The Burzynski Clinic: Probably frauds, certainly assholes.

The odds are very good that if you’re reading this, someone you know has or has had some form of cancer, maybe even yourself. About 1,500 people die every day in the United States alone of cancer or cancer-related illness. More than half a million a year. It’s a boundless wellspring of human suffering that scientists have been working to understand better for over a hundred years. So far the best treatments we’ve got are still pretty crude, but all over the world researchers are working tirelessly to find new ways to improve the lives of cancer patients.

So when someone’s charging hundreds of thousands of dollars for a treatment they claim can cure cancer, I tend to think the worst of them. When their response to criticism is angry, weak legal threats that clearly weren’t made by a lawyer, well, that doesn’t really make me think any better of them.

Science is not a realm for easily bruised egos. (One of the reasons I’m not a scientist, ha!) In science your ideas are ruthlessly challenged by very smart people who will do their best to tear apart your hypotheses even if they think you’re right.

Threatening libel suit over a critical blog post is not the action of a man of science who believes in his research, I would expect him to either ignore such criticisms as beneath his notice or point to the peer review literature that backs him up. Threatening a lawsuit is, however, a perfectly expected response from a con-man trying to shut up someone who’s cluing in the marks. Lawsuits are common tactics of those promoting pseudo-science. Unable to meet the strict standards of science they instead try to manipulate a jury into giving them credibility.

Here’s the post that provoked this, so you can read a little more about it. I’d never heard of the Burzynski Clinic before stumbling onto this incident. But they sure look like classic medical frauds. Treating cancer as a single disease, rather than a range of them. Frequent legal challenges from regulatory agencies. Threats of obvious SLAPP lawsuits. And of course, asking patients for lots and lots of money, the family of a 4 year old girl is holding fundraisers to meet the price of £200,000. (That’s $313,200 according to Google. Well, we all know medical treatments are expensive, it may still be legitimate costs.)

Searching for the name “Burzynski” on Quackwatch turns up 268 matches in 23 files as of this writing. This is not a good sign, but it’s not conclusive either.

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Stanislaw Burzynski really is an honest researcher. Maybe he doesn’t even know about this, and attack mouse Marc Stephens slipped his leash and sent these ludicrous threats on his own.

So, Dr. Burzynski, let me assume for a moment that you are an honest man. I understand your treatment has been in clinical trials since 1977. That’s my entire life. People have been conceived, grown up, earned PhD’s, conducted their own clinical trials and published the results in that time. Yet your trials have not moved into a mature treatment, attracted the attention of either the greater scientific community or the world at large, or convinced you to abandon this work for more fruitful research. The only reason I can think of for an honest man to enter the 35th year of such a hopeless case is if he’s unwilling or unable to accept that the trials show his treatment does not work. If that’s the case, Dr. Burzynski, let it go. You’re doing more harm than good now.

But of course the other possibility is that Burzynski is just a higher class of snake oil salesman. A charlatan of the first water, cloaking his urine-based nonsense treatment in the trappings of science and laughing all the way to the bank while his patients go into bankruptcy, sicken, and die.

I’m leaning towards the second option here not because of any knowledge of cancer treatments, or any in-depth understanding of the procedures, politics, and assorted minutia of clinical trials, in fact I freely admit it’s more an emotional decision than a rational one.

I think Burzynski’s treatment doesn’t work because I’ve never heard his name before. He hasn’t won a Nobel Prize, hasn’t become a household name, hasn’t become a rock star of science. I think the day we have a clear scientific understanding of the root causes (let alone an effective treatment) of cancer, any cancer, everyone in the world will know it within a week.

If there were a real cure for cancer, one that worked, that made it through trials and peer-review and was accepted by the great scientific and medical communities it would be the biggest news since the Moon landing. There would be parades and fireworks and drunken fools being foolishly drunk. Talk shows would bore us to tears belaboring the obvious, politicians would be crying on camera, and every single headline in the world would read:

Cure Found for Fucking Cancer!

No, the idea that such a thing could be in trials for 35 years and not stir up any excitement is laughable on its face. Even in the dark pre-internet days such a thing would be a strain to credulity, but by now we’d all have heard it. I can’t be certain, I cannot speak with authority (seriously, nobody should ever mistake me for an authority on anything), but I don’t believe it.

Still, even if they are totally legit, even if I’m completely wrong and they are honest researchers and the treatment works and there’s a very good reason it’s been in trials for three and a half decades, and they are genuinely concerned about these critical statements made by people who don’t believe them, even if we allow all that they’re still clearly assholes. Meeting that blog post with legal threats, in emails which could just as easily have presented their own side of the story, their own answers to LCN’s points, is absolutely the work of an asshole. There could have been discussion, instead they bluster, they make demands, and they even managed an implied threat to his family.

To me the real lesson here is that if you’re going to sue someone get a professional lawyer to handle it, not some incompetent PR flack who’s clearly never heard of the Streisand Effect and manages to accomplish the opposite of the usual job description of Public Relations. You’ve not only spread this story like wildfire across the internet, you’ve made a laughingstock out of your client. I’d be touching up the old CV if I were you, Marc.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on November 28, 2011, in Daily Post, Nonfiction, Personal and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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