Cancer doctor under fire for providing false hope to patients

Stanislaw Burzynski, a doctor whose unorthodox cancer therapies have been touted for decades, has come under fire for providing false hope to patients. Burzynski, who has been treating patients in his private Houston clinic since 1977, has some prominent supporters, including TV’s “Dr. Oz” and a documentary filmmaker who has created two films championing his cause and treatments. But most doctors and cancer centers claim that Burzynski is profiting from preying on the sick and vulnerable.

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Because his treatments have not been proven effective, most medical insurance will not cover them and patients are often asked to pay for his services up front—as much as $20,000 to start and $7,500 per month thereafter to continue. There are several aspects about Burzynski’s practice that have raised red flags, including that he claims a cancer cure success rate far higher than other therapies, and that he is not a trained oncologist yet claims to have made amazing breakthroughs in oncology. Specifically, he claims that cancer can be caused by a patient’s lack of antineoplastons (a naturally-occurring compound found in blood and urine), a finding that no other cancer researchers have been able to verify.

In fact, according to a news story in “USA Today,” “the National Cancer Institute says there is no evidence that Burzynski has cured a single patient… He has not backed up his claims by publishing results from a randomized, controlled trial — considered the gold standard of medical evidence — in a respected, peer-reviewed journal. And Burzynski’s drugs pose a risk of serious harm, including coma, swelling near the brain and death, according to the NCI and informed consent documents that patients sign before beginning treatment. While Burzynski has touted his treatments as an alternative to chemotherapy, a 1999 NCI study found that antineoplastons can cause many of the same side effects as conventional chemo: nausea, vomiting, headaches, muscle pain, confusion and seizures.”

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In fact not only has Burzynski failed to publish a single study of his “breakthrough” research in medical journals, but according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, he has completed exactly one of the over 60 medical studies he has begun over the years. If his therapy is as successful as he claims, it is curious that there appears so little research to back it up. The status on virtually all of his studies are “unknown” or “withdrawn,” meaning that there are no results to report and therefore no evidence that his miracle therapy is effective.

Cult of Personality

Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski is no newcomer to alternative medicine. According to Dr. David Gorski of the Science-Based Medicine blog, “Dr. Burzynski first gained fame for his cancer therapy back in 1988, when ‘Sally Jesse Raphael’ featured four ‘miracle’ patients of Burzynski’s, who, according to her, had had incurable cancer and failed conventional therapies but were rendered cancer-free, thanks to Dr. Burzynski. Unfortunately, four years later in 1992, ‘Inside Edition’ followed up these four patients and found that two of the four had died and a third had recurred, while the fourth had had bladder cancer with a good prognosis. In that report, the widow of one of Raphael’s guests reported that her husband and five others had sought treatment from Burzynski and that all had died.”

Though doctors and cancer centers are unimpressed (if not alarmed) by Burzynski work and research, he has many defenders, some of them very passionate. Part of the reason he is so popular is that he has become something of a cult figure, feeding on conspiracy theories and anti-Big Pharma sentiment. He is portrayed in many profiles as a misunderstood maverick doctor trying to help people despite being rejected by “the medical establishment” as too radical.

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It’s a powerful, populist narrative—the story of “Lorenzo’s Oil,” made into a popular 1992 film starring Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, had a similar theme — but, as emeritus professor of physics at the University of Maryland Dr. Robert Park noted, “Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.”

The truth or falsity of Burzynski’s claims will not be decided by popular vote nor anecdotes on TV talk shows; it will be decided by well-constructed, valid scientific studies — if and when they are done. It seems unlikely that any of Burzynski’s studies will ever be published, because according to a Food and Drug Administration report released last week, the baseline scans for all the patients in his clinical trials had been destroyed.

Burzynski has had nearly four decades to prove his claims, but unfortunately his patients can’t wait that long for a miracle cure.