Fat Mate: Fat chance lost

By John Pickering 02/01/2015

I expect New Zealand tax dollars science spending to be better than what I read in the media this morning. Headlined in the Press was “Blenheim ‘fat mate’ loses 13.5kg in 8 weeks.”  The story was of someone on a trial of a locally produced diet supplement having lost weight.  So far nothing to peak my interest, but then I came across the statements “Satisfax was the result of $12 million research over four years with support from Crown Research Institute Plant & Food Research.” (Satisfax is the trademark)  and “Huge demand for the trial saw it expanded from 100 “fat mates” to 200.”  The second of the links goes to an October article in the Marlborough express which includes the statement that “The trial had been approved by the Health Ministry’s health and disability ethics committee and was partially funded by Callaghan Innovation.

So, your and my taxes are being spent by Callaghan Innovation on a trial of a diet pill the development of which received other tax dollars through Plant & Food. Worth a little more investigation.  The trial went through an ethics committee – big tick.  It was also (a little late) registered on the Australia New Zealand Clinical Trials network (here) – tick.

BUT, it fails miserably as an efficacy trial.

There is no control group.  ie the pill is not compared against a placebo. I can think of no practical reason why there was not a control group taking a placebo (randomised and blinded of course).  Instead, the trial just looks at the average change in weight change over eight weeks and tries to establish if this is non-zero.  Given that these people are doing something hoping to loose weight, there may well be an average loss of weight that has nothing to do with the pill. The press article suggests a biostatistician is going to somehow “account” for the placebo affect (something not mentioned on the trial registration).  I pity the biostatistician as this is involves trying to convince someone that a study run elsewhere with a placebo group, at a different time, under different circumstances could actually serve as a control for this study.

Incredibly, that is not the only major issue.  I read that part way through the trial the publicity was such that there was a demand from people to enter the trial and so they doubled the number of participants from 100 to 200.  Ahhhhhh….. this is classic introduction of bias and should never have been allowed.  Those extra 100 people are not the same as the first group… they have elevated expectations that may well bias the results.  Furthermore, it is always dangerous to talk about the trial efficacy part way through as this may influence the behaviour of those already in the trial.   Grrrrr….

In short – a chance lost and waste of Plant and Food & Callaghan Innovation funding.  There is hope though – a proper randomised controlled trial could be conducted.  But, I won’t be holding my breath.

ps.  The Marlborough Express and Press should be ashamed of such blatant product placement – diet pills on January 2nd are so cliche.  I wonder if it was the reporter or the company who initiated this piece?

Tagged: Blenheim, Callaghan Innovation, diet, diet pill, Plant and Food, Randomised controlled trial, Satisfax

0 Responses to “Fat Mate: Fat chance lost”

  • It’s ‘piqued my interest’ my friend, not ‘peak’. You are using a sound-alike. Something we all do.

  • We’re in the process of applying for a significant Callaghan grant at the moment. We’re expecting peer reviews and site visits before any decision is made. I’ve been very careful to make the science solid. I’d be interested to know which of the grants (growth or project) they secured and how, after Callaghan has been so thorough with us, a study involving plant and food (a science agency) has gotten through without a control group. It makes me wonder if the recent changes in granting process and the increased scrutiny we seem to be under (compared to other past cases we are aware of) is a result of poor science by previous recipients.

    Personally I don’t actually mind the scrutiny we are under, (some here think it’s bureaucracy gone mad!) if an agency is passing out millions of tax dollars. I just hope its an approach that gets used across the board and prevents poor tax payer funded science.

  • I note that the article omits even the barest detail on how the pills are supposed to work. I agree it is going to be tough separating a ‘placebo’ effect

  • I remember reading that about growth grants when we were deciding which grant we would go for. When I queried it with our local Callaghan rep. they said the growth grant application was more of a business case than anything else, and is designed to help fund an organizations entire RnD programme. In contrast, the project grant (which we are going for) is for a specific project and we have been encouraged to explain and justify our science, which is then going to be peer reviewed before the application goes to the panel.

    One wonders why the merit of the RnD programme is not taken into consideration, given the size of the growth grants and especially given the work (without result for many) people put in applying for sizable grants from Marsden, HRC or the Royal society. Is it considered ‘too much red tape’ for a business? Is it to avoid bias against a business pushing the envelope (and therefore being innovative) by challenging the received wisdom/current understanding of a particular area?