As 2013 draws to a close in the skeptical world…

As I write this, 2013 is drawing to a close, with only a little more than 12 hours to go before the crowds now gathering at Times Square and elsewhere ring in 2014. For some of you, 2014 has already arrived or will arrive many hours before it does for me. I’m not normally one to do much navel gazing, but 2013 has been a mixed year. As far as this blog goes, for instance, readership is up, with over 3.5 million page views for the year, although that’s still a little below the blog’s height before the whole “Pepsigate” thing. (It’s really hard to believe that was almost three and a half years ago!) It’s sad to think it’s taken so long for traffic to get back up to where it was before that debacle,

While it’s true that the usual topics, such as antivaccine pseudoscience, various forms of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and the science and clinical practice of oncology, dominated in 2013, it’s clear that 2013 was also the year of one person, at least on this blog. That person, of course, is Stanislaw Burzynski, the erstwhile Houston cancer doctor with board certification—or even training!—in oncology and no board certification even in internal medicine. (Board eligibility or certification in internal medicine is a prerequisite for a medical oncology fellowship.) This interest, of course, is a spillover from 2012 and even late 2011, when I first took a major interest in Burzynski and his magical urine-derived (now chemically synthesized) cure for deadly cancers, antineoplastons. Indeed, as 2013 dawned, I had received an invitation from Eric Merola himself, Stanislaw Burzynski’s very own Leni Riefenstahl (but without the talent), to appear on camera in the sequel to the first propaganda film about Burzynski, released in 2010 but not taking the quackosphere by storm until 2011. I politely declined.

Still, trying to refute the misinformation being spread about Burzynski by his sycophants, toadies, and lackeys really hit full gear in 2013 with the release of Merola’s second movie about Burzynski, which, as I predicted before its release, was going to be just like the first one, only Burzynskier. And so it was, except for one thing: An all out assault on “skeptics” (i.e., people like me) who had been critical of Burzynski’s science (or, more appropriately, lack of science), who are portrayed in Merola’s second Burzynski movie as evil meanies who cackle evilly as they terrorize cancer patients online and delight in crushing their hope. No, I’m not exaggerating either. Bob Blaskiewicz and I had been collaborating in writing about the pseudoscience promoted by Burzynski, how bogus his clinical trials were, and how he has not published the complete results of any of his phase II trials in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. All he has are anecdotes that fall apart when examined closely. Much of our work is summarized in these talks given by Bob and a certain “friend” of this blog at The Amazing Meeting in July:

In any case, thanks to the efforts of people like Bob, a whole bevy of other skeptical bloggers (and Twitterers), and (at the risk of being insufficiently modest) myself, Burzynski finally found himself getting mainstream notice—and not in a good way. I like to think that I had a small part in this change in reporting, as one of the several skeptical bloggers who kept writing about Burzynski throughout 2012 and 2013. In any case, where before he could routinely count on credulous or careless journalists reporting his party line and not mentioning all the unethical and questionable things he did when patients and families, convinced that Burzynski was the only person who could save them or their loved ones raised prodigious sums of cash to go to Houston, in 2013 there was more skeptical coverage. There were even two large stories, one in the UK by the venerable BBC newsmagazine Panorama, and one here in the States in USA TODAY, documenting the Burzynski story. Through it all, the FDA had investigated Burzynski beginning in January and closed the year by issuing its reports finding horrible lapses in clinical trial conduct, such as not reporting severe adverse reactions to his antineoplaston therapy and inappropriately using the expedited approval process to allow his IRB to rubberstamp single patient protocol exemptions so that individual patients could receive antineoplastons. He even gave the FDA medical records of a patient who died that did not match the contents of the medical records the FDA examined at his office. (Oops!) Yes, different sets of records were apparently maintained on a child with a terminal brain tumor whose life was cut even shorter because Burzynski’s treatment killed him.

Even so, there is more work to do. Even after the USA TODAY report was published in November, Burzynski managed nonetheless to present some very unimpressive results of his phase II trials at the Society of Neuro-Oncology Meeting in San Francisco. Meanwhile, his supporters, undeterred by facts and science, have developed a new tactic, which is to have the families of people with deadly brain cancers petition the FDA to allow them to receive antineoplastons under a compassionate use exemption. Such patients have included McKenzie Lowe, Liza Cozad, the wife of Sammy Hagar’s drummer, and a young Jewish boy from the Houston area, Elisha Cohen, whose appeals have made it as far as Israel. Bob Blaskiewicz characterized this effort as exploiting the misery of a family, and, sadly, that’s an appropriate characterization.

For our efforts, in 2013 Bob and I withstood a whole lot of ad hominem attacks and outright attempts at character assassination. Other skeptical bloggers also endured such attacks, but Eric Merola has referred to this blog as an “anti-Burzynski” blog, which it is not, given that Burzynski is only one of many topics this blog covers, and yours truly as a white supremacist who likes to eat puppies.

@medtek am i hallucinating ?  on Twitpic
Puppy eating

Still, however much hate is directed in my direction, Bob Blaskiewicz seems to be the most prominent target. I think I know why. While I write about how the science doesn’t support Burzynski’s treatments and how his knowledge of genomics that, according to him, guides his “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” is woefully deficient, Bob goes to the heart of the Burzynski empire. In The Other Burzynski Patient Group (TOBPG), devised as a counterweight to the Burzynski-approved Burzynski Patient Group (BPG), whose purpose is to publish anecdotes of Burzynski patients whom he’s “cured,” Bob publishes patient stories that illustrate just how ineffective antineoplastons are and how abused Burzynski patients are. Patients from the BPG are prominently featured in both of Eric Merola’s “documentaries” cum propaganda films. As a cancer doctor, I sometimes find it difficult to read the accounts documented in TOBPG because they make me so angry. (They should make you angry too.) Add these accounts to my analyses of why the various anecdotes of surviving Burzynski patients are not powerful evidence that Burzynski cured them and are instead almost entirely consistent with patients either having indolent disease or having been cured by prior therapies, and the very foundation of the advertising drive that supports Burzynski is undermined.

I can’t resist finishing out the year with two observations. First, the attacks on skeptics by Burzynski fans and shills continues apace. Just last night, Eric Merola was Tweeting stuff like this:

If you go to the link, you’ll see it’s a blog post entitled BURZYNSKI SKEPTIC – INTRO TO THE SOCIOPATHIC RANTING OF BIGOTRY AND HATE BY THE ANTI-BURZYNSKI ASTROTURF / “SKEPTICS” (AKA “STATUS QUO CHAUVINISTS”). It’s dated over six months old but mentions things that happened in the last week. I don’t think that Eric Merola wrote it, but he did Tweet it (multiple times), making it fair game. It’s also instructive to look at. Talk about a sociopathic rant! Basically, in this little rant, all opposition to Burzynski is due to pharma paying his opponents off; that is, when his opponents aren’t like Hitler:

Notice PHIL HARRIS’ tweet. Racism is also common with the personalities the industry hires to carry out this dirty work. Sort of like hiring a professional hit man, these are not nice people. Imagine how deranged a human being must be to sit around all day getting paid to insult cancer patients on twitter and anyone practicing the concept of “thinking for yourself”. It’s right out of the policies of Mein Kampt.

Yes, I know I made a tongue-in-cheek reference comparing Eric Merola to Leni Riefenstahl “without the talent,” but I couldn’t think of a more famous and blatant propagandist to compare him to. Mea culpa. If someone can think of a better example, I’ll use it.

In the meantime, apparently Bob Blaskiewicz is a Nazi, too:

Bob Blaskiewicz bragging just before he and his paid wanna-be Nazi cronies apparently hacked the Burzynski Clinic webpage.

No evidence is presented to back up this charge, of course. That doesn’t stop the person who created the blog from continuing:

Robert “Bob” Blaskiewicz is an unbridled sociopath who sadly teaches English to children (if their parents only knew) – which is hilarious that he claims to teach “science” (lying pathologically is a part of the package of a sociopath like Bob)- he spends all day, every day, 7 days a week, nearly 24 hours a day following internet alerts to fight anyone online who finds out about Dr. Burzynski, a Burzynski patient, or anyone that dares talk about stepping outside of the status quo in regards to trying to save their own life (think Holocaust prisoner seeing an open door to the bunker, and Robert “Bob” Blaskiewicz is the guy that is secretly working for Hitler that says “oh no, you need to stay here, you will be fine if you stay here.” If you encounter this lunatic online, steer clear, unless you are ready to enter a realm of nonsensical, illogical, crazy neo-nazi style fireworks of fear, hate and unbridled bigotry.

Robert “Bob” Blaskiewicz is also the lunatic behind the cancer death list called “the other burzynski patient group” – He’s a very unstable and sick person.

Sadly, in comparison, I only get a mention as being the “highest paid” anti-Burzynski blogger of all, who “unleashes a fury of paid bigotry and hate unmatched by the late Adolf Hitler.” Would that it were true that I actually got paid to blog about Burzynski, other than the small amount I make for blogging in general, which I would make whether I blogged about Burzynski or not! It’s at least enough to keep me in high speed Internet service and cable, anyway, and that’s only because of my aforementioned traffic last year.

In any case, all of us, apparently, including Bob Blaskiewicz, Peter Bowditch, Adam Jacobs, Paul Morgan (who is not even the same Paul Morgan described in the rant), Guy Chapman, Phil Harris, Rhys Morgan, and me, are on the verge of, well, let me just quote:

Just a small collection of the ranting tweets of hate from the Astroturf campaign known as “The Skeptics” towards scientific innovation that competes with the status quo, with a heavy focus on Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and any of his patients. The Cancer Industry relies on such campaigns coupled with their Guerrilla-style internet vandalism tactics to highjack the search engines with slanted, biased, straw man, and often falsified information. You will notice they will never address a root argument. They rely only on bigoted and Chauvinist remarks, feeding on the fear in people – instead of rational and reasonable discussion. It is only a matter of time before they begin picketing the funerals of cancer patients.

Project much? What Burzynski and his minions (no, not those Minions, who are cute and cuddly, in marked contrast to the nastiness of Burzynski and many of his minions) fear is that perhaps finally the jig is up and Burzynski’s gravy train ride is coming to an end. Thanks to skeptics influencing popular press, Burzynski can no longer count on credulous reporting or anecdotes that go uncorrected, and, until now, that has been his primary method of selling antineoplastons to the public.

If there was a “win” in the skeptical world in 2013, it has to be the unmasking of Stanislaw Burzynski to expose the utter lack of convincing science behind his antineoplaston therapy. Unfortunately, that is not enough. Burzynski is still practicing, and, although the FDA has issued warnings that make it incredibly unlikely that Burzynski will ever realize his apparent dream of seeing antineoplastons achieve FDA approval, he has pivoted to promoting his incompetently administered M.D. Anderson-wannabe “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy.” However, that does not appear to be as enticing to patients as antineoplastons for the simple reason that, if I were a cancer patient and wanted to have my tumor tested and treated according to new genomic analyses, I would go to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, or any of the several NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers that are doing this work. I would not go to the clinic of a “brave maverick doctor” who obviously has no clue what he is talking about with respect to what is now referred to as “precision medicine,” much less how to do this sort of research and treatment right. In the meantime, we can’t let ourselves get complacent. As Burzynski’s latest attempt to influence Senators to pressure the FDA demonstrates, the patient anecdotes remain powerful tools to influence, and Burzynski is not afraid to use them cynically.

As 2013 draws to a close, for now Burzynski still stands, and he still practices. That is the unfinished work that lies ahead in 2014. In 2012, the Texas Medical Board failed to do what should have been done decades ago and strip Burzynski of his medical license. Maybe in 2014 it will finally succeed.