A couple of months ago, a reader sent me an article that really disturbed me. In fact, I had originally been planning to write about it not long after I received it. However, as I’ve mentioned before, when it comes to blogging, I’m a bit like Dug the Talking Dog from the movie Up in that I’m easily distracted. Unlike Dug, what distracts me aren’t squirrels, but rather bright, shiney pieces of pseudoscience, quackery, paranormal, or otherwise weird nonsense. Sometimes after I’m distracted I come back to the topic I had originally wanted to blog about. Sometimes I don’t. Or, sometimes (like this time), it takes me nearly two months. I realize that that’s kind of a lame excuse, but, well, that’s just how Orac rolls. Except that Orac can’t roll, being a square Plexiglass box full of multicolored blinking lights and all.
In any case, I just realize that, as far as I can tell, I’ve never blogged about this bit of cancer quackery before. Shocking, I know. I thought I had covered pretty much every major form of cancer quackery at least once over the seven and a half years this blog has been in existence. But I was wrong! This cannot stand! I must cover it!
Unfortunately, the article that brought my attention (back) to this particular form of cancer quackery is a story that is very sad. It is the story of Bernie Mulligan:
To Bernie Mulligan, chemotherapy is just a temporary setback.
The 45-year-old carpenter at the University of Windsor refused all traditional treatments for his terminal stomach cancer for about two months, until complications from an expanding liver landed him in the hospital.
On Monday, he reluctantly started chemotherapy for the first time.
Doctors say Mulligan will be lucky if he lives another two months, but he said he’s not worried. He just needs the chemotherapy to shrink his liver to the point where he can get back to the real cure, he said — a supplement in a rainbow-coloured bottle called Cantron.
“That’s the stuff that’s going to cure me. This stuff is not a cure, chemo’s not a cure,” he said. “When I got rushed into the hospital two weeks ago, yes, I thought I was done. But now I’m confident.”
Mulligan is one of many Windsor cancer patients who have crossed the border over the years to attend meetings of an organization based out of Warren, Mich., that promotes Cantron as a miracle cure.
Stomach cancer is, generally speaking, a bad actor. It’s the sort of tumor that’s hard enough to treat even when it’s localized to the stomach, but when it’s metastasized to the liver, as it has in Mr. Mulligan’s case, it’s incurable.
According to a video on the Windsor Star website, back in February Mulligan had been experiencing pains in his upper abdomen. He thought it was a “stomach bug” and was going to see his family doctor that very day when he started vomiting blood and ended up in the emergency room. At the time, it was found that he had numerous metastases in his liver. Ultimately the primary cancer was located and turned out to be what sounds to me like an upper stomach cancer or a cancer at the gastroesophageal junction, which, if true, is more esophageal cancer than gastric cancer. Be that as it may, esophageal cancer is a bad actor, too.
It’s a horrible thing when a man this young is faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, and that’s exactly what Mulligan was facing. However, if there’s one thing I always try to emphasize, it’s that “incurable” does not mean “not treatable.” If there’s one area of cancer care that’s advanced enormously over the last 20 or 30 years, it’s palliative care. Even though palliative care is not designed to prolong life but rather to relieve symptoms, there is evidence that good palliative care results in prolongation of life. Of course, I realize that telling a 45-year-old man, who probably expected to live another 35 or 40 years, that we have good palliative care is not a message that is likely to be satisfying. We all want to live!
Enter the cancer quacks
Although it is the ethical and science-based thing to do to provide an honest assessment of prognosis based on the patient’s presentation and what we know from science, unfortunately, there are plenty of “alternative” medicine practitioners out there who are more than happy to give a message of hope when there is little or no hope. Such a message causes a lot of harm, such as leading the patient to waste huge amounts of money to the point where he might bankrupt his family and leave nothing left for them after he’s gone, causing unnecessary pain and complications, and, to put it bluntly, deceiving the patient with false hope. Of course, some patients are more susceptible to false hope than others, and Mulligan appears to be one of those patients. In his video, he talks about eschewing conventional therapy and going for homeopathic remedies before discovering Cantron.
But what is Cantron? The same basic formula has appeared under a wide variety of names, such as Sheridan’s Formula, Jim’s Juice, JS–114, JS–101, 126–F, Crocinic Acid, and, of course, Entelev, Protocel, and Cantron. The version of the magic cancer cure being used by Bernie Mulligan is sold by a company called Medical Research Products. It comes in bottles festooned with happy, cheerful colors, and its sales pitch runs like this:
Cantron® is an amazing bio-electrical wellness formulation. It provides astonishing health benefits like no other substance on Earth. It is the world’s most potent antioxidant and scavenger of abnormal proteins which accumulate in the blood, tissues, organs and joints. Cantron is known to dramatically aid the body’s own natural defenses. Since 1984, it has received rave reviews from those who have taken it. One customer summed it up perfectly on an Internet chat site when she emphatically stated: “How blessed we are to know about Cantron.”
I wouldn’t exactly put it that way.
Notice the pure snake oil-style appeal mixed with what I like to call science word salad. “Bio-electric wellness formulation”? It’s a meaningless term. “Scavenger of abnormal proteins”? Highly unlikely. “Dramatically aid the body’s own natural defenses”? That’s just another way of phrasing the quack’s favorite meaninglessly vague claim that his nostrum “boosts the immune system.” Then, of course, there is the appeal to testimonial, wherein no science is presented but instead we’re told how much people like the product and how much good it’s allegedly done for people.
But what is Cantron? It turns out that there are several products that are very similar to Cantron. The original was Entelev, later rebranded as CanCell, which, as described in the article and on various web pages and articles as having first been conceived and compounded in the 1936 by a chemist working for the Dow Chemical Company named James V. Sheridan, who first called his concoction Entelev. Why did he choose that name? In an interview, Sheridan once said that the idea came to him in a dream that he believed to be inspired by God, explaining many years later that the name Entelev came from “entelechy” (that part of the living process known only to God) and “ev” (which came from the word “electrovalent”), the latter being added so that the name would have something for everyone. Another version of the tale, told by a believer, can be found here.
According to the company website, Sheridan apparently did some animal studies in the late 1940s (one wonders why it took him 10 or 12 years to go from making up his concoction to doing animal studies), but there is precious little objective evidence from parties not selling the compound that he ever did anything of the sort. It’s also claimed that he attempted to do clinical trials while working at the Michigan Cancer Institute back in the 1950s. That claim actually raised an eyebrow, because, being in Michigan, I had never heard of the Michigan Cancer Institute. There is currently a Michigan Cancer Institute. However, it doesn’t appear to be a research-based institution but rather part of a private hospital. As is so often the case in stories like this, the history just doesn’t add up.
Be that as it may, according to the company website the next phase of the story occurred in the late 1950s through the 1960s, when, it is claimed, Sheridan was working for Battelle Laboratories, he did more work on his treatment. I don’t have direct knowledge that can help me evaluate this claim (although I do find it curious that so little is revealed about what Sheridan was doing , but I did do a PubMed search for James V. Sheridan and failed to find any publications by him at all. Given that he continued to work on Entelev at least into the 1980s, if he had published anything in the peer-reviewed literature it should be locatable on PubMed. It’s not. Then, from 1974 to 1983, Sheridan reportedly gave the formula away free of charge to over 1,000 people. In any case, the only evidence out there that I could find that Sheridan ever tried to do clinical trials is the existence of an application for investigational new drug (IND) status for CanCell (IND #20258) from 1982, which was not granted because the FDA asked for more information but didn’t get it. Specifically, the FDA asked for the chemical formulation (which is proprietary and has not been revealed by Sheridan or any others making the compound) and animal studies demonstrating activity against cancer, which are pretty basic bits of information required for all INDs.
Then, in 1984, a man named Edward J. Sopcak acquired the formula for Entelev. How this came about is somewhat unclear, but we do know that in 1984 the FDA issued an order to cease and desist distributing Entelev to patients. Whether that happened before or after Sopcak acquired the formula is unclear. The company claims it was before, because Sheridan realized the jig was up and that the FDA was going to shut him down; so he wanted to get the formula out to others. (Obviously, that’s not how they put it.) Particularly revealing, albeit no doubt unintentionally so, is this tidbid on the Medical Research Products website describing Sheridan, in which he is described thusly, “Jim also had no tolerance for complying with rigid manufacturing procedures that the FDA demanded.” No doubt, given that at that time he was manufacturing his product in his house, as documented in a famous Detroit Monthly article in 1984, Hope on a Hot Plate (the title was based on the way Sheridan cooked up Entelev on a hot plate in his pantry), and in another incident was observed to be carrying out pH testing in his kitchen while his wife was cooking chicken for dinner.
In any case, Sheridan apparently teamed up with a history teacher from Plymouth, MI named Don Wilson who became a “missionary” for Sheridan; Orville “Orz” Feather, a chemical engineer; and, of course, Ed Sopcak. Thus was CanCell born; it was basically Entelev renamed. By 1989, the FDA asked for and received a permanent injunction against Sheridan and Sopcak prohibiting them from introducing their compound into interstate commerce on the basis that they were adulterated, misbranded, and unapproved new drugs. For several years, this seems not to have stopped Sopcak, who superseded Sheridan as the primary promoter of CanCell, from distributing it under the names Protocel and Entelev. Ultimately, in the 1990s, Sopcak and Sheridan complied, but that didn’t stop other companies from making the same or similar products.
Cantron: False hope
So what are Cantron, Entelev, Protocel, and the plethora of products based on Jim Sheridan’s original “juice”? Finding that out isn’t exactly easy because the formula has been proprietary. Moreover, the purported explanations of how it supposedly works are, to put it kindly, a moving target. However, there are several explanations in common that resemble to some extent the paragraph I cited above. For instance, the Alternative Cancer Treatments Comparison and Testing website, which has a wonderfully catty criticism of Protocel relative to Cantron, which is, according to the website, so much better than Protocel, even though the unwashed masses buy more Protocel because they “mistakenly believe that the Protocel formula is controlled by the developer or his surviving family”:
Both Cantron and Protocel work by reducing the ATP energy (adenosine triphosphate) in each cell of your body. (This is also one of the cancer fighting effects of Paw Paw and Graviola.) Our cells have an electrical potential that effects how the cell processes energy producing substances mostly blood sugar and oxygen from our blood supply…
By reducing this voltage level from 70 to 110 mv to something in the 50 mv region, normal cells can still function. However, cancer and viral cells cannot process energy at this low voltage level and start to starve. The process of starving is a slower process than being poisoned which is why Cancell works slower than chemo and why there was a dramatic reduction in the weight of tumor cells in the two day NCI test of Cancell, but only a small number of dead cells. Had that test run longer, all the tumor cells that showed such dramatic weight reduction would have starved to death. For more on the NCI test, go to the Comments on the NCI Test Summary for Cancell page.
It is always amusing to see such gross ignorance of basic biology, or, as I like to call it, burning stupid. Viruses are not cells. You can’t starve them. They also apparently don’t know that the membrane potential of cells is generally expressed as a negative voltage. I do, however, like the special pleading that the NCI test didn’t measure the right thing, as if the NCI doesn’t know what to measure when testing putative new cancer therapies in vitro and in vivo. Similarly, the part about reducing the resting electrochemical gradient across the cell membrane to the -50 mV range is pure nonsense. The main reason the voltage potential across a cell membrane decreases is either because the cell lacks ATP (which is the source of chemical energy for most cellular reactions, such as the ion pumps that maintain the gradient); something else (a poison, for instance) is inhibiting the ion pumps; or the membrane is leaky, dispersing the ion gradient. In any case, cells have a wide variety of resting potentials, and, in fact, promoters of Cantron get it exactly wrong. In actuality, resting potential corresponds with proliferative potential. Cells with a low proliferative potential tend to have high resting membrane potentials (say, -90 mV), while cells more able to proliferate have a lower resting potential. That includes cancer cells. Of course, it’s more complicated than that in that tumor cells tend to undergo a hyperpolarized phase (higher voltage) while replicating, but the makers of Cantron get the biology all wrong. More differentiated cells tend to have higher resting membrane potential, and lower resting membrane potential tends to be associated with dediffrentiation.
Another claim by Cantron promoters for how it works is Sheridan’s original rationale. In his IND application, he stated that cancer is a protein disease and that there are three kinds of cells: normal, primitive, and cancerous. In a “cancer relationship,” Sheridan argues, cellular proteins become less differentiated than usual and can only replicate cancer proteins. Of course, one notes that in general proteins do not replicate; they are made by transcription and translation of the cell’s DNA, but that didn’t stop Sheridan from claiming that Entelev allowed cancer cells to attain the “primitive state,” which would lead them to self-destruct. This is such utter nonsense from a biological standpoint that it defies reason that a biochemist could believe it, but apparently Sheridan did.
Sopcak’s explanation, on the other hand, was slightly different in that he claimed that cancer cells are mutated anaerobic cells caused by lack of proper diet that causes chemical and electrical damage. His idea of cancer causation is that Progenitor cryptocides becomes active and helps healthy cells respire anaerobically. According to Sopcak, when the cell’s energy needs outstrip the ability of anaerobic metabolism to supply them, the cell mutates and becomes a cancer cell in an irreversible process. One must admit that this sounds a heck of a lot more plausible than Sheridan’s explanation, with its clever co-optation of the Warburg effect and hypotheses that have been around a while about how metabolism can contribute to cancer development. So how does Entelev reverse this process? Here’s where Sopcak goes off the deep end. He claimed that Entelev changed the “vibrational energy and frequency” of cancer cells until they reach the “primitive state” postulated by Sheridan. The cells then autodigest, to be eliminated through the urine, feces, being coughed up, through perspiration, or even through a vaginal discharge. After this happens, cancer cells are replaced by normal cells.
Amusingly, Sopcak has also been quoted as saying that he believes all medicine in the future will ultimately be practiced by adjusting vibrational frequencies. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t take him too long to get into homeopathy. He even made a homeopathic version of CanCell and called it—I kid you not—CanCell, thus causing no end of confusion, particularly because the clear homeopathic version looked very different from the dark-colored original version. In any case, Enteleve/CanCell/Cantron has been promoted as a cure for AIDS, herpes, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, endometriosis, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, diabetes, emphysema, scleroderma, Lou Gehrig disease, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, hemophilia, high and low blood pressure, mental illness, and some forms of epilepsy.
And ya might not believe this, little fella, but it’ll cure your asthma, too. I do note, however, that Cantron, or whatever one wants to call it, has been administered orally, rectally, and topically. If you want the nitty gritty of his pseudoscience, he expounds upon his beliefs and claims for Cantron in detail in this interview from 1996. In this interview, he admits that CanCell is nothing but “very pure water” and claims that it’s a “programmed crystal.” Even more amusingly, from a standpoint of homeopathy, he claims that he removes the memory from these water crystals and imprints the memory he wants. Elsewhere, he describes CanCell as a “vibrational catalyst”:
ACRES U.S.A.: Allow us to back up a bit. What is the substance called Cancell? What is the theory behind it? How does it work? How do you make it?
SOPCAK: The new Cancell analyzes as very pure water. That’s what it is.
ACRES U.S.A.: Just very pure water?
SOPCAK: That’s right. It is a programmed crystal. Water is a crystalline substance. If it weren’t crystalline, when it changes its physical state from water to a solid, you wouldn’t get snowflakes. I have simply erased the memory of the water. People make statements such as, There are no two snowflakes exactly the same. That’s because the memory in that crystal is so variable that snowflakes crystalize out just a little differently each time. Before you impress a memory on a crystal, you have to take out the memory that is there. I remove the memory.
ACRES U.S.A.: How do you remove the memory? Is this a case of magnetism?
SOPCAK: No, you can’t come close to this with anything electrical or magnetic, or with any of the dense material like magnets or minerals. We don’t do any of those things. I’d rather not get too deeply into that because I hate to see people become involved in what they don’t understand, and then put out something definitely harmful.
So let me get this straight. If Cantron is the same as CanCell, it’s basically water. However, in the photos on the Medical Research Products website Cantron looks like the dark liquid that Jim Sheridan used to sell as Entelev after cooking it up in on a hot plate in his kitchen and pantry. None of this stops him from going wild with the woo:
Basically, I get extremely fundamental once I make the statement that nothing exists in the entire universe except electromagnetic vibrational frequencies viewed from that plane of observation, that’s it. There’s nothing else. Then what you get into is diseases as vibrational densities. The problem is to raise the vibrational frequency of those densities, and then the body will return itself to normal. Diseases no longer exist.
Vibrations. Why does it always have to be vibrations? Every quack, cancer or otherwise, seems to think that vibrations are the be-all and end-all of everything; that is, when they don’t think that evil humors—excuse me, energy blockages—are the cause of all disease.
So what’s in Entelev/CanCell/Cantron? Not a lot, actually. In 1989, an FDA review found that it is made up of fairly unremarkable chemicals, including nitric acid, sodium sulfite, potassium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, inositol, and catechol. The Cantron website says that it contains copper, sodium, sulfur, postassium, as well as traces of iron, zinc, and bromine. None of what’s in Cantron appears to have any anticancer activity at the levels one might expect in the human body, per the NCI:
In 1990 and 1991, samples of Cancell/Cantron/Protocel were evaluated in NCI’s in vitro 60 Human Tumor Cell Line Screen. The test results are available online. The graphs and the numerical designations for each of the three cancer cell growth criteria (GI50, concentration required for 50% inhibition of cell growth; TGI, concentration required for total inhibition of cell growth; and LC50, concentration required for 50% cell lethality or death) are somewhat complicated, but a technical explanation is provided in the Appendix 3. There is little evidence that any of the constituents of Cancell/Cantron/Protocel would be available in the bloodstream of a patient in significant concentrations after its ingestion. Activity was seen in two-thirds of the cell lines, though at levels that would be roughly 275 times higher than the theoretical maximum concentration achievable in serum. Therefore, the in vitro effects are likely due to nonspecific effects of changes in salt concentration. Furthermore, cells in the NCI Tumor Cell Line Screen are grown in artificial media under conditions that do not truly mimic the in vivo situation in animals or humans, and that results obtained with the screen may not accurately reflect possible effects in humans. To place the findings for Cancell/Cantron/Protocel in perspective any conventional drug exhibiting this low level of in vitro activity in the NCI human cancer cell line screen would normally not be investigated further by NCI.
A dietary supplement?
So how do the manufacturers of Cantron and its many imitators get away with it? How is it that they keep selling it? The answer is easy: Blame the DSHEA of 1994. Cantron, according to Medical Research Products, is a dietary supplement, as explained in these bullet points:
- Cantron is offered only as a dietary supplement.
- Medical Research Products makes no claims nor prescribes this product (or any other product) for the cure, prevention or mitigation of any chronic disease.
- Cantron is not approved by the FDA or endorsed by the AMA for the treatment of any medical condition.
- The FDA has not evaluated any statements of “health claims” made by MRP.
- DO NOT IGNORE THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN. Do not use Cantron in lieu of any life saving treatments which have been prescribed by your physician.
- Cantron is one very important part of a Total Wellness Program where one treats the whole nature of the individual through nutritional supplementation, diet, exercise, meditation, prayer, etc..
- Cantron may be taken by itself, however, it is the primary product in our ‘Total Wellness Program’, which is a portfolio of synergistic products designed to stimulate the body’s own natural healing processes.
This brings us back to Bernie Mulligan. How on earth is it that Bernie Mulligan can be deceived to believe that Cantron will cure his stage IV esophageal cancer, with his liver packed with metastatic tumor? Certainly Medical Research Products isn’t telling him that. To the company, it’s all just a “supplement” that “promotes wellness naturally.” Jerome Godin even emphasizes that in the article, stating in no uncertain terms that he is very careful to obey the law. He does, however, disingenuously add, “I just make my product and those who believe in it usually promote it on their own.”
People like Andy Johnson:
On April 18, Johnson did what he does on the third Wednesday of every month at noon — went to a hall in Warren, unloaded cardboard boxes full of photocopied pamphlets, books and bottles of Cantron, approached the podium and preached the good news.
And preached. And preached. Johnson, an 82-year-old man with wire-rimmed glasses, a neatly trimmed moustache and a tucked-in yellow golf shirt, spoke for an hour. He paused for half an hour to allow people who believe Cantron cured their cancer to tell their stories before launching back into his speech for another 40 minutes.
Johnson made all the claims the company that produces Cantron can’t, and then some. Cantron cures cancer, he said — along with AIDS, knee problems and the common cold. He jumped up and down to illustrate the part about the knee problems.
So what we have in Andy Johnson is a true believer, and, unfortunately, he has a group, the H.O.P.E. Group, to which he can preach his belief every third Wednesday of the month, promoting misinformation such as this, where he recommends that cancer patients use Cantron with a variety of other supplements, including shark liver oil, Enzyme Formula Tablets, Willard’s Water, and Pancreatin. Even worse, Johnson apparently encourages his group members to avoid science-based treatments. Interestingly, though, Johnson’s online footprint is actually quite small, as though he’s flying under the radar. His group doesn’t appear to have its own website, and it’s hard to find out much about him online.
Be that as it may, what we have here is, in my professional opinion, a cancer quack. That he believes in his quackery makes it even worse, because it probably makes him a more effective salesman. Meanwhile, we have a company doing the old “wink, wink, nudge, nudge,” while Johnson says the things that the law prohibits the company from saying about its product. A nice arrangement, isn’t it? The treatment isn’t cheap, either, its manufacturer’s claims of wanting to make it available to everyone notwithstanding. According to the article, it costs about $500 every 20 days.
Unfortunately, the article, after having revealed this quackery, dilutes its message by in essence adding some apologia for “complementary and alternative” medicine. For instance, the author Claire Brownell writes that it’s difficult for patients to separate science from fiction and hearsay (true) but that the also “won’t necessarily get much help from their doctors, who are usually poorly trained about alternative treatments and often dismissive of the entire concept.” She also notes that the case of Cantron “doesn’t mean all alternative treatments are a scam or useless” and then cites a completely inappropriate example to illustrate her point. That example is an application for clinical trials of a dandelion root extract that apparently showed some activity against leukemia in preclinical models. Again, people, that is not in any way “alternative” or “complementary.” It’s pharmacognosy (i.e., natural products pharmacology), which is an old and productive branch of pharmacology. To equate pharmacognosy to pure quackery like Cantron is an insult to cancer pharmacologists everywhere.
I don’t know whether Mulligan is still alive. The last report I could find about him is dated May 27 and is about his attending the Telus Motorcycle Ride for Dad. The saddest part, however, is that, even after Cantron has clearly failed him to the point where even with his aversion to conventional medicine in general and chemotherapy in particular he agreed to take chemotherapy, Bernie Mulligan still believes. It’s a truly horrible thing for a man in his 40s to see the specter of his end approaching 30 or 40 years too early, to contemplate not living to see his daughters grow up, or to have the joy of seeing grandchildren. It’s entirely understandable that, lacking the scientific background to realize that there is no scientifically plausible reason to think that Cantron will work and no scientific evidence supporting its efficacy against any cancer, a man like Mulligan might grasp at anything that he thinks can save him and participate in fundraisers to raise money for an “experimental” cancer treatment. It’s companies like Medical Research Products, whose owners give no indication of being the least bit troubled by the claims being made for its products by people like Andy Johnson, that are to blame.