Mark Crislip, founder of the Society for Science-Based Medicine, whose board of directors I’m proud to be serving on, an organization that you should join if you haven’t already, sometimes jokes that our logo should be an image of Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra whom Zeus punished by compelling him to roll an immense boulder up a hill. However, the boulder was enchanted and, as soon as Sisyphus reached the top, it would roll back down the hill. Sisyphus was thus forced to repeat this action throughout all eternity. The metaphor is obvious. Those of us who try to combat quackery and the infiltration of pseudoscience in medicine often feel a lot like Sisyphus. I always used to argue that, as amusing as it might be to have such a logo as an “in” joke, it’s far too much of a downer to inspire what SSBM wants to inspire: Action in the form of volunteers taking on projects, such as converting Quackwatch into a wiki and then continuously updating and adding to that wiki indefinitely. We have to believe that there is hope of someday succeeding. “Let’s push that boulder up a hill one more time!” does not exactly constitute an inspiring rally cry, although I can definitely understand the feeling at times the older I get and the longer I’ve been doing this. We can all appreciate gallows humor at times, and, besides, I’m not that pessimistic. I can’t afford to be.
Even so, I can understand the Sisyphus analogy right now with respect to an unfortunately frequent subject of this blog, the doctor in Houston who proclaims himself a cancer doctor, even though he has no formal training in medical oncology, isn’t even board-certified in internal medicine, the prerequisite for undertaking advanced training in medical oncology, and has no discernable training in clinical trials management. I’m referring, of course, to Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, the Polish doctor who since 1977 has been treating patients with substances that he has dubbed “antineoplastons” (ANPs). What are ANPs? Burzynski claimed to have discovered ANPs during his time at Baylor and described them as endogenous cancer-fighting chemicals in human blood and urine. Unfortunately, he soon became convinced that only he could develop them into an effective chemotherapy drug and left Baylor to administer ANPs to his own cancer patients. Patients flocked to him because he claimed to be able to cure cancers that conventional medicine can’t cure.
This led to a series of battles between Burzynski and various authorities, including the Texas Medical Board, the FDA, and various attorneys general, because of his use of ANPs, which are not and never have been FDA approved, as well as for various—shall we say?—issues with insurance companies. Ultimately, in the 1990s Burzynski beat the rap and effectively neutered the FDA’s case against him by submitting dozens of clinical trials to the FDA for approval, which, given how much pressure the FDA was under from Burzynski’s friends in high places (like Texas Representative Joe Barton), the FDA ended up approving. However, as Burzynski’s lawyer himself bragged, these clinical trials were shams designed to allow Burzynski to keep treating cancer patients, not clinical trials designed to produce any real evidence of efficacy. Not surprisingly, although Burzynski has published the odd case report or tiny case series, he has not yet published the full results of even a single one of his many phase II trials. There is, quite simply, no convincing evidence that ANPs have significant antitumor activity in vivo in humans, even after 37 years. Meanwhile, the FDA has found numerous examples of Burzynski’s abuse of clinical trials, failure to keep necessary data, and failure to protect human subjects, while exposés by BBC Panorama and Liz Szabo at USA TODAY have been most unflattering, revealing at least one dead child as a result of the toxicity of Burzynski’s drug and a pattern of minimizing and hiding reports of adverse reactions.