When Elisabeth Bik came across a series of studies about a new cancer-fighting method, called “YXQ-EQ,” they sounded legitimate at first. A few of the scientists behind the studies were associated with Harvard University, and their work had federal research funding.
But what, exactly, was YXQ-EQ?
The answer, Bik eventually determined, was this: A researcher takes cancer cells into a locked room and does…something. When he brings them back out, they’re dead.
That’s as specific as these studies appear to have ever gotten in explaining YXQ-EQ, according to Bik, an independent science integrity consultant with a microbiology background.
In a viral Twitter thread last week, Bik criticized at least seven of these studies for failing to transparently describe the treatment they were testing, mostly on various cancer cells. She also asked the academic institutions of the scientists involved, as well as the journals that published their work, to investigate the matter.
Only after retracing the dense footnotes in these papers did Bik discover that “YXQ-EQ” is apparently an acronym that refers to the “external Qi” and “Qigong” of scientist Yan Xin. In Chinese culture, Qi is the life force believed to exist in everything, and Qigong is a system of movement, breathing, and meditation believed to boost health.
According to what appears to be the lone 2004 study that spells out the “YXQ-EQ” method, it turns out that the treatment consists of Yan standing alone in a room and emitting his Qi toward a group of lab-grown rat eye cells. Yan appears to be the only scientist who has ever performed this technique. He is also the only scientist who is on all the papers in question, which, aside from the 2004 study, involve deploying the method on a variety of cancer cells.
Bik said that her intent is not to mock traditional Chinese medicine. “But if one single researcher claims that he — and only he — can use Qi to kill off cancer cells, he should be willing to share how they do that,” she argued on Twitter. “If it happens behind closed doors, scientists have every reason to be suspicious.”
James Heathers, a research scientist at Northeastern University known for calling out inconsistencies in scientific data, said the issues raised by Bik seemed “very unusual.”
“People say funny things on the internet all the time, and some of that is in research and of very little consequence,” he told BuzzFeed News. “But if they’re doing it on government salary, or if they’re doing it at an institution that prides itself on its ability to take science seriously, it’s a completely different story.”
On his website, Yan describes himself as a so-called miracle doctor in China who since the 1980s has been studying how to project Qi out of the body and “affect physical substances and objects.” He claims his “experiments in life science and physical sciences provide the first concrete scientific corroboration for the scientific exploration of Traditional Chinese Qigong.” Yan did not respond to a request for comment. A query to his institution, the Chongqing Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chongqing, China, was not returned by press time.
From 2004 to 2018, Yan and a rotating cast of other scientists published at least seven studies about external Qi, mostly about its apparently toxic effects on cancer cells.
A spokesperson for the publisher of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, which featured two of Yan’s papers, declined to comment beyond saying that it looks into all concerns raised. The editor of Cell Physiology and Biochemistry, which published three of Yan’s papers, said that he has asked the authors for clarification. He also noted that those papers cited previous research for the description of YXQ-EQ.
Two other journals that printed Yan’s work — International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology and Brain Research, which published his original 2004 paper — did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about whether they planned to investigate the studies.
Two of Yan’s most frequent coauthors in the United States — neurologist Dan Hu of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Xin-Qi Wu, a medicine researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute — did not return requests for comment either. A research integrity officer for Dana-Farber said the institute “will review this matter consistent with applicable policies,” and a hospital spokesperson said that any review of research concerns is confidential. Both institutions are affiliated with Harvard.
In Bik’s view, her rabbit hole research revealed serious flaws in the system that is supposed to ensure science is transparent.
“Seven sets of peer-reviewers and editors who were not doing their jobs,” she tweeted.
In addition, as Bik noted, some of the studies acknowledge funding from the National Institutes of Health. The dozens of federal grants listed total at least $31 million, according to the agency’s website. It is unclear how much of the money, which included large grants that spanned multiple projects, actually funded the external Qi experiments. At least some amount went to other costs associated with the project, according to Michael Centola, a researcher involved with one of the studies.
An NIH spokesperson said the agency does not discuss ongoing audits of grants, or publications resulting from grants, to ensure that they are meeting requirements.
Bik first learned about the external Qi studies when a “concerned reader” got in touch. Starting with the most recent paper, she looked for a detailed description of “external qi of Yan Xin Qigong (YXQ-EQ),” which, as the text put it, was believed to have a “cytotoxic effect” on lung cancer cells. The only other detail was that it lasted five minutes.
Dissatisfied, she combed through the references and found more studies about YXQ-EQ’s effects on other types of cancer cells. None described what the method actually entailed.
Finally, she found a reference to a 2004 paper that laid out the method. Cells were put in a room, it says, and the treatment consisted of “emitting external Qi from Dr. Yan Xin toward the neuronal culture” 10 minutes at a time. During this process, “the door was locked so no one could enter into the room while external Qi was being emitted.”
Bik was at a loss. What went on in the room? “Maybe Dr. Yan Xin has a UV lamp?” she tweeted. “Or a bottle of bleach? Or a flame torch?”
One scientist involved with the research at one point seemed to acknowledge the need to be transparent about how experiments are done.
Centola, formerly of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, collaborated on a 2011 paper with Yan that found that external Qi appeared to kill lung cancer cells. Asked about Bik’s criticisms, he said by email: “In regards to my opinion about the importance of detailing experimental procedures, I think it is preeminently important.” He also called the findings for the method "preliminary."
The 2011 study cites support from several NIH grants, including two that list Centola as the lead scientist and total $3 million. However, Centola said he did not conduct these particular experiments, nor did his NIH grants fund them.
At the time, Centola said, he was running a lab to which researchers submitted thousands of samples for analysis. The lab did not treat the samples — including the cancer cells in the 2011 study — but rather screened the samples to see if the treatments changed their genetic makeup, according to Centola. He said that the NIH grants in question funded the lab’s operations and staff.
Michael Tomasson, who studies blood cancers as director of malignant hematology at the University of Iowa, found Bik’s discovery “wild,” but not because he takes issue with the idea of studying external Qi or some other form of alternative medicine.
“I’m actually very interested in alternative medicines from a different angle, mostly because they’re not toxic. Even if they don’t work well, there’s no harm doing it,” he told BuzzFeed News.
The problem, he said, is when researchers make unsubstantiated claims or aren’t transparent about their approach, as appears to be the case with the external Qi papers.
“The effort to try to use or integrate these sorts of alternative medicines into the mainstream — this didn’t help,” Tomasson said. ●
This story has been updated to clarify a statement from the NIH.