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The compassion gambit

I’ve spent the last three weeks writing about a “brave maverick doctor” by the name of Stanislaw Burzynski who claims that he can cure cancers that regular oncologists cannot. He uses a combination of what he calls “antineoplastons” (which, it turns out, are more or less than the active metabolites of an orphan drug known as sodium phenylbutyrate) plus a very expensive cocktail of chemotherapy and targeted agents chosen in a haphazard fashion and thrown together with little rhyme or reason. This week, I had planned to move on. However, I felt that I had to mention the Burzynski saga because it provides me with the most appropriate segue to a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, possibly since this blog began. In fact, it’s about as perfect a framework as I can think of upon which to drape the points I want to make in this post.

What I will discuss is perhaps the most effective, devastating attack that proponents of quackery, woo, and nonsense aim at supporters of science-based medicine (SBM). As far as that is the case, it is not effective because it’s fact-based, evidence-based, or science-based. Far from it. Rather, it’s effective because it appeals to the emotions and very effectively demonizes SBM proponents to the point where they often have a hard time standing their ground when it is used. Sometimes, it preemptively prevents them from even speaking up in the first place. It’s a little tactic that I like to call the “compassion gambit,” which means trying to discredit critics of “alternative” medicine by painting them as cold, unfeeling, uncaring, arrogant monsters who want to hurt or kill children (and probably get a big smile on their faces when they torture puppies, to boot).
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, antineoplastons, and the selling of an orphan drug as a cancer cure

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time (and, characteristically, verbiage) analyzing the phenomenon known as Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his “cancer cure” known as antineoplastons. In part I of this series, Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R., I used the legal threats against bloggers criticizing the credulous promotion by the British press of fundraising campaigns to send children with terminal cancer to the Burzynski Clinic and the promotion of the medical propaganda movie Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business to review the movie’s claims and look into Burzynski’s claims for antineoplastons. Not surprisingly, I found the evidence for extravagant claims for their anticancer effects unconvincing. In part II, Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?, I looked into Dr. Burzynski’s recent efforts to “diversify his portfolio, in which he has apparently decided to ride the new wave of genomic medicine to claim he can do “personalized, gene-targeted cancer therapy.” I concluded that he does appear to do that, only very badly, in essence “making it up as he goes along.”

In this third and final part, I want to come back to antineoplastons, because it has been pointed out to me that there is an aspect of this story that has received little attention. One reader in particular has helped enormously in my education about this aspect of the Burzynski saga. I wish I could credit this person by name, but, for reasons I fully understand, I can’t. However, this person’s input was essential, and I’ve even appropriated (with permission, of course) a little bit of text here and there from our e-mail exchanges to “integrate” into this post. Putting this together with information in my previous posts, I think we can come to some conclusions about what it is that Dr. Burzynski is really doing.

Burzynski and an orphan drug

In the first part of this series, I pointed out that back in the 1970s Dr. Burzynski claimed to have discovered cancer-fighting substances in human urine, which he dubbed “antineoplastons,” claiming that patients with cancer had lower levels of these substances in their blood and urine. However, I was pretty vague about just what these substances were, other than to point out that they were modified amino acids and that since 1980 Dr. Burzynski has been synthesizing them in a chemistry lab rather than isolating them from urine as he had done up until then. This vagueness came simply from my interest in moving straight to looking at Burzynski’s claims rather than what these substances were. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake. The reason is that understanding what two of Burzynski’s antineoplastons are is critical to understanding what he is doing with them and why he might occasionally appear to be observing an antitumor response.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Legal, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?

Last week, I wrote a magnum opus of a movie review of a movie about a physician and “researcher” named Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, founder of the Burzynski Clinic and Burzynski Research Institute in Houston. I refer you to my original post for details, but in brief Dr. Burzynski claimed in the 1970s to have made a major breakthrough in cancer therapy through his discovery of anticancer substances in the urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons,” which turned out to be mainly modified amino acids and peptides. Since the late 1970s, when he founded his clinic, Dr. Burzynski has been using antineoplastons to treat cancer. Over the last 25 years or so, he has opened a large number of phase I and phase II clinical trials with little or nothing to show for it in terms of convincing evidence of efficacy. Worse, as has been noted in a number of places, high doses of antineoplastons as sodium salts are required, doses so high that severe hypernatremia is a concern.

Although antineoplastons are the dubious cancer therapy upon which Dr. Burzynski built his fame, they aren’t the only thing he does. Despite the promotion of the Burzynski Clinic as using “nontoxic” therapies that “aren’t chemotherapy” by “natural medicine” cranks such as Joe Mercola and Mike Adams, Dr. Burzynski’s dirty little secrets, at least as far as the “alternative medicine” crowd goes, are that (1) despite all of the attempts of Dr. Burzynski and supporters to portray them otherwise antineoplastons are chemotherapy and (2) Dr. Burzynski uses a lot of conventional chemotherapy. In fact, from my perspective, it appears to me as though over the last few years Dr. Burzynski has pivoted. No longer are antineoplastons the center of attention at his clinic. Rather, these days, he appears to be selling something that he calls “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy.” In fact, it’s right there in the first bullet point on his clinic’s webpage, underlined, even! Antineoplastons aren’t even listed until the third bullet point.

But what is “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” according to Dr. Burzynski? Here is how it is described:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R.

And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

Cleric from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I’ve always wondered about the power of the number three. When it comes to quackery propaganda movies, certainly three seems to be the magic number. For example, The Greater Good, an anti-vaccine propaganda film, features three anecdotes, three children allegedly suffering from vaccine injury, and it interspersed its interviews with experts, both real (such as Dr. Paul Offit) and phony (such as Barbara Loe Fisher) with vignettes from these children’s stories interspersed between them in a highly biased manner. I have to wonder whether these cliches are taught in film school, given that they seem to be so common. Such were the thoughts running through my brain as I watched the latest medical propaganda film by writer/producer Eric Merola that’s floating around the blogosphere and the film circuit, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business. In this movie, there are three testimonials, and, if anything, they are far more manipulative than even the testimonials featured in The Greater Good, because each of them are of the type that portrays doctors as sending a patient home to die; that is, until a “brave maverick doctor,” one Stanislaw R. Burzynski, MD, PhD, comes to the rescue with his unconventional and unproven therapy. The only difference is that this film counts testimonials up to the number three in the beginning as “proof” that Burzynski can cure cancer before lobbing the Holy Hand Grenade of Burzynski towards its foes in the hopes that, being naughty in the filmmaker’s sight, the FDA and Texas Medical Board will snuff it. Or, as a caption says right at very the beginning of the movie:

This is the story of a medical doctor and PhD biochemist who has discovered the genetic mechanism that can cure most human cancers. The opening 30 minutes of this film is designed to thoroughly establish this fact — so the viewer can fully appreciate the events that follow it.

It turns out that the grenade is a dud.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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HPV Vaccine for Boys

A recent announcement is likely to generate a lot of controversy. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the CDC has recommended that boys and young men be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV). Previously the guidelines said boys “could” be given the HPV vaccine. Now they have recommended that boys age 11 to 12 “should” be vaccinated, as well as boys age 13 to 21 who have not already had the full series of 3 shots. The vaccine can also be given to boys as young as 9 and to young men age 22 to 26.

The vaccine was originally promoted as a way to prevent cervical cancer. Boys don’t have a cervix, so why should they be subjected to a “girl’s” vaccine? There are some good science-based reasons:

  • Boys can transmit the virus to female sex partners later in life, leading to cervical cancer in women.
  • More importantly, boys themselves can also be directly harmed by the virus. It can cause genital warts, cancer of the head and neck (tongue, tonsils and throat), anal and penile cancer, respiratory papillomatosis, and giant condyloma of Buschke and Lowenstein. In rare cases, immunocompromised patients can develop epidermodysplasia verruciformis.
  • There are other unconfirmed concerns: HPV has been associated with cardiovascular disease in one study.

Some of these conditions are not common, and the most common one, genital warts, may sound trivial. But “a picture is worth a thousand words,” so here is a link to a picture of a giant condyloma of Buschke and Lowenstein as an example of what HPV can do to the unvaccinated. The picture is not pleasant. If you are squeamish, you may not want to look at it. If you can’t even stand to look at it, imagine how devastating it would be to have it appear on your own body, and how nice it would be to be vaccinated against it.

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Posted in: Cancer, Vaccines

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“And one more thing” about Steve Jobs’ battle with cancer

I’ve written quite a bit about Steve Jobs in the wake of his death nearly four weeks ago. The reason, of course, is that the course of his cancer was of intense interest after it became public knowledge that he had cancer. In particular, what I most considered to be worth discussing was whether the nine month delay between Jobs’ diagnosis and his undergoing surgery for his pancreatic insulinoma might have been what did him in. I’ve made my position very clear on the issue, namely that, although Jobs certainly did himself no favors in delaying his surgery, it’s impossible to know whether and by how much he might have decreased his chances of surviving his cancer through his flirtation with woo. However much his medical reality distortion field might have mirrored his tech reality distortion field, my best guess was that Jobs probably only modestly decreased his chances of survival, if that. I also pointed out that, if more information came in that necessitated it I’d certainly reconsider my conclusions.

The other issue that’s irritated me is that the quackery apologists and quacks have been coming out of the woodwork, each claiming that if only Steve Jobs had subjected himself to this woo or taken this supplement, he’d still be alive today. Nicholas Gonzalez was first out of the gate with that particularly nasty, unfalsifiable form of fake sadness, but he wasn’t the only one. Recently Bill Sardi claimed that there are all sorts of “natural therapies” that could have helped Jobs, while Dr. Robert Wascher, MD, a surgical oncologist from California (who really should know better but apparently does not) claims that tumeric spice could have prevented or cured Steve Jobs’ cancer, although in all fairness he also pointed out that radical surgery is currently the only cure. Unfortunately, he also used the failure of chemotherapy to cure this kind of cancer as an excuse to call for being more “open-minded” to alternative therapies. Even Andrew Weil, apparently stung by the speculation that Jobs’ delay in surgery to pursue quackery might have contributed to his death, to tout how great he thinks integrative cancer care is.

Last week, Amazon.com finally delivered my copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but, because of the intense interest in Jobs’ medical history, not to mention a desire on my part to see (1) if there were any new information there that would allow me to assess how accurate my previous commentary was and (2) information that would allow me to fill in the gaps in the story from the intense media coverage. So I couldn’t help myself. I skipped ahead to the chapters on his illness, of which there are three, entitled Round One, Round Two, and Round Three. Round One covers the initial diagnosis. Round Two deals with the recurrence of Jobs’ cancer and his liver transplant. Finally, Round Three deals with the final recurrence of Jobs’ cancer, his decline, and death.

Before I start, a warning: I’m going to discuss these issues in a fair amount of detail. If you want “medical spoilers,” don’t read any further. On the other hand, one spoiler I will mention is that there was surprisingly little here that wasn’t reported before; the only difference is that there is more detail. However, the details are informative.
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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More Breast Cancer Awareness Month pseudoscience from (who else?) Joe Mercola

I have mixed emotions regarding Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On the one hand, I look forward to it because it provides us with a pretext to get out science-based messages about breast cancer and to highlight a lot of the cool science that we do at our cancer center. On the other hand, the quacks see an opportunity in Breast Cancer Awareness Month to spread their message too. That message, not surprisingly, generally involves attacking science-based modalities for the detection and treatment of breast cancer and promoting their “alternative” methods. For example, last year, Christiane Northrup promoted thermography as somehow being better than mammography for the early detection of breast cancer. It’s not. Yet there she is this year again, still promoting the same nonsense. In years past, I’ve seen people like Dennis Byrne promoting a link between abortion and breast cancer, a link that is not supported by science. I’ve seen the likes of Mike Adams claiming that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is nothing more than a conspiracy by the male-dominated “cancer industry” to keep women down and misinformation about “myths” of breast cancer while likening the “cancer industry” to Nazi extermination camp commanders and chemotherapy to Zyklon-B. I kid you not about that last part. Indeed, during October, I frequently get to look forward to images like this one (click for a larger image):

Or this one:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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Steve Jobs’ medical reality distortion field

As I pointed out in my previous post about Steve Jobs, I’m a bit of an Apple fan boy. A housemate of mine got the very first Mac way back in 1984, and ever since I bought my first computer that was mine and mine alone back in 1991 (a Mac LC), I’ve used nothing but Macintosh computers, except when compelled to use Windows machines by work—and even then under protest. Indeed, as I searched for jobs at various times in my life, I asked myself whether I could accept a job at an institution that didn’t permit me to have a Mac in my office, such as the V.A. Fortunately, I never had to make that choice. All of this explains why I paid a lot of attention to Steve Jobs and also why his death saddened me and, relevant to this blog, the clinical history of the cancer that killed him fascinates me.

It’s often been said that there was a sort of “reality distortion field” around Steve Jobs. It was a part joking, part derogatory, part admiring term applied to Jobs’ talent for persuasion in which, through a combination of personal charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, and persistence, Jobs was able to persuade almost anyone, even developers and engineers, of almost anything. In particular, it referred to his ability to convince so many people that each new Apple product was the greatest thing ever, even when that product had obvious flaws. Unfortunately, as more news comes out about how Steve Jobs initially dealt with his diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (specifically, an insulinoma) back in 2003 and 2004, it’s become apparent that Jobs had his own medical reality distortion field, at least in the beginning right after his diagnosis of a rare form of pancreatic cancer, that allowed him to come to think that he might be able to reverse his cancer with diet plus various “alternative” modalities.

In the immediate aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death, I summarized the facts about Jobs’ case that were known at the time. In particular, I took issue with the claims of a skeptic that “alternative medicine killed Steve Jobs.” At the time, I pointed out that, although it was very clear that Steve Jobs did himself no favors by delaying his initial surgery for nine months after his initial diagnosis, we do not have sufficient information to know what his clinical situation was and therefore how much, if at all, he decreased his odds of survival by not undergoing surgery expeditiously. To recap: Did Steve Jobs harm himself by trying diet and alternative medicine first? Quite possibly. Did alternative medicine kill him? As I’ve argued before, that’s impossible to say, and any skeptic who dogmatically makes such an argument has taken what we known beyond what can be supported. Regular readers know that when I see a story that looks as though “alternative medicine” directly contributed to the death of someone, I usually pull no punches, but in this case I had a hard time being so definitive because the unknowns are too many, with all due respect to Ramzi Amri, a Research Associate at Harvard Medical School who in my opinion also went too far. I did, however, point out that I’m always open to changing my opinion if new evidence comes in. Jobs was always incredibly secretive about his medical condition, so much so that it didn’t even come out in the press until after it had happened that he had undergone a liver transplant in 2008 for metastatic insulinoma in his liver, just as his cancer diagnosis in 2003 remained secret for 9 months, not being revealed until he sent an e-mail to Apple employees announcing that he had undergone surgery.

It turns out that, with the imminent release of a major biography of Steve Jobs, more information is finally trickling out about his medical history. For instance, Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson is going to appear on 60 Minutes this Sunday, and apparently he is going to say this:
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Steve Jobs’ cancer and pushing the limits of science-based medicine

Editor’s note: There is an update to this post.

An Apple fanboy contemplates computers and mortality

I’m a bit of an Apple fanboy and admit it freely. My history with Apple products goes way back to the early 1980s, when one of my housemates at college had an Apple IIe, which I would sometimes use for writing, gaming, and various other applications. Indeed, I remember one of the first “bloody” battle games for the IIe. It was called The Bilestoad and involved either taking on the computer or another opponent with battle axes in combat that basically involved hacking each other’s limbs off, complete with chunky, low-resolution blood and gore. (You youngsters out there will be highly amused at the gameplay here.) Of course, it’s amazing that nothing’s changed when it comes to computer games except the quality of graphics. Be that as it may, this same roommate was one of the first students to get a hold of the new Macintosh when it was released in early 1984. I really liked it right from the start but only got to play with it occasionally for a few months. After using a Macintosh SE to do a research project during my last year of medical school, I have used the Macintosh platform more or less exclusively, and the first computer I purchased with my own money was a Mac LC back in 1990 or 1991. Today, I have multiple Apple products, including my MacBook Air, my iPhone, and my old school iPod Classic, among others. Oddly enough, I do not have an iPad, but that’s probably only a matter of time, awaiting software that lets me do actual work on it.

All of this is my typical long-winded way of explaining why I was immensely saddened when I learned of Steve Jobs’ death last week. Ever since speculation started to swirl about his health back 2004 and then again in 2008, capped off by the revelation that he had undergone a liver transplant for a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2009, I feared the worst. Last week, the end finally came. However, there is much to learn relevant to the themes of this blog in examining the strange and unusual case of Steve Jobs. Now, after his death five days ago, which coincidentally came a mere day after the launch of iCloud and the iPhone 4S, it occurs to me that it would be worthwhile to try to synthesize what we know about Jobs’ battle with cancer and then to discuss the use (and misuse) of his story. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do because Jobs was notoriously secretive and I can only rely on what has been published in the media, some of which is conflicting and all of which lacks sufficient detail to come to any definite conclusions, but I will try, hoping that the upcoming release of his biography by Walter Isaacson in couple of weeks might answer some of the questions I still have remaining, given that Isaacson followed Jobs through his battle with cancer and was given unprecedented access to Jobs and those close to him.

In the meantime, I speculate. I hope my speculations are sufficiently educated as not to be shown to be completely wrong, but they are speculations nonetheless.
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Posted in: Cancer, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Science and the Media, Surgical Procedures

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Chemotherapy doesn’t work? Not so fast…

“CHEMOTHERAPY DOESN’T WORK!!!!!”

“CHEMOTHERAPY IS POISON!!!!”

“CHEMOTHERAPY WILL KILL YOU!!!!”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve come across statements like the ones above, often in all caps, quite frequently with more than one exclamation point, on the websites of “natural healers,” purveyors of “alternative medicine.” In fact, if you Google “chemotherapy doesn’t work,” “chemotherapy is poison,” or “chemotherapy kills,” you’ll get thousands upon thousands of hits. In the case of “chemotherapy kills,” Google will even start autofilling it to read “chemotherapy kills more than it saves.” The vast majority of the hits from these searches usually come from websites hostile to science-based medicine. Examples include Mercola.com, the website of “alternative medicine entrepreneur” Dr. Joe Mercola and NaturalNews.com, the website of Mike Adams, where you will find cartoons like this one, which likens the administration of chemotherapy to a Nazi death camp:

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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine

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