White Coat Underground

Experiment–woo woo journal club

This is just for kicks, and requires a little work. I recently became aware of a dreadful article that I’d love to share with you, but then I thought, “my readers are pretty damned smart; let’s see what they have to say first.”

The article in question, “External Qi of Yan Xin Qigong differentially regulates the Akt and extracellular signal-regulated kinase pathways and is cytotoxic to cancer cells but not to normal cells” just seems ripe for feeding into the dewooificator. Now, the full text is behind a paywall, and it wouldn’t do for me to share my full text copy with you. I certainly can’t prevent readers from participating in academic discourse and sharing the article with each other. Anyway, here’s the rest of the citation:

Xin Yana, Hua Shenb, Hongjian Jiangc, Chengsheng Zhangd, Dan Hud, Jun Wangb and Xinqi Wue. The International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology. Volume 38, Issue 12, 2006, Pages 2102-2113. doi:10.1016/j.biocel.2006.06.002.

Thank you in advance for posting your well-thought out comments on this, er, groundbreaking paper.


  1. #1 JamesH
    January 22, 2009

    I understand almost nothing about biochemistry, however I cannot determine how they constructed the control group – is there a control procedure, or did they merely compare to cells that didn’t undergo this procedure:

    “Treatment of cells by external Qi of YXQ
    Cells were treated by external Qi of YXQ essentially
    as previously described (Yan, Zheng, et al., 1988; Yan et
    al., 2004). Briefly, cells cultured to near confluency were
    transferred to the treatment room, treated by external
    Qi of YXQ for 5 min and then returned to the incubator.
    To determine the effect of external Qi of YXQ
    on Akt and ERK1/2 phosphorylation, cells were harvested
    and analyzed by Western blot 10 min after the
    treatment. To examine the effect of external Qi of YXQ
    on the EGF-mediated ERK1/2 activation, BxPC3 cells
    were serum-starved for 48 h before they were exposed
    to external Qi of YXQ. Ten minutes after the exposure
    to external Qi of YXQ the cells were stimulated with
    EGF (100 ng/ml) for 20 min and harvested for Western
    blot analysis. To investigate the effect of external Qi of
    YXQ on the Akt and ERK pathways in fibroblasts, the
    cells were subjected to 24 h of serum starvation, treated
    by external Qi of YXQ, and harvested at 0.5, 1, 12 and
    24 h after the treatment.”

  2. #2 PalMD
    January 22, 2009

    It is not at all clear in what way the experiment was controlled.
    From the methods section:

    After incubation at 37 ◦C and 5%
    CO2 for 2–4 h, the plates were read at 490 nm with
    a plate reader. Data were calculated as percentage of
    the control cells after subtracting the background OD
    (optical density) of the culture medium.

    From the results section:

    The percentage of cells in the sub-G1 population
    was 1.2% in control cells, but increased to 31.6% after
    the treatment, with concomitant decreases of cell populations in the G1 and G2 phases of the cell cycle (Fig. 4B).

    “control” is also mentioned in many of the diagrams, but the control group is never defined in any useful way, AFAIK.

  3. #3 Stu
    January 22, 2009

    Dude, Kimball Atwood is SO going to sue you for stealing the WWWWW!

  4. #4 PalMD
    January 22, 2009

    I did not! Besides, he knows where to find me…

  5. #5 leigh
    January 22, 2009

    to say i am skeptical of the undefined controls is an understatement. were they also serum starved and taken out of the incubator for the defined periods?

    also of note, it was supported by the yan xin foundation… as in, the name of the first author and the name of the woo?

  6. #6 PalMD
    January 22, 2009

    Um, leigh…you’re not using some of the skeptical voodoo handwaving are you? Are you saying you don’t have FAITH in the authors???

    I knew i liked you…

  7. #7 leigh
    January 22, 2009

    what, me, handwaving?

  8. #8 Laura
    January 22, 2009

    Wow, and three of the authors are from Harvard Medical School…

  9. #9 Jackie
    January 23, 2009

    Oh dear. My parents used to make me come with them to their Yan Xin Qigong club meetings. It was all Chinese physicists who were convinced that frequently imagining a pulsating fruit between your hands will eventually make it so you would never have to eat or drink again (you can survive off of the qi alone!). Most painfully boring hours of my life. My dad still tries to convince me that Dr. Yan Xin can change the structure of water molecules using the power of his mind! What exactly that means is unclear to the both of us.

  10. #10 stavros
    January 23, 2009

    I am not sure. I find it difficult not to be highly skeptical of someone that spits out sentences like this:

    Multiple studies have shown that external Qi can be emitted by highly talented/trained Qigong practitioners, while ordinary people are unable to deploy external Qi of therapeutic, physical or chemical effects. ‘Qi’ is considered as the basic element of human vital energy in TCM. The underlying theory of TCM is fully based on balancing Qi according to the theory of Yin-Yang, an approach that also takes into account the biological rhythms, and the chronotherapeutic principles is integrated into external Qi therapy of TCM

    What’s going on at the Harvard Medical School anyway?!? And how was this paper accepted when most of the authors’ premises are not only implausible but disproved as well! (for instance in the latest two Cochrane reviews, acupuncture which relies on Qis was shown to be a very strong placebo!)

  11. #11 stavros
    January 23, 2009

    The other thing that confuses me is that they treated cells in vitro. Does that mean that the Qi runs in small cell cultures as well? I though life energies were supposed to be associated with humans as a whole (you know, holistically :-)). Now it seems that even a cell has this life energy. And apparently, even the cell’s energy paths can become blocked!!

    I cannot even imagine a Qi practitioner manipulating energies over a cell culture in the lab!!

  12. #12 Bill H
    January 23, 2009

    I know next to nothing about AKT, but here goes:

    Could the effects that they’re seeing be due to confluence effects? As cells become more dense in culture, they can undergo drastic changes. I don’t have any experience with the particular cell line this paper used, but pancreatic endocrine cell lines can switch from producing beta cell markers (like insulin) to alpha cell markers (glucagon) depending on how dense they are. They don’t really describe the controls too well, so I’m not sure if they came from cells as confluent as those that got the treatment.

    Also, they harvested the cells 10 minutes after treatment for the phosphorylation studies. Isn’t that awfully fast to see such meaningful changes? (provided the treatment “works” by modulating some other cellular pathway)

    Finally, does the image of someone in a white coat with their hands in a tissue culture hood concentrating at a plate of cells for five minute crack anyone else up?

  13. #13 PalMD
    January 23, 2009

    I like the word “risible”.

  14. #14 Pete
    January 23, 2009

    Come on. Everyone ‘knows’ that the Force Qi is generated by midi-chlorians which exists in the cells of all living creatures, so the Force Qi would be present in the small cell cultures.

    That is where the Jedi woo practitioners get their power.

  15. #15 Bill H
    January 23, 2009

    I just had to google “risible” because I couldn’t figure out what it meant. I’ve been out of school too long, I think I’m losing my perspicacity.

  16. #16 PalMD
    January 23, 2009

    (rifling through teh googles for “perspicacity”)

  17. #17 Rev Matt
    January 23, 2009

    Are we entirely sure this isn’t a really elaborate Sokal hoax? And by this I mean all of Yan Xin Qigong, not just this study.

  18. #18 Bill H
    January 23, 2009

    It’s a gag from the episode of the Simpsons with the teachers strike. If I remeber correctly, the exchange went something like this:

    MARGE: Relax lisa, you’ll be fine.
    LISA: I can’t relax, or relent, or yield …. oh god only two synonyms? i’m losing my perspicacity!
    HOMER: Well it’s always in the last place you look.

    yeah, I’m a nerd …

  19. #19 Orac
    January 23, 2009

    I like the word “risible”.

    I like it even more. Search for it on my blog sometime. 🙂

  20. #20 Hank Roberts
    January 23, 2009

    Nomination for next target — Google Scholar.

    A guy I buy hardware stuff from just got hospitalized with kidney inflammmation after using some “supplement” to “cleanse” his kidneys (hey, he does good hardware …)

    Look at this:

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