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National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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Title: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine  
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National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Abbreviation NCCAM
Formation 1991 (as Office of Alternative Medicine)
1998 (as NCCAM)
Type U.S. government agency
Legal status Active
Headquarters Bethesda, Maryland
Region served  United States
Official language English
Director Josephine P. Briggs, MD
Parent organization National Institutes of Health
Affiliations United States Public Health Service
Website .gov.nihnccam

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), formerly the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), is a United States government agency that investigates complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) healing practices in the context of rigorous scientific methodology, in training complementary and alternative medicine researchers, and in disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals.

The NCCAM is one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the Department of Health and Human Services of the federal government of the United States. The NIH is one of eight agencies under the Public Health Service (PHS) in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Organization and history

NCCAM was established in October 1991, as the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), which was re-established as NCCAM in October 1998.[1] Its mission statement declares that it is "dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science; training complementary and alternative medicine researchers; and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals."

Joseph M. Jacobs was appointed the first director of the OAM in 1992. Initially, Jacobs' insistence on rigorous scientific methodology caused friction with the office's patrons, such as U.S. Senator Tom Harkin. Harkin criticized the "unbendable rules of randomized clinical trials" and, citing his use of bee pollen to treat his allergies, stated: "It is not necessary for the scientific community to understand the process before the American public can benefit from these therapies."[2] Harkin's office reportedly pressured the OAM to fund studies of specific "pet theories," including bee pollen and antineoplastons. In the face of increasing resistance to the use of scientific methodology in the study of alternative medicine, one of the OAM board members, Barrie Cassileth, publicly criticized the office, saying: "The degree to which nonsense has trickled down to every aspect of this office is astonishing ... It's the only place where opinions are counted as equal to data."[2] Finally, in 1994, Harkin appeared on television with cancer patients who blamed Jacobs for blocking their access to antineoplastons, leading Jacobs to resign from the OAM in frustration with the political climate.[2]

With the OAM's increasing budget in the 1990s, the office drew increasing criticism for its perceived lack of rigorous scientific study of alternative approaches in favor of uncritical boosterism. Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, wrote to the Senate that "Quackery will always prey on the gullible and uninformed, but we should not provide it with cover from the NIH." Allen Bromley, then-president of the American Physical Society, similarly wrote to Congress that the OAM had "emerged as an undiscriminating advocate of unconventional medicine. It has bestowed the considerable prestige of the NIH on a variety of highly dubious practices, some of which clearly violate basic laws of physics and more clearly resemble witchcraft."[2] A New York Times editorial described the OAM as "Tom Harkin's folly".[3]

Ultimately, in 1998 the Office of Alternative Medicine was elevated to the status of an NIH Center and renamed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). With the increasing profile and budget of the Center, Stephen Straus, a former laboratory chief at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, was brought in to head NCCAM with a mandate to promote a more rigorous and scientific approach to the study of alternative medicine.[2] On January 24, 2008, Josephine P. Briggs, MD, was named director of NCCAM.

The NCCAM funds research into complementary and alternative medicine, including support for clinical trials of CAM techniques.


The four primary areas of focus are:

  • Research – support clinical and basic science research projects in CAM by awarding grants across the country and around the world; we also design, study, and analyze clinical and laboratory-based studies on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland.
  • Research training and career development – award grants that provide training and career development opportunities for predoctoral, postdoctoral, and career researchers.
  • Outreach – sponsor conferences, educational programs, and exhibits; operate an information clearinghouse to answer inquiries and requests for information; provide a Web site and printed publications; and hold town meetings at selected locations in the United States.
  • Integration – integrate scientifically proven CAM practices into conventional medicine by announcing published research results; studying ways to integrate evidence-based CAM practices into conventional medical practice; and supporting programs to develop models for incorporating CAM into the curriculum of medical, dental, and nursing schools.

The forms of medical systems covered include:[4]


The NCCAM charter states that "Of the 18 appointed members (of the council) 12 shall be selected from among the leading representatives of the health and scientific disciplines (including not less than 2 individuals who are leaders in the fields of public health and the behavioral or social sciences) relevant to the activities of the NCCAM, particularly representatives of the health and scientific disciplines in the area of complementary and alternative medicine. Nine of the members shall be practitioners licensed in one or more of the major systems with which the Center is involved. Six of the members shall be appointed by the Secretary from the general public and shall include leaders in the fields of public policy, law, health policy, economics, and management. Three of the six shall represent the interests of individual consumers of complementary and alternative medicine."[6]

The NCCAM budget for 2005 was $123 million. For fiscal year 2009 (ending September 30, 2009), it was $122 million.[7]

Research in alternative medicine is done elsewhere at NIH, notably in the National Cancer Institute. The NIH's Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine had the same budget as NCCAM, $122 million, for fiscal year 2009. Other parts of NIH had an additional $50 million for FY 2009; NIH's total budget was about $29 billion.[7]

The NCCAM budget for 2011 was $127.7 million.[8] They requested a $3,399,000 funding increase for their 2012 budget.[9]


NCCAM has been criticized for funding a trial of gemcitabine with the Gonzalez regimen for stage II to IV pancreatic cancer, in the belief that cancer is caused by a deficiency of pancreatic proteolytic enzymes. Severe adverse effects are associated with the Gonzalez regimen, and no evidence in peer-reviewed journals supports the plausibility or efficacy of the regimen or chelation therapy.[10] A 2009 report found patients who had received the treatment had worse quality of life and died faster than conventionally treated counterparts.[11]

NCCAM has also been criticized for funding a study of EDTA chelation therapy for coronary artery disease with 2,300 patients, even though smaller, controlled trials found chelation ineffective. Other NCCAM-funded studies have included the benefits of distant prayer for AIDS, the effects of lemon and lavender essential oils on wound healing,[12][13] "energy chelation", and "rats stressed out by white noise".[14]

A 2006 policy forum in Science concluded, "We believe that NCCAM funds proposals of dubious merit; its research agenda is shaped more by politics than by science; and it is structured by its charter in a manner that precludes an independent review of its performance." The authors suggested that, while it's appropriate to study alternative therapies, the quality of the research is lower than other NIH institutes, and that these studies could be performed under the auspices of other institutes within the NIH.[10]

A 2012 study published in the Skeptical Inquirer examined the grants and awards funded by NCCAM from 2000 to 2011, which totaled $1.3 billion. The study found no discoveries in complementary and alternative medicine that would justify the existence of this center. The authors argued that, after 20 years and an expenditure of $20 billion, the failure of NCCAM is evidenced by the lack of publications and the failure to report clinical trials in peer-reviewed, medical journals. They recommended that NCCAM be defunded or abolished, and the concept of funding alternative medicine be discontinued.[15]

Notes and references

  1. ^ Important Events in NCCAM History
  2. ^ a b c d e Dan Hurley (2006). Natural causes: death, lies, and politics in America's vitamin and herbal supplement industry. New York:  
  3. ^ Jaroff, Leon (October 6, 1997). "Bee Pollen Bureaucracy". New York Times. Retrieved April 13, 2009. 
  4. ^ "What is CAM?". NCCAM. February 2007. Retrieved April 18, 2009. 
  5. ^ "Study Finds Shark Cartilage Extract Does Not Improve Lung Cancer Survival". NCCAM. February 2007. Retrieved April 18, 2009.  A joint study funded by the NCCAM and the NCI (National Cancer Institute) found shark cartilage to be an ineffective treatment for cancer and do not endorse its use.
  6. ^ National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine charter
  7. ^ a b By David Brown (March 17, 2009). "Critics Object to 'Pseudoscience' Center". Washington Post. 
  8. ^ "NCCAM Funding: Appropriations History".  
  9. ^ "Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Request".  
  10. ^ a b Marcus, D. M.; Grollman, AP (2006). "Science and Government: Enhanced: Review for NCCAM is Overdue". Science 313 (5785): 301–2.  
  11. ^ Chabot, J. A.; Tsai, W. Y.; Fine, R. L.; Chen, C.; Kumah, C. K.; Antman, K. A.; Grann, V. R. (2009). "Pancreatic Proteolytic Enzyme Therapy Compared with Gemcitabine-Based Chemotherapy for the Treatment of Pancreatic Cancer". Journal of Clinical Oncology 28 (12): 2058–63.  
  12. ^ Offit PA (May 2012). "Studying complementary and alternative therapies". JAMA 307 (17): 1803–4.  
  13. ^ Tsouderos, Trine (December 11, 2011). "Federal center pays good money for suspect medicine". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 6, 2012. 
  14. ^ Tsouderos, Trine (December 11, 2011). "Energy healing sparks debate". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 18, 2011. 
  15. ^ Mielczarek, E., Engler, B. 2012. Measuring Mythology: Startling Concepts in NCCAM Grants. Skeptical Inquirer 36(1)(January/February):35-43, 2012.

External links

  • NCCAM home page
  • NCCAM research results
  • NCCAM Clearinghouse, the public point of contact for scientifically based information on CAM and for information about NCCAM
  • NCCAM Congressional appropriations
  • Why the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Should Be Defunded Essay by Wallace I. Sampson, M.D.
  • Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
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