Well, NCCAM supports a variety of pseudoscientific practices in the “energy therapy” category, including this study. Running and Welniak plan to look specifically at two methods, Reiki and “Healing Touch”, to see if they can (1) cure cancer and (2) reduce the likelihood of immune rejection (graft versus host disease, or GVHD) of transplated tissues or cells. Really? Remarkable.
First, a very quick look at the two “therapies” proposed by Running and Welniak. Healing Touch is another name for “Therapeutic Touch,” a technique that is little more than magical thinking, but that is very popular (unfortunately) among many nurses and nurse-training programs (including, obviously, the PI of this study, Alice Running). Basically, the claim is that a Healing Touch practitioner (let’s call this person a “healer”) can wave her hands over the patient, manipulate the patient’s “energy field” (an invisible field, undetectable by any known technology), and heal all sorts of illnesses, relieve pain, etc. During a session, the healer doesn’t even touch the patient.
This is all complete nonsense, of course. Therapeutic Touch (and Healing Touch) were most famously debunked in a 1998 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Rosa L, Rosa E, Sarner L, Barrett S. A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch. JAMA 279:1005-1010, 1998), using an experiment designed by Emily Rosa, a 4th-grade student at the time. The results have been summarized in many places:
“Emily was able to recruit 21 experienced TT practitioners for her experiment. The TTP's were allowed to "feel" Emily's hands prior to the test, and choose which one they felt the strongest energy radiating from. With the TTP seated behind the screen, Emily then placed her hand over one of the TTP's hands. After 20 trials, these experienced TTP's, some of whom had even published articles on TT, could only sense Emily's hand correctly 44% of the time. By chance alone, they should have guessed correctly 50% of the time. Clearly, except in their own mind, they were not sensing an energy field.”If TT was debunked 10+ years ago, why is this obvious pseudoscience still being funded by NCCAM? The leaders of this new study claim (with no evidence) that “The mental ability of a being, whether conscious or not, to influence physical parameters especially those linked to stress and inflammatory pathways has become more evident in recent years.” Ah, I see. It's "evident" to someone - presumably Running and Welniak.
Unfortunately, there is big money behind Healing Touch. Programs such as this one - http://www.healingtouchprogram.com - have sold certification classes to over 100,000 nurses (so they claim), making this a multi-million dollar industry with many “experts” who aren’t likely to admit that they are frauds (or that they’ve been made to look like fools). This is despite the fact that websites promoting Healing Touch proudly admit that "many of the techniques used in energy therapies come from practices in shamanistic and Asian traditions with thousands of years of use." That's right, these techniques were used by shamans. Sounds trustworthy to me.
Reiki, by the way, is pretty much the same thing, only with different mumbo-jumbo surrounding it. The Reiki “therapist is supposed to direct their energy into the client to promote the body's self healing” and some Reiki instructors even claim that Reiki can heal genetic disorders.
Oh, and I should mention: this NCCAM study will look at mice. That’s right, they will use Healing Touch to try to cure cancer in mice. As they describe it: “we will determine the limits of Healing Touch to reduce tumor growth and symptoms of graft vs. Host disease in murine models.”
What seems to be going on is that Running believes in this nonsense, and she has recruited Welniak – a scientist at another institution who has published legitimate work on GVHD in mice, and doesn’t seem to have published anything relating to pseudoscience before – to provide cancerous mice for her study. The two of them submitted a proposal to NCCAM, and now they have NIH funding. But by participating, Welniak is lending her scientific reputation to this nonsense, and seriously tarnishing it in the process.
I can’t imagine a better use for $630,000 of taxpayer-provided NIH funds, can you?