November 30, 2011

Welcome to the Internet, Dr. Burzynski

All the cool kids in the skeptical blogosphere are talking about Stanislaw Burzynski, and I didn't want to be left out. Never heard of him? I hadn't either, until yesterday, when the Internet, as we know it, exploded on Dr. Burzynski's head.

Here are the salient facts, as I understand them:

Dr. Burzynski owns and runs The Burzynski Clinic, in Texas. The Burzynski clinic specializes in "Alternative Cancer Treatments." According to its website, the clinic also offers conventional, FDA approved cancer treatment, but that's not what they are currently in the spotlight for. One of the modalities they offer is something called "Antineoplaston" therapy. It is this treatment that everyone seems to be talking about right now.

Antineoplastons were "discovered" by Dr. Burzynski, himself. Dr. Burzynski has published the results of several clinical trials of this therapy which appear to show effecacy. These studies were published in fringe journals with questionable peer review policies and, often, questionable professional detachment from the subject (they are journals whose purpose is the publication of studies supporting alternative medicine). Other researchers have been unable to reliably replicate Dr. Burzynski's findings. In fact, 100% of properly blinded, randomized, placebo controlled, peer reviewed trials published in reputable journals have been negative - that is, they all fail to show any benefit at all of Antineoplaston therapy in the treatment of cancer. The FDA has not approved Antineoplastons for use in cancer treatment in the USA. That means that doing so is against the law.

It is not, however, against the law to administer Antineoplaston therapy if it is done as part of a registered clinical trial. Dr. Burzynski has been running "clinical trials" of Antineoplaston use in the treatment of cancer for over thirty years. People travel from all over the world to the Burzynski Clinic to receive treatment participate in a clinical trial, and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so.

Recently, several prominent medical and skeptical bloggers have published articles critical of Dr. Burzynski and his Antineoplaston therapy, and calling into question Dr. Burzynski's research, and the ethics of his practice of charging patients exorbitant amounts of money to receive treatment participate in a clinical trial of a drug that has not been demonstrated to be effective at all. In most instances, when faced with criticism or questioning of their research, scientists respond by presenting the evidence which supports their work, but that doesn't seem to be what's happened here.

Instead, these bloggers were contacted by a gentleman by the name of Marc Stephens, claiming to "represent the Burzynski Clinic, Burzynski Research Institute, and Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski," and threatening legal action if the "libelous and defamatory information" was not removed from their websites. It turns out Mr. Stephens is not a lawyer, but an employee of The Burzynski Clinic who may or may not have overreached in his zeal to defend his employer. In what has become known as "The Streisand Effect," an attempt to suppress criticism on the Internet has resulted in that criticism becoming far more widespread than it ever would have. Virtually every skeptical blog I read has posted an article about Burzynski over the past two days. Well done, Marc.

Word is Mr. Stephens is no longer employed by Burzynski. He appears to have been thrown under the bus by his former employer in a desperate attempt at damage control as this story spirals out of control across the World Wide Web. And Dr. Burzynski is learning a valuable lesson. If your particular form of pseudoscience has been the subject of criticism on the Internet, either bring the evidence, or, if you don't actually have any evidence, lay low and hope it all blows over. Making lame and empty threats is only going to turn you into a deer in the headlights of the monster truck that is the web.


To read more about this topic, I recommend you start here, here, and here, and then go on from that.


Beth said...

This is the first I've heard of this guy, but he's just another crackpot in a long line of snake oil salesmen. I get seriously stabby when I read about bogus treatments like this. Andrew Wakefield had better hope he never crosses my path.

I recently finished The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin. It's about Wakefield and the anti-vax movement. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

NormanFor8 said...

I would agree with Beth, this is as well the first time ive heard about this guy, but the approach is probably the same as other alternative treatment for breast cancer, yoga and acupuncture and other massage treatment.