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The Burzynski Empire strikes back

You might have noticed that I was very pleased last Friday, very pleased indeed. Given the normal subject matter of this blog, in which we face a seemingly-unrelenting infiltration of pseudoscience and quackery into even the most hallowed halls of academic medicine, against which we seem to be fighting a mostly losing battle, having an opportunity to see such an excellent deconstruction of bad science and bad medicine in a large mainstream news outlet like USA TODAY is rare and gratifying. As you might recall, USA TODAY reporter Liz Szabo capped off a months-long investigation of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his Burzynski Clinic with an excellent (and surprisingly long and detailed) report, complete with sidebars explaining why cancer experts don’t think that Burzysnki’s anecdotes are compelling evidence that his treatment, antineoplastons, has significant anticancer activity and a human interest story about patients whom Burzynski took to the cleaners. Most of this, of course, is no news to SBM readers, as I’ve been writing about Dr. Burzynski on a fairly regular basis for over two years now. It’s just amazing to see it all boiled down into three articles and ten short videos in the way that Szabo and USA TODAY did, to be read by millions, instead of the thousands who read this blog. Szabo also found out who the child was who died of hypernatremia due to antineoplastons in June 2012, a death that precipitated the partial clinical hold on Burzynski’s bogus clinical trials, about which both Liz Szabo and I have quoted Burzynski’s own lawyer, Richard Jaffe, from his memoir, first about Burzynski’s “wastebasket” trial, CAN-1:

As far as clinical trials go, it was a joke…it was all an artifice, a vehicle we and the FDA created to legally give the patients Burzynski’s treatment. The FDA wanted all of Burzynski’s patients to be on an IND, so that’s what we did.

And Jaffe’s characterization of the six dozen phase II clinical trials that Burzynski submitted in the late 1990s was this:

A cancer clinic cannot survive on existing patients. It needs a constant flow of new patients. So in addition to getting the CAN-1 trial approved, we had to make sure Burzynski could treat new patients. Mindful that he would likely only get one chance to get them approved, Burzynski personally put together seventy-two protocols to treat every type of cancer the clinic had treated and everything Burzynski wanted to treat in the future…Miracle of miracles, all of Burzynski’s patients were now on FDA-approved clinical trials, and he would be able to treat almost any patient he would want to treat!

I’m just repeating those quotes again, because they can’t be emphasized enough. Quite frankly, if I were Burzynski, I’d fire Jaffe for having published such statements in his book. But that’s just me. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the counterattack and why Burzynski’s excuses regarding the deficiencies found in the FDA reports do not ring true.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Revealed by the FDA: The results of the most recent inspection of the Burzynski Clinic

After posting the talks that Bob Blaskiewicz and I gave at TAM this year, I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve written about the topic of those talks, namely Stanislaw Burzynski, the Houston cancer doctor who inexplicably has been permitted to continue to administer an unproven cancer treatment to children with deadly brain cancers for nearly 37 years now. Beginning in 1977, when he left Baylor College of Medicine and opened up the Burzynski Clinic, Burzynski has administered a cancer therapy that he calls antineoplastons to patients. After nearly four decades and several dozen phase II clinical trials started, he has never published a completed phase II trial. The only evidence he’s published consists mainly of cell culture studies, case reports, and couple of preliminary reports of his phase II clinical trials. Of course, Burzynski’s lawyer, Richard Jaffe, even dismissively admitted that these clinical trials are designed solely to allow Burzynski to keep giving antineoplastons.

So Burzynski operated from the late 1990s until summer 2012, charging exorbitant “case management” fees to enroll patients in his clinical trials, working with a credulous filmmaker who wanted to make a movie about him—twice—and flouting regulations designed to protect human subjects involved in clinical trials. Meanwhile, he branched out to “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” which he promoted through Suzanne Somers; to AminoCare, which is basically antineoplastons sold as an antiaging nostrum (or, as Burzynski puts it, a “genetic solution to aging“); and to selling an orphan drug as a “prodrug” for antineoplastons.

So what happened in the summer of 2012? Apparently, there was a treatment-related death of a child, which led the FDA to issue a partial clinical hold on the Burzynski Clinic that prevented him from enrolling any new children on his clinical trials, although he could keep treating existing patients and enroll new adult patients. That partial clinical hold was extended to adults in January 2013, at which time the FDA arrived at the Burzynski Clinic to investigate. It was an event that was included at the tail end of Eric Merola’s second propaganda film about Stanislaw Burzynski and represented as, in essence, jackbooted fascists trying to keep the cure for cancer from The People. None of this stops credulous reporters from writing misleading articles with titles like Young mother with brain cancer given just a year to live BEATS the disease and gets married after having controversial treatment in the US, which is a story about Laura Hymas, a woman whose good fortune is most likely not due to Burzynski. Not long before that, there was another credulous article featuring another Burzynski patient, Hannah Bradley, as one of four patients treated for cancer with alternative therapies who are allegedly doing well. Again, Hannah Bradley’s good fortune is highly unlikely to be due to Burzynski’s nostrums.

All of this is why those of us who follow Burzynski have been waiting with the proverbial bated breath to find out what the FDA concluded. Just before the government shutdown the first shoe dropped, when the FDA released a warning letter to the Burzynski Research Institute (BRI). Then last week, the second shoe dropped, when the FDA released the original forms describing its findings regarding the inspection. The findings are, to put it mildly, damning in the extreme. In fact, now, more than ever, I wonder how on earth Burzynski has been allowed to continue to run clinical trials—or even practice—for so long. The findings include massive deficiencies in the Burzynski institutional review board (IRB), the committee responsible for making sure that regulations designed to protect human subjects in research are adhered to.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Acetaminophen: Still the pain reliever you should trust?

Recently ProPublica and This American Life (TAL) released the results of an investigation into acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. TAL devoted an entire episode to the issue, and ProPublica has published several stories on acetaminophen’s toxicity, how it can cause harm, and how it is regulated.

The investigation summarizes the key “Takeaways” as follows:

  • 150 Americans die per year from accidental acetaminophen overdoses
  • The safety margin (safe dose vs. toxic dose) with acetaminophen is small
  • Both the FDA and the manufacturer, McNeil, have known about the toxicity for years
  • For over 30 years the FDA has failed to implement measures to reduce the risk of harms it knew existed
  • The manufacturer has taken steps to protect consumers but has also opposed other safety measures

While Tylenol is a single brand out of hundreds of prescription and non-prescription products that contain acetaminophen as an active ingredient, it is the brand most closely associated with the chemical. Amazingly for a drug that has no patent and lots of competition, Tylenol products are estimated to make up half of all non-prescription acetaminophen sales in the US, a testament to the power and effectiveness of marketing. (It’s also a clear refutation to alt-med arguments that unpatented products can’t be profitable, or aren’t of interest to the pharmaceutical industry.) While much of the focus of the investigation centers on the corporate behavior of Tylenol’s manufacturer, McNeil, (a division of Johnson & Johnson), it is important to keep in mind that no single company is responsible for acetaminophen sales and marketing. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Stanislaw Burzynski: A deceptive propaganda movie versus an upcoming news report

Well, I’ve finally seen it, and it was even worse than I had feared.

After having heard of Eric Merola’s plan to make a sequel to his 2010 propaganda “documentary” about Stanislaw Burzynski, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business, which I labeled a bad movie, bad medicine, and bad PR, I’ve finally actually seen the finished product, such as it is. Of course, during the months between when Eric Merola first offered me an “opportunity” to appear in the sequel based on my intense criticism of Burzynski’s science, abuse of the clinical trials process, and human subjects research ethics during the last 18 months or so, there has been intense speculation about what this movie would contain, particularly given how Merola’s publicity campaign involved demonizing skeptics, now rechristened by Merola as “The Skeptics,” a shadowy cabal of people apparently dedicated (according to Merola) to protecting big pharma and making sure that patients with deadly cancers don’t have access to Burzynski’s magic peptides, presumably cackling all the way to the bank to cash those big pharma checks.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s cancer “success” stories update: Why is the release of the Burzynski sequel being delayed?

It’s no secret that I happen to be on several mailing lists of groups or doctors whose dedication to science is—shall we say?—questionable. Of course, the reason I join such mailing lists is to keep my finger on the pulse of pseudoscience, so to speak. Between such lists and strategically selected Google Alerts (the latter of which appear to be failing me these days), I’m usually aware of potential blogging material fast on selected topics that have become my bailiwick on this blog. So it was that I became aware on Saturday of a development regarding the movie about Stanislaw Burzynski that was going to be released direct to DVD this week.

I wrote about this “documentary” a couple of weeks ago, because it had become pretty clear that a significant part of the movie will be dedicated to a PR counterattack (more like a smear job) on skeptics who have been critical of Burzynski, criticism that apparently goaded him to use a rather unhinged individual by the name of Marc Stephens to threaten skeptical bloggers who had written posts critical of Burzynski’s science (more appropriately, his lack of science), and his proclivity for charging patients huge amounts of money to be in clinical trials, a practice that is in general considered at best questionable. The brouhaha in the blogosphere led me to pay attention to Burzynski in a way that I hadn’t before. Sure, I had heard of him, but I hadn’t really delved deeply into his claims. That situation was rectified in late 2011, as I reviewed the first propaganda movie made about Burzynski by Eric Merola, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business. As I delved deeper, I learned that Burzynski’s evidence for the anticancer efficacy of his “antineoplaston therapy” doesn’t hold up; that his “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” is anything but personalized or gene-targeted; and that he’s using an orphan drug now in what appears to me to be a strategy to bypass restrictions on his use of antineoplastons that he agreed to in a consent agreement with the Texas Attorney General back in 1998 that allow him only to use these drugs as part of a valid clinical trial.

So I awaited the approach of this week with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation; anticipation because I wanted to see what sort of bizarre new conspiracy theories (or new twists on old conspiracy theories) that Merola could weave, and trepidation because I don’t know how badly Merola will trash me (and people I know) in his movie and such attacks could cause me difficulties. Suffice to say, it looked very much as though Merola was going to resurrect Jake Crosby’s scurrilous attacks against me from three years ago. So it was with great surprise that I read this e-mail on Saturday morning, sent to the Burzynski Movie mailing list:

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Kudos to a Journalist

Many SBM readers will remember the late, great Barry Beyerstein,  a luminary of the skeptical movement and author of a classic article that has been cited many times on SBM, an explanation of why bogus therapies seem to work.

One of his greatest personal accomplishments is not as well known: he produced an exceptional daughter, Lindsay Beyerstein, a freelance writer, philosopher, and polymath who stepped into her father’s shoes as a faculty member of the annual Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop after his death and has done a truly admirable job there.

Among Lindsay’s many other activities, she works for the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a nonprofit that honors excellence in socially conscious journalism. One of her goals has been to reward excellence in science journalism. Bob Ortega has just received a Sidney Award for his exposé of a widely used HPV (human papillomavirus) test that is not FDA approved and has an unacceptably high rate of false negative results. Her interview with him was published on the Hillman Foundation website.  On SBM, we frequently criticize journalists who get the science wrong. For a change, I’d like to congratulate Mr. Ortega for not only getting the science right, but for accomplishing something that could potentially save lives.

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Posted in: Cancer, Obstetrics & gynecology, Science and the Media

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Now that Burzynski has gotten off in 2012, Burzynski The Movie will spawn a sequel in 2013

About a year ago, I became interested in a physician named Stanislaw Burzynski who has been treating cancer with compounds that he calls “antineoplastons” for over three decades without, in my opinion, ever having ever produced any compelling evidence that antineoplastons have significant anticancer activity. Although I had been vaguely aware of Burzynski and his activities, it was the first time that I had looked into them in a big way.

Having found very few skeptical, science-based takes on Burzynski and having noted that the Quackwatch entries on Burzynski (1, 2, 3) were hopelessly out of date, I wrote a trilogy of posts about him, starting with a review of an execrably bad movie made by a simultaneously credulous yet cynical independent writer, producer, and director named Eric Merola whose primary business, appropriately enough, is mainly marketing. The movie was Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is A Serious Business, a “documentary” (and I’m being polite here) that I characterized at the time as a bad movie and bad P.R. In brief, I saw this movie as a hagiography, a propaganda film so ham-fisted that, if she were still alive, it would easily simultaneously make Leni Riefenstahl blush at its blatantness and feel nauseated how truly awful it was from a strictly film making standpoint. It was also chock full of highly dubious science, in particular Burzynski’s latest venture, which is to sell “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” similarly lacking in oncological insight, so much so that I observed at the time that it was as though Dr. Burzynski read a book called Personalized Cancer Therapy for Dummies and decided he is an expert in genomics-based tailoring of targeted therapies to individual cancer patients. Finally, I completed the trilogy by pointing out that lately Burzynski has been rebranding an orphan drug that showed mild to moderate promise as an anticancer therapy.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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It’s time for true transparency of clinical trials data

What makes a health professional science-based? We advocate for evaluations of treatments, and treatment decisions, based on the best research methods. We compile evidence based on fair trials that minimize the risks of bias. And, importantly, we consider this evidence in the context of the plausibility of the treatment. The fact is, it’s actually not that hard to get a positive result in a trial, especially when it’s sloppily done or biased.  And there are many ways to design a trial to demonstrate positive results in some subgroup, as Kimball Atwood pointed out earlier this week. And even when a trial is well done, there remains the risk of error simply due to chance alone. So to sort out true treatment effects, from fake effects, two key steps are helpful in reviewing the evidence.

1. Take prior probability into account when assessing data. While a detailed explanation of Bayes Theorem could take several posts, consider prior probability this way: Any test has flaws and limitations. Tests give probabilities based on the test method itself, not on what is being tested. Consequently, in order to evaluate the probability of “x” given a test result, we must incorporate the pre-test probability of “x”. Bayesian analysis uses any existing data, plus the data collected in the test, to give a prediction that factors in prior probabilities. It’s part of the reason why most published research findings are false.

2. Use systematic reviews to evaluate all the evidence. The best way to answer a specific clinical question is to collect all the potentially relevant information in a structured way, consider its quality, analyze it according to predetermined criteria, and then draw conclusions. A systematic review reduces the risk of cherry picking and author bias, compared to non-systematic data-collection or general literature reviews of evidence. A well-conducted systematic review will give us an answer based on the totality of evidence available, and is the best possible answer for a given question.

These two steps are critically important, and so have been discussed repeatedly by the contributors to this blog. What is obvious, but perhaps not as well understood, is how our reviews can still be significantly flawed, despite best efforts. In order for our evaluation to accurately consider prior probability, and to be systematic, we need all the evidence. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible if clinical trials remains unpublished or are otherwise inaccessible. There is good evidence to show that negative studies are less likely to be published than positive studies. Sometimes called the “file drawer” effect, it’s not solely the fault of investigators, as journals seeking positive results may decline to publish negative studies. But unless these studies are found, systematic reviews are more likely to miss negative data, which means there’s the risk of bias in favor of an intervention. How bad is the problem? We really have no complete way to know, for any particular clinical question, just how much is missing or buried. This is a problem that has confounded researchers and authors of systematic reviews for decades. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Who’s to Blame for Drug Shortages?

All the best effort to practice science-based medicine are for naught when the optimal treatment is unavailable. And that’s increasingly the case – even for life-threatening illnesses. Shortages of prescription drugs, including cancer drugs, seem more frequent and more significant than at any time in the past. Just recently manufacturing deficiencies at a large U.S.-based contract drug manufacturer meant that over a dozen drugs stopped being produced. This lead to extensive media coverage, speculating on the causes and implications of what seems like a growing problem. So who’s to blame? (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Breast implants and anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL): Is there a link?

I must admit that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with breast implants. On the one hand, as a breast cancer surgeon, I see them as a major benefit to my patients who are unfortunate enough to require mastectomy in order to control their disease. The armamentarium of techniques for reconstructing breasts after mastectomy generally falls into one of two categories, either various form of muscle flaps or breast implants. However, some women are, for various reasons, not eligible for various muscle flap reconstructions. That leaves either breast implants–or nothing. Certainly, some women are perfectly fine with no reconstruction after mastectomy, but many, if not most, women are not. For these women, it would be difficult to overstate how much of a boon to body image and self-esteem reconstruction can be, particularly given how much better at it plastic surgeons have become over the last couple of decades.

On the other hand, breast implants make my life as a breast cancer surgeon more difficult for a variety of reasons. First, they tend to make mammography more difficult by obscuring part of the breast, thus decreasing the sensitivity of mammography. Good mammography facilities can get around this to some extent by using various displacement techniques, but it takes some effort, and it doesn’t completely correct the problems that implants cause for mammographic screening. Moreover, when a woman who has had implants placed for cosmetic reasons comes to see me for a breast mass or an abnormal mammogram, the presence of the implants can complicate treatment decisions. If the abnormality or mass is close to the implant, we worry about rupturing it in the process, particularly if the implant is not below the pectoralis major muscle. Even when the implant is subpectoral, the muscle overlying it frequently ends up being so stretched out that the muscle in essence forms part of the capsule around the implant and ends up being a lot thinner than you might expect. Let me tell you, my anal sphincter tone is always much tighter when operating near an implant, particularly a silicone implant. True, I’m perfectly capable of removing an implant if it’s accidentally ruptured, but such an outcome is not desirable, particularly with silicone implants, where cleaning up the leaking silicone can be difficult.

It doesn’t help that silicone breast implants have been the subject of controversy since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when thousands of women with silicone implants reported a variety of ailments, including autoimmune disease and a variety of other systemic illnesses. These reports led to a rash of lawsuits and, ultimately, the banning of silicone breast implants for general use in 1992. After that, silicone breast implants were only permitted in women requiring breast reconstruction or women enrolled in clinical trials studying breast implants. This ban was partially lifted in 2006, as evidence accumulated that the claims of autoimmune diseases and increased cancer risk due to silicone breast implants were not supported by clinical and scientific evidence and two products made by Allergan Corp. (formerly Inamed Corp.) and Mentor Corp. Not surprisingly, given that the furor over silicone breast implants as a cause of autoimmune and other systemic diseases is based on about as much solid scientific evidence as the antivaccine furor over vaccines as a cause of the “autism epidemic,” there was widespread criticism of this decision. Even now, it is not difficult to find articles about breast implants with titles like Breast Implants: America’s Silent Epidemic and websites like the Humantics Foundation and Toxic Breast Implants . I do note, however, that the number of such sites and articles does appear to be declining and, at least to my impression, seems to have decreased markedly over the last 10 years or so.

Having reviewed the literature and found evidence for a link between silicone breast implants and the systemic diseases attributed to them to be incredibly weak at best, I had little problem with the FDA’s decision. Actually, the only thing I had a problem with at the time, my opinions of how breast implants interfere with breast cancer detection and treatment notwithstanding, is that the FDA was probably being more cautious than the evidence warranted after 14 years.

Was I wrong?
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Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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