An advertisement for Stanislaw Burzynski masquerading as a news story

Although I don't write about him as much as I used to, there was a time a couple of years ago when Houston cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski was a frequent topic of this blog. His story, detailed in many posts on this blog and in an article I wrote for Skeptical Inquirer, is one that involves many facets, including an abysmal failure of the normal government agencies designed to protect patients from abuses like his to actually do their jobs and—oh, you know—protect patients. If you want an idea of how utterly impotent our regulatory agencies are, the Burzynski case is as good an example as you'll see.

I'm talking to you, Texas Medical Board. You allowed him to charge patients huges sums of money over the course of nearly forty years to be treated with his unproven chemicals isolated from urine and blood that he dubbed antineoplastons, even though he has failed utterly during those four decades to publish convincing evidence of efficacy and safety. I'm also talking to you, FDA. In 1997 you let Stanislaw Burzynski's lawyer pull a fast one on you and get you to agree to stop going after Burzynski if he only gave antineoplastons to patients under the auspices of valid, FDA-approved clinical trials. Burzynski promptly did this, submitting over 70 clinical trials to the FDA, and then using them to continue business as usual: charging patients big bucks for his ineffective therapy. Yes, Burzynski's clinical trials were (and are) a sham. The only difference is that for the last 18 years Burzynski has the cover of FDA-approved clinical trials. In that time, for some reason you've been utterly ineffective in shutting him down. Oh, sure, you managed to put his clinical trials on partial clinical hold after Burzynski killed a six year old boy named Josia Cotto with his treatment, so that he couldn't enroll any new patients but could keep treating existing patients, but even that didn't last. Even a lean kill of an innocent child wasn't enough. You let him start up his clinical trials again after only a year or so off. No one knows why. No one can find out, given how impenetrable your bureaucracy and, above all, your exception to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that allows you to refuse to produce documents that might reveal trade secrets.

OK, I might have been a little too hard on the TMB (although, if anything, I'm taking it easy on the FDA for its role in this). The TMB is, after all, trying once again to prosecute Burzynski and take his medical license away. The hearing started three weeks ago and will resume again in January, leading me to ask if this is the time, after nearly four decades, when Stanislaw Burzynski finally faces justice. I hope so.

Unfortunately, as gratifying as it is to see Burzynski's latest legal troubles, complete with a major schism between him and his former consigliere and lawyer Richard Jaffe over unpaid legal bills, the down side of seeing Burzynski being dragged in front of the TMB again is watching him use patients as shields again and seeing his followers crawl out of the woodwork to regurgitate the same old misinformation that I spent so much time refuting over the course of three years or so. Perhaps the most depressing Burzynski "blast from the past" to show up again is Hannah Bradley and her (now) husband Peter Cohen. Hannah, as you might remember, is one of Burzynski's so-called "success stories." In the months leading up to Burzynski's hearing before the TMB, she showed up in a video in support of Burzynski, along with Stanislaw Burzynski's personal propagandist Eric Merola:

Of course, I'm very happy that Hannah Bradley-Cohen is doing well and getting on with her life with her husband. I really am. She seems to be a wonderful young woman, at least as far as I can tell from reading about her and viewing her videos. It's good to see her enjoying life with Peter. What I do not like is to see Hannah being used yet again as propaganda for Stanislaw Burzynski, no matter how willingly she participates in that propaganda. Why, I will explain in a minute. Unfortunately, just yesterday I saw another example of pure propaganda for Burzynski published in—where else?—the Daily Mail. It comes in the form of an article entitled British woman given just 18 months to live after being diagnosed with cancer defies doctors to marry after raising £200,000 to have controversial treatment in the US.

Yes, the story is exactly as you would predict just based on the title alone. It's a paean to the "Brave Maverick Doctors" who buck the status quo, all in order—of course!—to cure cancer. It doesn't matter whether or not these Brave Maverick Doctors can actually cure cancer or not, and, as I've discussed many times before, Burzynski cannot. He can't even come close. Yet he's still lionized in the "alternative cancer cure" community as the Brave Maverick Doctor who can cure brain cancers that regular neurosurgeons and oncologists can't. Even now, four years after I took a serious interest in Burzynski, even as my view evolved from not being sure that he was a quack to being quite sure now that he is, I still can't believe this. After all, antineoplastons, if they worked, would be chemotherapy. Certainly they have toxicities potentially as bad as chemotherapy. Then, as I've described time and time again, Burzynski has hijacked the concept of "precision medicine" (or "personalized medicine" or whatever you want to call it) by incompetently doing what can only be described as a parody of real precision medicine using very expensive, sometimes very toxic, cocktails of targeted pharmaceuticals. AS I like to put it, he's making it up as he goes along.

In any case, it was because of his reputation among alternative cancer cure believers, including Suzanne Somers, who included a chapter about Burzynski in her book Knockout, that Pete and Hannah discovered Burzynski a few years ago, as yesterday's Daily Fail story describes:

Burzynski, who charges thousands of dollars for his treatment, has been accused of selling hope.

But Pete watched a documentary about the doctor called Burzynski, The Movie, which convinced him that Hannah should seek treatment in Texas.
At first, Hannah didn’t want to know.

‘The radiotherapy was causing my hair to fall out and I felt exhausted all the time,’ she said..

‘It took Pete three to four months to persuade me to watch the documentary, and when I finally did I saw it twice and kind of just knew I had to do it.’

But the treatment didn’t come cheap. The couple had to raise the $300,000 (£200,210) needed to pay for it.

They launched Team Hannah and friends and family quickly rallied around to bring the cash rolling in.

‘I’m originally from Surrey and one friend reached out to a local radio station there,’ Hannah says.

‘They ran a campaign for people to donate £1 to our cause. Another friend threw a charity ball.’

It wasn’t long before the couple had reached their target and they flew out to Texas at the end of 2011.

The couple spent seven weeks in the US, with the treatment being administered using a catheter for medicine called a Hickman line four times a day.

This is a story Pete, being a bit of a filmmaker himself, documented in a video he called Hannah's Anecdote:

Hannah's story featured prominently in the sequel to Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is a Serious Business, which was entitled Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2. (Clearly, Eric Merola, the "auteur" responsible for both Burzynski movies, really needs to go back to film school to relearn how to come up with better titles for his Burzynski advertisements disguised as documentaries.) Part of that segment of the movie featured Pete and Hannah practically crying over how "mean" skeptics have been to Burzynski and them. Of course, I've never yet found an example of a skeptic saying mean things about the couple; personally, I've said from the beginning that I always hoped that Hannah would do well, whether from the antineoplastons or from the other treatments that she had undergone.

In fact, if you look at Hannah's anecdote carefully, it becomes clear that the antineoplastons, if they had any effect at all, were almost certainly not responsible for Hannah's good fortune. I discussed Hannah's case in detail nearly three years ago, but it's worth reiterating the CliffsNotes version. Basically, in February 2011, out of the blue Hannah suffered a seizure. She had never had a seizure before; so an immediate evaluation was performed, which revealed a brain tumor. She underwent surgery April 1, 2011 to remove a grade III anaplastic astrocytoma. Surgery was followed by a six week course of radiation therapy. It was at this point that Hannah apparently still had residual tumor, or at least her doctors thought she did, which led to her and Pete's search for an answer, which then led her to Burzynski.

Contrary to Burzynski's claims and how his therapy is marketed, even the story of a patient who sincerely believes Burzynski saved her life demonstrated a situation very much to the contrary. At least a third of Hannah's anecdote deals with all the difficulties that Hannah experienced with her treatment, including high fevers, a trip to the emergency room, and multiple times when the antineoplaston treatment was stopped. She routinely developed fevers to 102° F, and in one scene her fever reached 103.9° F. She felt miserable, nauseated and weak. I’ve seen some chemotherapy patients suffer less from their treatment. I also noted that the reaction of the clinic staff was rather blasé, even though at one point Hannah clearly demonstrated a change in mental status, appearing “drunk” and complaining of double-vision, which made me think such issues were a common complication of antineoplastons. At another point, Pete and Hannah come to believe that the fevers might have been due to the tumor breaking down, which strikes me as implausible. Hannah even developed an extensive rash, which looked to me a lot like erythema multiforme, which is generally an allergic rash, often due to drug reactions.

Near the end of the video, Pete displayed an MRI dated July 29, 2012 that looked quite good, with little or no enhancement left. The question, of course, is: Does this mean that Burzynski’s antineoplaston treatment worked for Hannah? Sadly, the answer is: Not necessarily. It might have. It might not have. Why do I say this? First, the median survival for anaplastic astrocytoma (which is a form of glioma) is around 2 to 3 years, and with different types of radiation therapy five year survival is around 15% or even higher. Even now, we are only approaching the five year mark, which will be in February. Be that as it may, long term survival for patients with astrocytomas is not so rare that Hannah’s survival is so unlikely that the most reasonable assumption has to be that it was Burzynski’s treatment that saved her. Second, there is a phenomenon in brain cancer known as pseudoprogression. Basically, what happens after surgery and radiation therapy is that there is an area of healing, where dead brain tissue (and, after radiation, tumor) provokes an inflammatory reaction. Because MRI images are based on blood flow, that area shows up as enhancement, sometimes increased enhancement that can take a long time to disappear. Thus, pseudoprogression can sometimes be mistaken for a tumor recurrence or residual disease. Indeed, up to 28% of cases of seeming tumor progression can be due to pseudoprogression, as this review describes. I've long speculated that Burzynski is too incompetent to understand this, leading him to mistake the resolution of pseudoprogression for tumor response to antineoplaston therapy, or, worse, that he understands pseudoprogression and is cynically taking advantage of it, such that now Hannah states:

Hannah has set up a business distributing healthy coffee and is looking forward to starting a family with Pete.

‘My scans show just a space where the tumour was,’ she says. ‘I’m incredibly fortunate.

'I wouldn't tell people not to go to Dr. Burzynski. But it's very difficult to be treated by him because he's not recognised so you have to apply to take part in one of his trials.

'My advice to anyone diagnosed with a life threatening condition would always be to never give up.'

No, Burzynski's clinical trials are a scam, as I've described many times.

When I initially wrote about Hannah, I was very worried about her. I'm very happy to see that my concern was overblown at the time. Hannah is doing quite well now. This is in marked contrast to Laura Hymas, a young woman with a similar sad tale, except that her cancer was of a less aggressive variety. She, too, became a media sensation in the UK after raising money to go to Houston to be treated by Burzynski. She, too, appeared to be doing well, so much so that when I wrote about Hannah and Laura, I mentioned Laura as the one Burzynski case that might actually have benefited from her treatment. It turns out that I was wrong about that, too, as Laura Hymas died a year and a half ago, only a year after I wrote about them.

Meanwhile, while it might have been understandable that the press fell for Burzynski's scam back in the 1990s—or even up until a few years ago—it is no longer understandable or acceptable. Burzynski is no Brave Maverick Doctor curing cancer where no one else can. He is a quack. Whether he believes he is curing cancer or not, who knows? The end result is the same: Lots of patients given false hope and emptying their bank accounts to enrich Burzynski. Aiding and abetting him are rags like The Daily Mail and propagandists like Eric Merola. Here's hoping that the TMB finally shuts him down after all these years.

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There's a way to tell if the Daily Hate Mail is talking bollocks.

If it's printed in the Daily Mail, it's bollocks.

By Rebecca Fisher (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

This 4 decade saga has had so many twists and turns- with history often repeating itself.

Here's the Texas attorney general in 1992 speaking in reference to the Burzynski scam:

"It is unconscionable to take advantage of and give false hope to persons who are vulnerable and desperate because of their life threatening diseases [...] The use of ineffective and unproven cures could prevent or delay a person from seeking known and approved treatments."

But the treatment didn’t come cheap. The couple had to raise the $300,000 (£200,210) needed to pay for it.

Poor misunderstood Burzynski. If it wasn't the Daily Fail I would ask "how can a reporter portray charing patients hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to clinical trials in a positive light?" But the obvious answer is because she writes for the Daily Mail.

Funny comment on the story:

I've seen a documentary about this doctor. He's doing amazing work, but drug companies will never go into partnership with him, because chemo & other cancer drugs bring too much money in for them. Sick, greedy world we live in.

Selective reading, much? Clearly missed the part where Burzynski's treatment cost them upwards of $300,000.

By capnkrunch (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

You should see how Burzynski is treated by the Polish community in the US (and back in Poland). The main Polish-language daily newspaper in the US (Nowy Dziennik) regularly prints glorifying articles about him. Those articles have not a single ounce of skepticism and always scream of persecution and bias again Burzynski. The newspaper is basically his personal commercial machine, publishing his "ads" for free.

But the treatment didn’t come cheap. The couple had to raise the $300,000 (£200,210) needed to pay for it.

In the end, it's all about the money. If Dr. B were really onto something scientifically valid and wanted to be seen by other medical researchers as such, he would be taking steps to publish his results and letting others build off his research. That's not incompatible with becoming wealthy, though there are the financial conflicts of interests to be worked around. Instead, he's acting the way a scammer would act.

‘I’m originally from Surrey and one friend reached out to a local radio station there,’ Hannah says.

They don't say which part of Surrey, but parts of the county (especially the Surrey Hills region to the east and southeast of Guildford) are quite posh indeed: it's one of the places that rich rock stars and City financiers live. (A co-worker who has traveled to the region on business claims to have had a beer in the village pub with Eric Clapton's groundskeeper.) Hannah herself may not be rich, but it sounds as if she knows people who are.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

@ Rebecca Fisher:

Ha!
Wouldn't you know that just the other day, good old MIkey recommended that tawdry rag to his devoted audience because it's not 'mainstream'.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

Not 'mainstream'? Well I suppose if you mean not concerning itself with what mainstream science actually says about anything that doesnt give it a good 'cures/causes cancer' headline that would be true ...

Thanks for flagging the link Orac!

@ Jazzlet:

Mike and the other idiot** are attempting to be become internet *news* sources, science instructors and arbiters of style who hold that the mainstream is a fabric of lies in bed with corporations and governments ( rather than with them)...

"Get your news and opinion from US!" they scream.
Totally hilarious.

** Natural News/ Talk Network; PRN.fm

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

“Get your news and opinion from US!” they scream.
Totally hilarious.

The technical term for this is "epistemic closure". I understand your impulse to point and laugh, but the real-world consequences are frequently not that funny. Those of you with Fox News-addicted relatives know what I mean. Those who don't should see, for instance, the US Republican presidential primary campaign.

Victims of con men like Burzynski are frequently willing participants in this kind of epistemic closure. People are reluctant to admit that they have been fooled by con men, even when confronted with the irrefutable evidence. Ms. Bradley-Cohen's case doesn't rise to that level, because her views rationally follow from faulty premises, and she's enough of a layman that she might not understand why her premises are faulty. But alleged journalists, even the ones employed by the Daily Fail, should know better.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

In the age of social media journalists will try whatever to stay relevant. Currently they happen to be giving Donald Trump a lot of free press. They might as well be on his team.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

@ Eric Lund:

Oh, I know. I often laugh in order to avoid becoming morose.
PLUS these idiots are earning obscenely large amounts of money compared to intelligent, well-educated people that are my cohorts. Not that we're starving.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

My brother is an anaesthetist, like Dr. Burzynski, and has done research in other fields (box jellyfish stings). But if he decided to start selling a cure for box jellyfish stings derived from urine (actually plausible) I'm pretty sure he'd work with people qualified in the field of jellyfish sting treatment and publish his results, so he can spend the rest of his working hours actually helping patients. But I guess the pope isn't going to bother visiting him anytime soon. He probably wouldn't know what to do with all those spare rooms if he had a Burzynski sized mansion. He'd probably do something good with all that spare time, too; like not exploiting the terminally I'll and their families for more money than they've ever imagined.

He'd probably go fishing, I think.

Being out of the ambit of The Daily Mail, only usually only hear about it when it comes up here at RI. Then there are always comments of, 'well, it's the Daily Fail, so what do you expect?' Folks familiar with it seem to consider it an outlier, or an exemplar of a tabloid genre that is different kind of creature than the legitimate press.

But based on the Mail stories mentioned here, I don't see a difference in kind, only in degree. This story, for instance, could appear in pretty much any newspaper, albeit with a more 'objective' tone making it appear less like an ad.

The thing is, it's probably not an ad. The Mail might have some interest promoting woo in general, but it could care less about Burzynski, or what happens to his license, or whether Hannah Bradley-Cohen stays in remission.

Since news has to be generated fast, reporters largely generate stories by plugging new details into a 'classic' narrative frame. Papers know they build and hold audiences by featuring a certain combination of story genres, and each genre has it's pre-existing templates – many of which can be traced back through the history of popular culture to origins in the oral traditions of folk culture (Darnton, "Wriitng News and Telling Stories", 1975). "Fair maiden saved from Death by disparaged wizard," is as old as the hills, and good as gold. When facts come across the wire that fit a 'human interest' frame when the editor needs some 'human interest' to lighten the load of the awful headlines – the story generation is just automatic. It's not just The Mail that does plug-and-play. Darnton rooted his paper in his experience working for the New York Times. In newspapers small and large, of good repute and bad, the vast majority of 'news' is actually recycled 'olds', often very, very old.

The press hasn't so much 'fallen for Burzynski's scam' in this case as that the scamminess just isn't relevant to the quasi-mythic function of the story in the broader scheme of the news feed. I'm not arguing it's acceptable at all, only that it's understandable in the sense that there are a dozen other items that appear each day that are similar twistings of real life into story frames. If these are not exactly "unacceptable" to those whose lived experience gets the fun-house mirror treatment, they will at least get a profound sense of alienation, as the printed word becomes the 'version of record'. I've been there, and it really makes you appreciate Phiip K. Dick novels later. Most readers, with no personal experience of the matters at hand, simply have no reason to question these sorts of stories. They either gloss over them lightly, or head off toward the (now virtual) water cooler to share the latest revealing 'fact'. 'Did you hear about the...' You just have your own tiny voice against the tide, and when you try to tell people the paper got it wrong, whatever they think of the paper's reliability in general, as an institution they give it more cred than one or a handful of strangers who sound, to them, like loons.

Same as it ever was. Same as it, ever was.

@ sadmar:

SURE.
People have a need to fill in gaps with spun tales just like whenever we see a figure made up of dashed lines or dots, we see the figure.
What was that recent title "There are only 5 Stories" or suchlike. ( I think Kreb was discussing it).

So we as a species originated telling tales around a fire aeons ago and now we hurry over to the television and watch others confabulate on schedule.

Perhaps Mikey et al
( woo-meisters and anti-vaxxers) also serve as raconteurs to the altie set, with their own set of archetypes and myths.

How far we've fallen.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 11 Dec 2015 #permalink

Does pseudoprogression appear in cancers other than brain cancer? Up to 28% sounds like a very large number.

Hopefully his license goes down. Competing with my midi-chlorian infusion therapy has been problematic as my costs are about $500k per. I'm sick of him undercutting my product.

Burzynski has won a lifetime achievement award! It's hardly a Nobel prize, other winners include Mike Adams and Sherri Tenpenny which tells you all you need to know. This ceremony is an interesting insight into the alternative cabal:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvwJb_k4TYE#t=42m52s

By Rational Bee (not verified) on 12 Dec 2015 #permalink

Waaaaa Orac, Waaaaa! "I can't believe Burzynski cured another person of a brain tumor! Waaaaaaaaa!" You are a pathetic fucking shill. Eat shit and die you fucking coward.

By Carl Sagan Fan (not verified) on 12 Dec 2015 #permalink

I very much doubt Pete was told Hannah's prognosis while she was kept in the dark. She is an adult and he wasn't even her next of kin. It would be unethical and wrong for an NHS doctor to do that.

By Frozenwarning (not verified) on 12 Dec 2015 #permalink

Sadmar #13

The Daily Mail (aka Fail or Heil) has a very clear ideologically driven agenda with health stories, which is to rubbish in any way possible anything the NHS does. This is part of a long-standing drive by our Conservative party and their apologists/fanbois in the media to create negative public perception of the NHS in order to move to a more privatised system of healthcare.

All of these stories are part of a Chinese water torture drip, drip, drip...

#18

Exhibit A of the tolerance of the host.

I'm equal parts appalled and impressed that the comment stands.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 13 Dec 2015 #permalink

@Peter #4 - actually, I haven't seen anything about Burzyński in Polish media, I learnt about him on this blog. However, I don't read tabloids, so this might be the reason.

Not just amusement. It's shows very clearly that, outside of torturing anecdata until they confess, the ad hominem is the only arrow in their quiver.

Tortured anecdotes:
- patient survives: B saved him/her, not the conventional treatment
- patient survives: B saved him/her, not the X% of said cancer that goes away on its own
- patient survives: it really was cancer, not misdiagnosis
- patient dies: came to B too late
- patient dies: one of those rare cases B's treatment doesn't work (bad luck)
-patient dies: it was the conventional treatment that did it

PR, not science.

rs - it's like "Heads you lose, tails I win" with a D&D die.

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 14 Dec 2015 #permalink

I know several people who submitted comments questioning the angle of this story. None of the comments appeared. I can only see a couple of comments that are anything other than uncritical, and several are pure conspiracist bullshit.

By Guy Chapman (not verified) on 14 Dec 2015 #permalink

Well, Guy Chapman, if they submitted comments here and they haven't appeared, then they did something wrong. Orac allows almost all comments to go through, but comments with multiple links, and initial comments from new posters, are held in moderation until he releases them. Contrary to popular belief, our dear Blinky Box host does have a life outside this blog.

However, he does tend to not allow sock puppet comments to go through, especially if they come from one of the (very few) banned commentor ISPs.

MI Dawn,
I think Guy was talking about people posting comments on the news story/advertisement Orac was reporting, not this blog.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 15 Dec 2015 #permalink

Thanks, Krebiozen. I didn't bother going to the story again.

Eric Merola never went to film school. He was a graduate of the art department of a notorious party school. He has hitched his wagon to Dr. Burzynski to try to make himself a star. Check out his website. Pure narcissism; he goes on about himself to an embarrassing degree.

Burzynski must have somebody at both the TMB and FDA by the sack. I can't think of any other reason he has gotten away with this.

Oh noes! Eric Merola is begging for money for a third Burzynski infomercial:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUtcONGgjlU

And I'm very surprised that Orac hasn't yet commented on Stan's new lawyer presenting a "doctor's note" over the holidays to postpone his TMB hearing. Stan's doctor claims he had a heart attack over the holidays and is unable to attend the proceedings this month.

Bob B. has all the documents on TOBPG site.

Too bad: when it's time for Stan to shuffle off this mortal coil, I sincerely hope it's cancer that takes him. Poetic justice and all that...

By Woo Fighter (not verified) on 14 Jan 2016 #permalink