I feel as though I’m experiencing an acid flashback to 2011, and I’ve never in my entire life once tried acid—or any mind-altering substance other than booze.
What am I talking about? Let’s take a trip down memory lane, if you will, back to those halcyon days of—oh—five years ago. That was the time when I first took an interest in the Polish oncologist wannabe named Stanislaw Burzynski. Although I had mentioned him before because he featured prominently in Suzanne Somers’ 2009 paean to quackery Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer–And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place, it wasn’t until one of his minions named Marc Stephens started harassing a British teen named Rhys Morgan with vacuous legal threats that I really took notice of Burzynski. Before that, British blogger Andy Lewis was targeted.
Regular readers know just how much I detest bullies whose tool of choice is legal thuggery, and my first contact with Stephens led me to discover a propaganda movie by Burzynski’s very own Leni Riefenstahl, a woo-friendly filmmaker named Eric Merola. The movie was called Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business, and I deconstructed its claims in my own inimitable way. After that, I went on to continue to analyze Burzynski’s claims of near-miraculous results for his antineoplaston (ANP) therapy against brain cancers considered incurable. In doing so, I later learned that his so-called “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” really does mean making it up as you go along and that he’s been basically selling ANPs as “natural” sodium phenylbutyrate (or perhaps sodium phenylbutyrate as ANPs), a drug that has had some minor promise against cancer but nothing particularly convincing in terms of results. In any case, whatever he was selling, Burzynski was always the first to charge his patients huge “case management” fees that could reach tens of thousands of dollars per month. If you want to understand why skeptics object to Burzynski, read a couple of Skeptical Inquirer articles Stanislaw Burzynski: Four Decades of an Unproven Cancer Cure and Skeptic Activists Fighting for Burzynski’s Cancer Patients. The latter article, in particular, by good bud Bob Blaskiewicz, describes skeptical activities opposing Burzynski and trying to protect cancer patients from his dubious treatments and high cost that so irritate Eric Merola to the point of referring to a certain blogger as a white supremacist who eats puppies.
When last I left the Burzynski saga, he was finally facing justice in the form of a hearing before the Texas Medical Board (TMB), which was attended by Blaskiewicz, who reported on it ably. Although I fear he might get off, I still think there’s a chance that Texas will do what it should have done 30 years ago and strip Dr. Burzynski of his license to practice medicine. Predictably, Burzynski’s minions and patients who believe that he saved their lives, such as Hannah Bradley and her husband Peter Cohen, rapidly leapt to his defense. I don’t blame them, given that, as mistaken as they are in giving Burzynski the credit for their survival, they really do believe that Burzynski saved Hannah Bradley’s life. Instead I blame Burzynski for leading them to believe that.
In any case, a couple of things have happened since December. First, Burzynski has had a health issue that is going to delay the second phase of his hearing, originally scheduled for later this month. Unfortunately, Burzynski appears to have had a minor heart attack. There has been a statement from Dr. Oscar Rosales, a cardiologist, saying:
Dr. Rosales specifically states, in his letter, that he is the treating cardiologist for the Respondent, that the Respondent has been diagnosed with acute Coronary Syndrome, and that Respondent would require several cardiac procedures during the next three months. Dr. Rosales states that Rcsp0ndcnt’s condition “is in a very critical state and he is not medically cleared for traveling or panicipating in a hearing or any other stressful situation that would be detrimental to his health until the procedures are completed.” In addition, Dr. Rosales opines that he has given Respondent “specific instructions to not participate, in any manner in the hearing as increased stress at this point could have potentially deadly consequences.” Dr. Rosales states that, in his professional opinion, Respondent is “medically incapacitated.” Finally, Dr. Rosales opines that, pending successful treatment and recovery, Respondent should be cleared to attend and participate in the hearing by mid-April 2016.
Bummer. I actually feel sorry for Burzynski in a way. On the other hand, my sense of justice would be very much offended were Burzynski to shuffle off this mortal coil prematurely; i.e., before justice can be delivered. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that that will happen. I never thought I’d be offering Burzynski my best wishes, but here’s hoping for a rapid recovery from his heart problems.
Unfortunately, the other development is that Burzynski’s very own Leni Reifenstahl, Eric Merola (yes, I know I keep repeating that, but it’s so damned appropriate given that Merola’s movies are such naked examples of pure propaganda) is at it again. Here’s what I found in my email in box:
Announcing Burzynski: Moving Forward:
Director Eric Merola is proud to announce his new partnership with the social-good platform UPTOGOOD.org for the newly updated FREE release of a *2016 Edition* of Cancer Is Serious Business + new production on the 3rd (and perhaps final) installment of the Burzynski Documentary Series called Burzynski Moving Forward..
About the *2016 Edition*:
A streamlined re-edit of the original documentary, with unseen TV footage from 1982 through today; how Burzynski is being handled within the online propaganda campaign against him, his patients, and this documentary series; plus a call-to-action so supporters like you can help the filmmakers in the production of Burzynski: Moving Forward.
About Burzynski: Moving Forward:
This new documentary will be following more patients seeking ANPs and Burzynski’s revolutionary personalized gene-targeted treatment; the recent persecution by the Texas Medical Board which continues into 2016; and the regulatory hurdles that must be navigated to cross the finish line for FDA approval of ANPs.
And here’s the movie:
Hilariously, Merola appears to have added some footage at the end. It begins at around 1h26m, with this:
Merola goes on to his usual conspiracy mongering. Pharma doesn’t want to allow ANPs to be approved because if they were FDA approved for even one cancer then they could be used off-label for any cancer. He then shows a shot of Sharyl Attkisson—yes, the antivaccine conspiracy loon reporter Sharyl Attkisson—giving her famous TED talk about “astroturfing.” I couldn’t help but think back to nearly a year ago, when Attkisson showed that she likes me. She really likes me. She likes me enough to name me as one of the “top ten astroturfers.” I was amused because she seemed to think that I’m all there is to Scienceblogs. Now, like my ‘nym-sake, my ego might be a tad on the massive side, but even I don’t make that claim. In any case, given Attkisson’s history of antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy mongering, it’s hard to take this seriously. No wonder Merola was impressed.
I was particularly gratified when, at around 1:33:30, Merola claims that this “anti-Burzynski” campaign began in November 2011 with Scienceblogs (i.e., me). Would that were true! Would that I could take credit for the skeptic campaign to try to put a stop to Burzynski. Merola really does bestow too much of an honor on me, given that Rhys Morgan was at it before I was and it was legal threats by Marc Stephens that I mentioned above that first drew my serious attention to Burzynski. Moreover, there were other bloggers, lots of other bloggers, who had looked into Burzynski’s dubious claims before I ever took an interest. Don’t get me wrong. I realize that I’ve been a major critic of Burzynski’s cancer quackery, and I don’t in any way downplay my role in explaining why Burzynski’s claims are not convincing by explaining the science of the cancers that Burzynski claims to cure. I’m proud of that. (You hear that, Merola?) But I also realize that I am by no means the one who started this campaign. I just rolled with it.
Not surprisingly, Merola tries to discredit Scienceblogs and thereby discredit me by invoking the “Pepsigate” kerfuffle. You remember that? Basically our benevolent overlords screwed up royally back in 2010 when they invited representatives from Pepsico to blog here at Scienceblogs. Basically, management started the blog with no communication with the rest of us Scienceblogs bloggers, didn’t involve us in the decision-making process or even let us know about the blog before it went live. Worse, given that the Pepsi blog blurred the line between advertising and our content, many of us decided that, after factoring in all the other indignities and examples of not communicating with its own bloggers about such issues, they could no longer be associated with ScienceBlogs. That context makes Merola’s smear rather amusing in that several former Scienceblogs bloggers left rather than be tainted with the hint of industry influence and those of us who stayed were rewarded by the disappearance of the Pepsi blog. If anything, Merola’s example shows how much bloggers here value their independence.
Even more hilariously, Merola invokes my not-so-super-secret other blog as well. It’s not his invoking that blog that amuses me. I was just as critical of Burzynski there as I was here, only with perhaps less “insolence.” Rather, Merola claims that that blog “spawned” The Houston Cancer Quack. In fact, although I consider the man who started that website to be my friend, in no way did my not-so-super-secret other blog “spawn” anything. The two blogs have always been and remain independent entities who do not coordinate their work. To claim otherwise is to downplay some excellent work by my friend. Merola even claims that Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients is an astroturf organization, which is about as unsupported and ignorant a claim as I’ve ever seen. I was, however, amused at Merola’s outrage at Burzynski’s “clinical trials” being likened to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the most excellent blog The OTHER Burzynski Patient Group, which presents fact- and science-based descriptions of Burzynski patients who have died that illustrate how useless Burzynski’s treatments are. Notably, Merola objects to the policy of the website that it won’t publish the full names of Burzynski patients as though this is a strategy to obfuscate. It’s not. It’s a policy to protect the privacy of Burzynski’s victims when possible.
Truly, the outraged tears of Burzynski’s chief propagandist are delicious!
It gets better, though. Merola seems to think the power of skeptics is without bounds! Check it out:
He even makes the claim that we’re so powerful and nefarious that we’ve fooled the mainstream press into writing reports unfavorable to Burzynski, such as the USA TODAY report from 2013. I wonder what Liz Szabo thinks about the accusation of her being in thrall to skeptics. Apparently Wikipedia is under our nefarious sway as well. While it’s true that skeptics, spurred by the example of Susan Gerbic and others, have been trying to clean up Wikipedia to get rid of credulous discussions of quackery and pseudoscience in favor of science-based characterizations. Naturally, quacks don’t like that. Not surprisingly, they think there’s a vast conspiracy to “own” Wikipedia. I was half tempted to say that I wish that were true, but the fact is that, compared to the purveyors of pseudoscience, skeptics trying to enforce scientific standards on Wikipedia remain outnumbered and outgunned, the equivalent of the rag tag fleet in Battlestar Galactica battling the Cylons or, to steal a Star Wars analogy, we’re the rebels in comparison to the Empire or the First Order. Merola’s even more annoyed that we would have the temerity to leave comments on PubMed regarding Burzynski’s papers, which makes me think that we should start commenting on PubPeer as well, if we haven’t done so already.
Later in the extra footage, Merola regurgitates bits that he’s already posted on YouTube before, such as when Brian Thompson attended a pre-screening of Eric Merola’s second Burzynski movie (which I like to call Burzynski II: Electric Boogaloo), a movie as full of misinformation and lies as the first Burzynski movie and spoke with Steve Siegel after the movie. As much as I admired Brian for what he did, I did point out at the time that he had fallen into a very basic trap that those who are not familiar with Burzynski frequently fall into, claiming that Burzynski hadn’t published his antineoplaston trials in the peer-reviewed literature. As I pointed out at the time, in fact, Burzynski does publish. That’s not the problem. The problem is that he publishes in bottom-feeding journals and has not yet published a completed phase II clinical trial. That’s plenty bad enough. Burzynski has only published abstracts and partial reports on phase II trials, none of which are particularly convincing. His publications are all, as far as I’ve been able to tell, crap, and I’ve read nearly all of them. None of that has changed in the three years since that movie premiere, other than that Burzynski did publish a couple of his trials. The papers reporting the results have been uniformly of poor quality and show incredibly unconvincing evidence of any benefits due to ANPs in brain cancer.
Merola also—surprise, surprise!—outright lies in another segment. This segment features Bruce Gleason, founder of Backyard Skeptics, an Orange County skeptic and atheist group. Unfortunately, as I noted at the time, Bruce shows what happens when even skeptics don’t have enough background information. Basically, in a Q&A session with Merola and company plus Fabio Lanzoni (yes, that Fabio, I kid you not), he got up (see around 16:10) and said how he had been convinced and that he would now recommend Merola’s film to the 1,000 members of his Orange County skeptic organization. He also tried to distance himself from “those” skeptics apparently portrayed in the film. It was, I hate to say, a rather nauseating performance. However, what Merola leaves out is that Gleason later redeemed himself. After learning of Bruce’s performance, a couple of skeptics contacted him and calmly explained where he had gone wrong and how deceptive the movie had been. AS a result, to his credit, Bruce publicly admitted his error and disavowed his prior remarks.
Funny how Merola leaves that part out. Truly his dishonesty with respect to defending Burzynski knows no bounds.
The rest of the additional footage is downright embarrassing. (Yes, it’s possible to get worse. With Merola, it’s always posible to get worse.) He likens skeptics critical of Burzynski to people who thought the earth was flat. Accuses them of pseudoscience in the most massive case of projection I’ve seen outside the antivaccine movement. He brings up Hannah Bradley and Pete Cohen using footage I discussed last month, even though, as I’ve described, Bradley’s survival almost certainly has nothing to do with being treated with Burzynski’s .
The additional footage concludes with what has to be one of the dumbest defense ideas I’ve ever seen, with Burzynski repeating the same old misleading version of his story and complaining bitterly about the TMB “harassing” him, claiming that the TMB wants to shut him down quickly because he’s on the verge of proving ANPs work. Funny, but Burzynski’s been able to practice his quackery for nearly 40 years; so if the TMB wanted to shut him down it’s sure taking its sweet time about it.
In the end, Merola just regurgitates the same old misinformation. This is not surprising, but because it’s been a while since I’ve dealt with him in depth and because he’s consolidated a lot of more recent pro-Burzynski propaganda into the addendum to his movie, I thought it was worth discussing. My wishes for 2016 are now two-fold. First, I wish that Burzynski completely recovers from his heart attack. Second, I hope that the TMB finally strips him of his Texas medical license for good.
Actually, I have a third wish. I hope that Eric Merola fails to raise sufficient funds to torture us with a third Burzynski movie, particularly if Burzynski manages to slither away from justice yet again.