Cancer scares people, often so much that they make poor decisions about their care. They are aided in that process by countless quacks, shills, and mountebanks, all of whom “have a cure for cancer”, or at least some magic not provided by the usual network of doctors and hospitals.
The first level of inanity regarding these folks is the idea that there is a cure for cancer, not least because “cancer” refers to a large, diverse group of diseases. Over the years, we have become quite good at treating many kinds of cancer, but haven’t done so well with others. In general, the trend has been very encouraging.
But because of the fear, the uncertainty, cancer patients are susceptible to the Siren song of those offering miracle cures. Leatrile, “functional oncology“, ozone therapy—all of these have a few things in common: they are unproven, expensive, and immoral, in that they play off people’s fears to make a profit without providing benefit that is even equal to regular treatment.
One of these alternatives that has been the subject of controversy for decades is the Burzynsky Clinic, the brainchild (fever dream?) of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski. He invented the idea of “anti-neoplastons“, a gemisch of chemicals that he believes (according to his literature) to be effective in treating otherwise incurable cancers.
As is usual in such cases, the evidence doesn’t support this conclusion. A search of the medical literature turns up little, other than articles in Medical Hypotheses, a journal specializing in unproved ideas, and some pharmacology and review articles—but no favorable clinical studies.
Normally, if a treatment cannot be proven to work, it is eventually discarded. In medicine, this may take years as evidence accumulates and practice patterns change, but it does happen. But Bruzynski has been able to avoid the cutting room floor by a few strategies. First, he markets directly to patients, offering them “cutting-edge, advanced cancer treatments.” But bringing in patients doesn’t make money unless someone pays for it. Unlike most other cancer centers, his does not accept Medicare, Medicaid, or any HMO insurance, but requires a deposit (according to some sources, tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars) before initiating testing or treatment, essentially putting the patient at increased risk of large medical bills they would not otherwise incur.
One of the interesting features of antineoplaston therapy is that it has never been approved for the treatment of any disease; it is only available through FDA-approved clinical trials. He hasn’t, however, fared that well with the FDA. They have sent him warning letters (2009) informing him of failure to comply with basic FDA rules for human clinical trials, including what appears to be a complete failure of his Institutional Review Board to do an objective job of protecting patients. This warning letter is still listed by the FDA as unresolved. Among other violations recorded over the years are: inadequate informed consent, inadequate drug accountability, inadequate or inaccurate records, failure to follow investigational plan, unapproved use of a drug before IND submission, and failure to report adverse drug reactions (these are from a 2001 report). He has been brought to the attention of the Texas Medical Board many times over the last few decades.
The first decade of the 21th century does not appear to have been a good one for Burzynski, at least as a legitimate cancer researcher. As is usual with people confronted by their own failures, they or their proxies may lash out. A well-regarded skeptical blogger recently posted a piece critical of Burzynski. For his troubles, he received heinous threats from someone claiming to represent Dr. Burzynski, but who actually appears to be a marketing person from a Burzynski advocacy group. This Marc Stephens actually threatened the family of Andy Lewis, the blogger in question, with such statements as, “Be smart and considerate for your family and new child, and shut the article down…”.
I emailed the media contacts at the Burzynski Clinic asking them to clarify whether Mr. Stephens is indeed their representative as he indicates. They have not yet responded (this is a long holiday weekend in the US). Whether or not he represents them officially, such bullies need to be disavowed publicly. The unhinged rantings of Mr. Stephens are unlikely to officially represent the Clinic, but they are no less morally questionable than, in my opinion, what the Clinic itself does by offering unproven therapies with shoddy protections.
(By the way, if “Marc Stephens” should happen to issue any similar threats to me, I know real lawyers, lawyers who care a great deal about my welfare and are known to be quite aggressive in their pursuit of legal remedies when appropriate.)
Update: In this press release, Burzynski’s clinic disavows Stephens, but continues the threat against critics.