is practiced in an NHS breast cancer ward

Reiki is practiced in an NHS breast cancer ward


Reiki treatment involves no physical contact

In the foothills of Mount Kurama a man meditates. He has been there for 21 days. Suddenly, he has a revelation.

From this quiet beginning in 1922 the practice of reiki was born. Since then, it has evolved and found itself keeping company with treatments such as homeopathy and acupuncture in modern complementary medicine. The practice of reiki involves the practitioner transferring healing energy, or ‘ki’, to the subject through their palms. Those who support the treatments claim that this can help a wide range of conditions, including depression and anxiety as well as improving immunity. Contrary to these claims, reiki and other complementary medicines have been widely studied and the scientific consensus is that they have minimal, if any, clinical benefits. Despite this, reiki and its allied medicines are, shockingly, still afforded a place in the medical treatment establishment.

This acceptance of alternative medicine can be seen specifically at The Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust, Essex, where they employ a “Reiki Therapist/Spiritual Healer”  in a breast cancer ward. The position is funded by an alternative medicine charity, but its location within an NHS hospital has drawn criticism. Professor Edzard Ernst, the world’s first, and only, professor of complementary medicine said, “We have published a systematic review of reiki…the evidence is simply not there. There are a number of studies, they are flimsy and the ones that are rigorous don’t generate a positive result. In my book the evidence is even negative,” he added.

The way in which this post has been advertised raises some serious questions about the medical validity of the job. The criteria state that the practitioner must “demonstrate the benefit and activity of the post”. Philippa Dooher, Lead Breast Care Specialist Nurse and supervisor of the position, outlined how this is judged: “Before and after treatment the practitioner engages in a core evaluation of how the patient is feeling. There is also the option for patient feedback.”   Considering the analysis of medical benefits of the treatment, she admitted that the success of the post is “not based on the effect on prognosis”. This stance is problematic according to Professor Ernst who described the attempts to justify the job as “ridiculously funny”.

Thankfully, it appears that this practice is not common in the NHS. Professor Ernst commented that the post seemed “exceptional”. But, he went on to add that outside of the National Health Service “…the use of alternative medicine in Britain is fairly widespread. About 20% of the general population use these treatments; with cancer patients the percentage is much higher.”   Dooher agreed with this, saying that the only alternative practitioners in the hospital were the reiki therapist, and a reflexologist on the same breast cancer ward.

The role in the hospital has been occupied for a year. The way through which patients are recruited to the scheme is another interesting addition to this tale. As well as being given forms to apply for treatment, the patients are approached in the waiting room and offered reiki by the practitioner themselves.

It seems highly illogical that an institution that should make decisions based on evidence and critical observation offers this therapy on an oncology ward. This is a view also expressed by Professor Ernst, who said that it is “Truly, truly embarrassing that an NHS trust should advertise for a reiki healer … [the position] discloses a total lack of critical regard to what they are doing, and I think it’s ridiculous, dangerous, and undermines everything that evidence based medicine and rationality stands for.”

Whilst the creation of reiki in the mountainous regions of Japan may be a nice story, it is disconcerting that almost one hundred years later “spiritual healing energy” can still be found within the NHS. 


This article was inspired by a job advertisement posted by the PAH Trust, upon discussion it was revealed that the post had been filled for a year and since my conversation with the hospital the advertisement has been removed from their website.

Lee MS, Pittler MH, & Ernst E (2008). Effects of reiki in clinical practice: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. International journal of clinical practice, 62 (6), 947-54 PMID: 18410352

EU clamps down on dangerous herbal treatments

EU clamps down on dangerous herbal treatments

A recent ruling by the European Union prohibiting the sale of potentially dangerous herbal medicines has come into effect.

The new criteria state that producers of herbal treatments must provide documentation proving the product is not harmful. They must also give evidence to show that it has been used safely for a minimum of 30 years, with 15 of those being within the boundaries of the EU.

This has been lauded as an important step forward by many scientists and doctors with Richard Woodfield of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) saying “…the registration scheme puts consumers in the driving seat so they can identify that a product meets assured standards on safety, quality and information about safe use.”

However, some feel as though it does not go far enough as it does not impose any regulation or sanctions on homeopathy. Others are critical of different elements of the ruling. Sir David King , chief science adviser to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said, “They certainly haven’t been tested on the same basis as a conventional medicine and some of these compounds are very potent…we’re very concerned that patients appreciate they must be very careful when they take these medicines.” 

Many herbal practitioners have complained about these rules. However, the transition period has been 7 years (described as ‘exceptionally long’ by the European Regulatory Agency), meaning that practitioners and patients have had plenty of time to investigate and plan for alternatives should their choice herbal products not make the cut.

This is a vital development in drug regulation. As although there are traditional medicines which have led to successful treatments, such as the anti-malarial drug Quinine, there have also been several documented cases of contaminated and misused herbal medicine causing fatalities.  

Alan Rusbridger: the libel law draft lacks relevance to online media and interactivity

Alan Rusbridger: the libel law draft lacks relevance to online media and interactivity

Originally written for the Association of British Science Writers

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke at City University on Tuesday (10 May) regarding ‘the long, slow road to libel reform’.

Speaking to a full room, Rusbridger outlined how British libel laws ended up in their current form and gave some examples of his libel battles as the newspaper’s editor.

As the talk progressed it became clear that the divide between press freedom and media regulation is a delicate balancing act.

Rusbridger praised scientists and doctors saying that “their stubborn refusal to give in to the frankly bullying use of libel laws has achieved considerable progress”.

He also praised them for supporting the new draft bill. He commended the clauses protecting publication on matters of public interest, honest opinion (which would have helped Simon Singh) and the substantial harms test.
Nonetheless, Rusbridger said that he believed the new bill did not go far enough, a point which was also raised during questions by former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, co-founder of the Libel Reform Campaign. Rusbridger commented “The honest opinion section still needs some polishing … I would like to see more movement on the burden of proof”.

Rusbridger also touched upon the role of new media, noting that the recent breaking of privacy injunctions on Twitter is an important issue, and that the draft reform bill does not contain “anything that speaks to 21st century web publication and user interactivity online”. The need for this was highlighted recently in the BBC documentary See You in Court which detailed a libel case based on comments posted on a message board by a member of the public.

The PCC’s recent ruling against The Daily Telegraph Daily for undercover recording of ministers and recent revelations of phone hacking by News of the World have brought the practicality of self-regulation into question. Rusbridger commented: “14 years after everyone told us that the PCC had reformed standards in the press and that the age of bad behaviour was over we can see better what a hollow claim that was”.

The overall message from the evening was that the existing libel and media laws are untenable and reform is needed.

Amish Paradise: The use of GM crops by the Amish

Amish Paradise: The use of GM crops by the Amish

Amish at the forefront of technology!?

Now, Britain may view itself as a progressive country. With universal healthcare, a permissive attitude to stem cell research and a (usually) accepting attitude to foreign cultures, this view on the whole looks fairly correct. However, there is one area where our views are in danger of becoming prehistoric, GM food.

All over the world GM crops are being used. The US plant 42.8 million hectares of the stuff, with Canada and Argentina also producing millions of hectares of GMO crops. And whilst the “but all the other kids in school are doing it” argument isn’t a particularly strong one, the use of GM crops by one particular culture makes our absentia most shameful, the Amish.

When a country that views itself as being modern and forward thinking is being technologically overtaken by the Amish something is definitely wrong! The Amish fled religious persecution in Europe in the 1690’s to the US and have shunned technology and effectively remain living in the 1690’s. They follow a literal interpretation of the Bible and live by a set of unwritten rules of the church, the Ordnung. As each Amish district is a separate church the rules vary. The list is quite extensive but, here are a few that give good idea of the rigidity of their society:

  • Full-length mirrors are forbidden, because they are thought to promote vanity and self-admiration
  • Motorized vehicles are not to be owned or driven. The Amish may request a neighbour to drive them, or may hire a driver and rent a car
  • Women are never to shave any part of their body nor to cut their hair
  • Electricity is not allowed in the home. Electrical energy is allowed in community dairy barns, but only generator power (not grid power)

So, why do they use GM crops?

Traditional harvest of a non-traditional crop

It seems that despite not having electricity, phones in their homes or cars, GM agriculture is not against their religion. In fact, it helps them stick to it. Ironically the loss of productivity they have due to farming entirely by hand is compensated for by the increased yield of the crop. The use of GM also allows them to not use pesticides, which they see advantageous. “I myself like biotechnology,” said Amish farmer Daniel Dienner, “I feel it’s what the farmers will be using in the future.” Dienner is not alone in this view either, as of 2005, 550 Amish farmers in Pennsylvania were growing a genetically enhanced, nicotine-free tobacco plant. They sold this $3,500 per acre compared with $300 to $400 for a regular corn crop.

Nicotine-free tobacco is not the only crop grown. There are also Amish farms growing BT-Corn. This strain of corn contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (a gram positive soil bacteria), Bt Delta Endotoxin. This protein is highly effective at controlling caterpillar larvae. The European Corn Borer larvae (Ostrinia nubilalis) is a big problem for farmers as it eats its way up the stem of the plant damaging it and causing the plant to wilt and the corn to die. It is a particular problem for Amish farmers given their traditional harvesting techniques.

In a very odd interview, Amish farmer Gideon ( for religious reasons he could not have his face on camera) was asked what he thinks about people who say the use of GMO crops is dangerous. He responded, “I would say they are misinformed, they don’t know what they are talking about”. This to the point view shows just how behind we are. Who is to blame is to blame for the country’s hesitance about GMOs is another matter. But, whilst the Daily Mail continues to peddle it’s pseudo-science “Frankenfood” scaremongering and scientists bemoan the public for their lack of understanding, I think it is unlikely the UK’s stance will change.

So, as it sums up the farcical nature of the situation, here is Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovic:


Wired  – Welcome to LeBow Country – 2001

Council for Biotechnology Information – Amish Farmers Grow Biotech Tobacco, Potatoes – 2005

BBC 2 – Jimmy’s GM Food Fight – November 2008

FSA  – Consumer views of GM food – 2003

Wikipedia – Ordnung

Agrifood Awareness Australia – World GM Food Report – 2005

Scientific Collaboration Mapped Out

Scientific Collaboration Mapped Out

If you didn’t believe that science was a international collaborative sport then this should persuade you otherwise. These amazing images show the links between science publications, in the same way that Facebook mapped their friend data a couple of months ago. These were produced by Olivier Beauchesne and Science-Metrix. Click on the images below to see in high res:

Global science collaboration

For a fully zoomable high-res map click here

CaSE’s 25th Anniversary Reception; a review

This was originally written for the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) blog reviewing their 25th anniversary celebrations and was written by myself and Chloe McIvor:

Time changes many things. In the past 25 years we have experienced the birth of the internet, five different Prime Ministers – and the unexpected comeback of leg warmers. However, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) is still going strong and yesterday celebrated its 25th anniversary at an event attended by the great and the good of British science.

The event, hosted by the Instituton of Engineering and Technology (IET) and sponsored by Nature, was held in Savoy Place with views looking out over some of the city’s greatest science and engineering achievements, such as the London Eye and the Millennium Bridge. It fitted well with the ethos of an evening that not only looked at CaSE’s past achievements, but looked forward to the challenges ahead.

The evening was marked by addresses from highly influential speakers; Professor Denis Noble, Lord Robert May and David Willets MP, warmly introduced by the Director of CaSE, Imran Khan. Professor Noble and Lord May took us back to the mid 80’s and the start of Save British Science. They discussed the similarities between the problems facing science and engineering, then and now.

The speeches emphasised the particular success CaSE has enjoyed this year regarding the spending review, making it a particularly good year to be celebrating their achievements. David Willets was keen to express his intentions to continue working in the interests of scientists, concluding however, that the audience will know doubt judge whether or not he is successful.

Challenges ahead

After the speeches concluded, the guests were asked for their hopes and expectations for British science funding and policy in a further 25 years time. The results painted a picture of high ambition in all areas and although expectations were below hopes, the majority predicted an improvement for science by 2036.

One area where science was seen to be succeeding is education, where the proportion of STEM graduates (currently at 42%) was deemed to be at the ideal level and was predicted to remain so. There was less optimism regarding equality for women in science, highlighting a potential new challenge.

As the night drew to a close the revellers continued to celebrate, safe in the knowledge that CaSE will go on protecting the interests of British science and will have many more candles on its birthday cake in the future.

$100,000 grant for new vaccines

This was originally published in ‘The Nerve’ the Southampton Biological Society Paper & ‘Wessex Scene’ University Newspaper:

The School of Biological Sciences has just been awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund the designing of new vaccines at the university.

The grant is for the microbiologist Dr Jeremy Webb and his team who are trying to design a vaccine that will provide protection from pneumonia and meningitis. During infection the bacteria assemble together to form what is known as a biofilm, this acts as a defence mechanism against antibi¬otics and the host’s immune system. Dr Webb and his colleagues are seeking to identify proteins that allow the biofilms to form in humans with the aim of finding a possible target for vaccines.


“People often think of bacteria as single organisms, but in reality most bacteria cooperate to form complex communities” explained Dr Webb. “Vaccines in use today are generally based on the properties of single celled bacteria. Our approach is new because we will target properties of the protective biofilms in order to design new vaccines.”

The Southampton team is working in conjunction with researchers from the University of Liverpool and University of Bristol.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the biggest privately owned charitable organisation in the world and each year donates around $1.5 billion to a variety of causes worldwide.

Dr Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s ‘Global Health Program’ says: “The winners of these grants show the bold thinking we need to tackle some of the world’s greatest health challenges. I’m excited about their ideas and look forward to seeing some of these exploratory projects turn into life-saving breakthroughs.”