A Test of Faith

A controversial San Francisco study is spending taxpayers' money to see if Christian clergy, Indian medicine men, and Tibetan lamas can heal patients with AIDS and brain tumors

Targ expanded the study in 1996 and 1997, this time with 40 AIDS patients, controlling for factors like age. The study, published in the Western Journal of Medicine, found that the group that received healing had fewer hospitalizations and fewer new AIDS-defining diseases, among other factors. But the results, though statistically significant, remain controversial. It was a small study, and a larger trial needs to be done to make the findings more credible.

Critics of distant healing research have also raised questions about Targ's methodology (see sidebar, Page 23). Even Targ, in her published article, concluded that the findings were "both exciting and surprising, but it remains crucial for this work to be replicated to be more confident that the effect is real."

Targ's current government-funded study employs 150 patients, and she hopes it will add evidence to her previous studies. But one question she has not been able to answer in her research -- and one she doesn't particularly intend to answer -- is: How does distant healing work? This nagging uncertainty is one of the major reasons her critics have been so forceful.

Targ says her critics' arguments are based primarily on a philosophical difference. "I want to see if there are strong associations between spirituality and medical outcomes. I'm trying to let everything in without judging it and saying something is impossible. I have never considered it likely that we, 21st-century human beings, have already mapped and described everything that there is to be known. At least I hope not."

The idea that taxpayers' money is being used to study prayer and spiritual healing is troubling to many scientists, who prefer money to be spent on other kinds of research. So why is the government funding a project that mainstream researchers consider questionable science? It is largely through the efforts of one congressman.

In the late '90s, Targ had tried to get funding from the National Institutes of Health for her second distant healing trial. She was rejected.

"They said for years that you can never study prayer," Targ says. "Because distant healing is equated with faith, they asked if it could even be studied by science. Well, I know how to do an experiment, and I believe an experiment can study anything."

For the early studies, then, Targ had to rely on private money from the Institute of Noetic Sciences and other sources.

That all changed in 1999, when a flood of government money became available through the newly created National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an arm of NIH. Targ was able to secure $1.5 million in public funds for her current research.

The new center was an outgrowth of the Office of Alternative Medicine, which came into existence in 1992 due to the political sway of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin headed the subcommittee responsible for funding NIH, and he used his influence to earmark a first-year, $2 million budget for the OAM.

Though the agency was supposedly created to protect the public from fraudulent claims, it became clear that Harkin -- a credulous advocate of alternative medicine -- was less interested in science than he was in pushing nonorthodox treatments. Harkin even tried, during a 1993 Senate hearing, to encourage the Office of Alternative Medicine to do "field studies" -- or gather testimonials -- rather than run rigorous clinical trials.

Dr. Joe Jacobs, the office's first director, balked at Harkin's political pressure and quit after two years. His successor was a homeopathic doctor, which did little for the office's credibility.

The organization remained one of Sen. Harkin's pet projects, and in 1997 he introduced a bill to elevate the office into the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The bill gained support from broad swaths of Congress -- from Republicans linked with the religious right such as Utah's Orrin Hatch to progressive renegades like Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). The bill passed in 1998, and a year later Congress officially elevated the office into the NCCAM, increasing its budget from $20 million to $50 million, which meant that more money would be pumped into researching alternative medicine.

Harold Varmus, then NIH director, also recruited clinical investigator Stephen Straus to head the center, which improved the organization's credibility with mainstream scientists. By that time, alternative medicine was becoming increasingly popular with the public, and more qualified researchers were willing to look into the subject.

According to Jacobs, the former OAM director, Harkin's influence has been subdued over time, though the senator continues to push for more money and resources every year. The center's budget has grown to a projected $110 million in 2002-2003.

(Sen. Harkin could not be reached for comment.)

The landscape of alternative medicine research has changed from the early '90s. Researchers from prestigious university medical centers nationwide are now using government funds to study alternative medicine. Harvard and Duke universities, for example, are now conducting studies on distant healing.

But Dr. Wallace Sampson, the alternative medicine critic, says the public should not be fooled by the field's veneer of legitimacy. "There's money there, and that's why there are research centers in prestigious universities," he says. "It's payoffs. What dean would refuse money, no matter how stupid the research?

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