Issue 16 / 30 April 2018

A FRESH research misconduct imbroglio has demonstrated that a career in the health professions is no bar to believing in bizarre, unproven treatments such as “esoteric breast massage”.

The University of Queensland (UQ) has confirmed that it is investigating “undeclared conflicts of interest” by members of its medical faculty, after the publication of three articles (here, here and here) that explore the supposed benefits of questionable treatments promoted by an organisation that has been labelled by a prominent Professor of Medicine as a “dangerous cult”.

The organisation in question, Universal Medicine, is based in Lismore, in northern NSW and was founded by Serge Benhayon, a former tennis coach with no medical qualifications who claims to be a descendent of Jesus Christ, as well as a reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci. Universal Medicine has around 700 followers, mostly women, in a number of countries.

The organisation’s so-called esoteric practitioners offer treatments such as “ovary readings” and “esoteric breast massage”, which they say can cure breast cancer, prevent painful periods and reduce menopausal symptoms – claims that University of New South Wales Emeritus Professor John Dwyer has dismissed as “ludicrous” in a parliamentary enquiry.

Sadly, not all doctors are as sceptical as Professor Dwyer. Believers allegedly include a Brisbane-based GP who is both a public advocate of Universal Medicine and an associate lecturer in UQ’s Faculty of Medicine. There is also the case of Dr Samuel Tae-Kyu Kim, a respiratory physician who has previously lectured at UQ. Last year, Dr Kim was reprimanded by the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission for failing to disclose his involvement in Universal Medicine when referring a patient to one of the group’s practitioners for an “esoteric lung massage”. Dr Kim had previously informed his patient that “deep-seated grief is a major driving factor in lung disease”.

The three articles that have triggered UQ’s investigation all have the same lead author: Christoph Schnelle, a medical researcher at UQ’s Faculty of Medicine. Two of the articles look at the supposed superior health of a group of women associated with Universal Medicine compared with the general population. Under the “Conflicts of Interest” section, the authors wrote “None declared”, despite the fact that Universal Medicine’s own website has a whole page devoted to Schnelle as a “Man of Truth”.

A third article is a study protocol for the use of Universal Medicine’s “esoteric connective tissue therapy” for chronic low back pain. Christoph Schnelle is again lead author, with another UQ Faculty of Medicine member, Dr Mark Jones, listed as an investigator.

Talking to the ABC, Professor Dwyer described the authors as having an “unbelievable conflict of interest”.

“The researchers have let the university down badly in their fervour for promoting the benefits of Universal Medicine’s approach to treatments, which have no basis in science and couldn’t possibly be effective,” he said.

The case has also drawn the ire of the two journals in which the articles were published. The Canadian-based Journal of Medical Internet Research says that it is considering retracting the two articles it has published and adds that “the omission of this conflict of interest … is a clear violation of our policies”.

Meanwhile, the UK-based Biomed Central says it is investigating the article it published on the back pain trial protocol. That article did mention that some of the authors “attend Universal Medicine events”, although it said they did not receive “any funding, reimbursement, instruction or direction of any kind from Universal Medicine”.

This is not the first research misconduct scandal to hit UQ. In 2015, Faculty members Dr Caroline Barwood and Dr Bruce Murdoch were among the very few medical researchers ever to face criminal charges in a case of research misconduct. Both were found guilty of fraud for falsifying research into Parkinson’s disease, and both received suspended sentences.

In confirming its investigation into the ties of several of its faculty members to Universal Medicine, UQ Pro Vice-Chancellor of research Professor Mark Blows said that the university “takes research integrity extremely seriously”.

“When investigations into allegations of errors or research misconduct are substantiated, the university notifies the relevant academic journals, funding agencies and issues public statements as appropriate,” Professor Blows noted in a press statement.


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Doctors who promote "remedies" such as "esoteric breast massage" should be investigated
  • Strongly agree (85%, 224 Votes)
  • Agree (9%, 25 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (3%, 9 Votes)
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Total Voters: 265

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18 thoughts on “The researchers, the university and the bizarre medical cult

  1. Anonymous says:

    JMIR has now published that they would not have accepted the manuscript would they have known about these extensive COIs. The Expression of Editorial Concern, Correction of Conflict of Interest and Affiliation is highly critical

  2. Ron Law says:

    Ian Hargreaves raises an interesting point of view; ‘If it works, it’s medicine, If it doesn’t work, it’s not medicine.’

    ‘Medicine’ is littered with products that, upon closer examination through the lenses of time and evidence-based medicine, have been found wanting.

    Perhaps Hargreaves could elaborate on how he defines the terms ‘works’ and ‘doesn’t work’ and who decides.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sydney Morning Herald in 25 August 2012 covered this, titled “The Da Vinci mode”.
    It’s been known about for a while.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dr Kim, who is mentioned above, has stood down from his role representing the AMA. There’s a full report here from ABC News:

  5. Ian Hargreaves says:

    Sydney Morning Herald article last year.

    “Blackmores gives $10 million donation for complementary medicine research
    By Harriet Alexander31 March 2017 — 11:59pm

    Vitamin mogul Marcus Blackmore will donate $10 million to Western Sydney University to conduct research into complementary medicine, breaking philanthropic records for the university and the natural health sector.

    Universities are under increasing pressure to find new sources of revenue, but accepting funding from industry can be thorny, with various papers showing that studies sponsored by drug companies are more likely to have favourable results. [ Weblink : Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Feb 16;2:MR000033. doi: 10.1002/14651858.MR000033.pub3.
    Industry sponsorship and research outcome.
    Lundh A1, Lexchin J2, Mintzes B3, Schroll JB4, Bero L5.]

    The University of Sydney is yet to fill its $1.3 million Maurice Blackmore Chair in Integrative Medicine announced two years ago.
    Then medical dean Bruce Robinson’s controversial decision to seek industry sponsorship for the chair was condemned by anti-pseudoscience activists and some of its own academics.” Only some?

    Complementary, integrative, esoteric, traditional, what’s the difference? At least the UM quacks are admitting to being psychologically manipulative (they do mental massage).

    It’s about time the wallies at AHPRA did something useful, in reclaiming the English language definitions – there is medicine, then there is stuff that is not medicine. The very concept of ‘complementary medicine’ is not a mere oxymoron, it is a contradiction in terms. If it works (cinchona bark extract, oil of cloves, kaolin clay, Penicillium mould, botulinum toxin) it is medicine, if it doesn’t it is not. Some natural products may be more clinically useful than others by being less effective (curare cf tetrodotoxin) or at least having a higher LD50, and the synthetic or purified version (morphine cf opium resin) may be safer than the original.

    UM devotees may actually have a lower BMI than average due to healthy diet or exercise (so does the tennis team), but that is not due to reading their ovaries. Pass me a MIMS anyday.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The Universal Medicine media machine takes very unkindly to anyone commenting negatively on the group. Just google them and you’ll find page after page of attacks on journalists, bloggers and anyone else who dares question them. Journalists are all apparently liars in cahoots to attack the group, regardless of the agency they work for or the country they live in.

    All rather worrying.

  7. Andrew Nielsen says:

    Universal medicine is in the white pages. I asked the receptionist if her’s was the organisation founded by Serge B. She said that it was. I asked her if he was the reincarnation of Leonardo DaVinci. She said “No comment”, and hung up on me! Why are the most open-minded people most nasty?

  8. J.P. says:

    Ageee with Randall. As we’ve evolved out of the dark ages now we don’t need magical claims and fairy dust as part of our health care system.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Be careful Anonymous 9: many general practices have – as have pharmacists – ‘met the market’ in offering ‘complementary’ medicine to patients in parallel with conventional treatment. The issues here seem to be at the more extreme end, but drawing lines to divide acceptable from unacceptable is never easy.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Randal Williams is on the right track. I would go even further..I would immediately suspend their ability to practice medicine completely. It’s a shame to see how far quackery has come in the practice of quality medicine in the 21st. century.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Let people make up their own minds.

    University bureaucracies must not be allowed to inquisition people through cabal courts even if most of us think their research is rubbish.

    Jesus – I will invoke his name as others have – knows that our universities sanctify a lot of rubbish research already.

  12. Randal Williams says:

    Doctors who involve themselves in, or actively promote these types of quack “treatments’ should face charges of unprofessional behaviour

  13. Anonymous says:


    “If Jesus did come back he would have a hard time getting anyone to take him seriously.”

    It’s not a question of progress. He had just as awfully a hard time getting anyone to take him seriously the first time he came.

    “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”
    Matthew 27: 39-40.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Worth considering tho’, that if Jesus did come back he would have a hard time getting anyone to take him seriously…
    More troubling for me are the mental processes in these conventionally-trained medicos and/or the deficiencies in modern medicine that could lead these doctors down this path.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Ridiculous, but while ‘universities’ are funded by the tax payer to provide programs in chiropractic etc, the NHMRC via tax payers funds research into homeopathy etc and health insurers/Medicare fund visits to quacks, is this unexpected?

    It is lovely that Jesus Christ and Leonardo Da Vinci have been combined to produce esoteric breast massage. I’d have thought cold fusion or recycling plastic bags into rain forest would have been a more challenging task for this entity.

  16. Anonymous says:

    The colloquial use of the word – ‘Jesus’ comes to mind!

  17. Anonymous says:

    Given that the very definition of the term “esoteric” is that it is likely to only be of interest to or understood by those with a specialised level of knowledge or interest, I would have thought the use of the word esoteric itself would have been considered a red flag for peer-reviewers and academic colleagues alike.

  18. Michael King says:

    Requires investigation

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