Longtime readers might remember that a a frequent topic here at Respectful Insolence was a certain Houston-based cancer quack named Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski. He was a frequent blog topic, particularly between around 2010-2014. When last I wrote about him, it was before the pandemic and in the context of Amazon, Facebook, and other social media’s early attempts to crack down on antivaccine misinformation. At the time, I noted how Amazon Prime had ceased to host several documentaries featuring antivaccine disinformation and quackery but had continued to host a number of others, including a documentary about Burzynski. My point was that health misinformation consists of more than just antivaccine misinformation and that it’s not enough to deplatform just antivaccine quackery, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories. As I said at the time, “Antivaccine movies are gone, but quack movies aplenty remain.”
These days, 20 months into the pandemic, I couldn’t help but think of Stanislaw Burzynski. The reason is the recent push to pressure various medical authorities to do something to discipline doctors who actively spread COVID-19 and COVID-19 misinformation, of which there have been a depressingly large number. For instance, in August the Federation of State Medical Boards, the umbrella organization for all state medical licensing boards, issued a statement saying that doctors who promote and spread COVID-19 misinformation should face discipline. At the time, although I have long said that physicians who spread dangerous health misinformation should lose their medical licenses, I was skeptical, because Stanislaw Burzynski and the long list of quacks who have eluded discipline from their respective state medical boards was in my mind. I remain so. Sure, there have been exceptions, as when the medical boards in Washington and and Mississippi did actually discipline such doctors, but overall they are the exception, not the rule.
More recently, I learned that nursing authorities are making similar statements:
And just the other day, the American Medical Association weighed in:
Let’s just say that I’m…underwhelmed by the actual statement:
ADDRESSING PUBLIC HEALTH DISINFORMATION DISSEMINATED BY HEALTH PROFESSIONALS
RESOLVED, That our AMA collaborate with relevant health professional societies and other stakeholders: (1) on efforts to combat public health disinformation disseminated by health professionals in all forms of media and (2) to address disinformation that undermines public health initiatives. (Directive to Take Action), and be it further
RESOLVED, That our AMA study disinformation disseminated by health professionals and its impact on public health and present a comprehensive strategy to address this issue with a report back at the next meeting of the House of Delegates. (Directive to Take Action)
Your Reference Committee heard testimony in overwhelming support of Resolutions 411 and 40 412, urging the AMA to take a strong stance on disinformation. It was noted that a small number of physicians are stealing the credibility of our profession and they are using their professional license to validate the disinformation they are spreading, which has seriously undermined public health efforts. The Board of Trustees testified that a comprehensive approach to addressing disinformation is needed, and they would be open to studying this issue. Testimony highlighted the impact disinformation is having on health outcomes beyond COVID-19. The importance of addressing the use of social media and other online platforms to disseminate disinformation was also mentioned. Given the urgent nature of this issue, your Reference Committee agrees that a study on disinformation disseminated by health professionals as well as the development of a comprehensive strategy to address this issue is needed with a report back to the House of Delegates at our next meeting. Therefore, your 1 Reference Committee recommends that Alternate Resolution 411 be adopted in lieu of 2 Resolutions 411 and 412.
I suppose that it’s a start, but who wants to bet that the committee doing the study doesn’t contact people with practical experience combatting medical misinformation going back 20+ years—cough! cough! Steve Novella and me? (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist. Maybe I should have, but I couldn’t.) Still, it’s possible that the AMA remains gun-shy about calling out quackery since its experience with chiropractors, who successfully sued it for its accurate assessment of chiropractic, leading to its watering down its statement.
So why am I revisiting this topic now? After all, I’ve been saying for years and years that antivaccine physicians and quacks should lose their medical licenses, just as Andrew Wakefield did. Of course, even though Wakefield was from the UK and not the US, his case actually illustrates the problem. It took something like twelve years between the publication of his dubious (and now known to be fraudulent) case series in The Lancet and his being “struck off,” that delightfully British term for stripping a doctor of his medical license.
I saw two articles pop up in my Google Alerts last night, Cancer treatment has shown ‘amazing results’ – expert stresses ‘patients cured’ from it and Cancer treatment has yielded ‘wonderful results,’ according to experts, with ‘patients cured.’ I bet that you can guess whom they’re about. Indeed, I felt as though I’d been transported back to 2013 or so, when articles of this sort were a regular staple of British tabloid newspapers, along with messages like the following.
With cancer, abnormal cells begin to grow and divide at a much faster pace than they normally would and at the same time, older cells don’t die off as they should.
As abnormal cells pile up, tumours start to form and if nothing interferes with this process, tumours continue to grow and spread, or metastasize.
Dr Stanislaw Burzynski believes antineoplastons are part of our natural defence system and that they help prevent abnormal cell growth.
Antineoplastons are peptides found in the urine and blood of healthy people.
They are made up of amino acids and peptides with amino acids being the building blocks of protein and peptides composing of amino acids.
Dr Burzynski suggests that some people don’t have enough of them, which allows cancer to develop and grow unchecked.
He believes antineoplastons are part of the body’s natural defence and can protect against cancer.
This passage could have been written in 2013, 2009, or even the 1980s. As I recounted in an article for Skeptical Inquirer in 2014, Burzynski has been peddling his antineoplaston quackery since sometime around 1976-1977. I even joked about Burzynski’s early efforts in the late 1970s—before he figured out how to synthesize his antineoplastons—to collect human urine from state penitentiaries and Gilley’s Bar, where Urban Cowboy was filmed, wondering whether perhaps some of John Travolta’s own urine was used to make some of those early batches of his cancer “miracle cure.”
More depressingly, I listed the many attempts by health authorities to shut Burzynski down, ranging from early efforts by the Texas Medical Board in the 1980s (which failed), the FDA’s attempts to stop Burzynski’s dubious “clinical trials” of his drug in the 1990s (which also failed), and further efforts to do the same in the early 2010s (which succeeded briefly with a clinical hold on Burzynski’s “clinical trials” but ultimately also failed). Most recently, the Texas Medical Board made a valiant effort to discipline Burzynski and take away his medical license, but in 2017 he got off with a slap on the wrist and was back in business in short order charging huge sums of money for his unproven and ineffective quackery. By 2018 he was even trying to promote a My Cancer-Free Life, a docuseries that purported to discuss patients whom he had cured.
I was curious what prompted the article on Stanislaw Burzynski, as I hadn’t written (or even heard much) about him since well before the pandemic hit and radically altered my blogging topics to be mostly about COVID-19. The article smelled of being promotional astroturf (whose like we have seen before), and, oddly enough, included a video of Scottish comedienne Janey Godley announcing that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. First, I wondered whether maybe Godley was a Burzynski convert seeking treatment at the Burzynski Clinic in Houston, but, as far as I can tell, the video of her included with the story has nothing to do with Burzynski other than that it features a famous woman recently diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer.
I’m not going to discuss all the reasons why Stanislaw Burzynski is a predatory quack who charged hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat desperate cancer patients with deadly cancers such as diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). For that, please read my summary for Skeptical Inquirer (and Bob Blaskewicz’s article on how Burzynski weaponized cancer patients against attempts to stop Burzynski, a story that very much resembles how COVID-19 patients and their families have tried to impede any attempt to crack down on doctors promoting, for instance, ivermectin) or peruse any number of my posts here or at my not-so-super-secret other blog about Stanislaw Burzynski. Also consider this article on why so many Texas politicians, including Senator Ted Cruz and John Cornyn supported (and, I assume, continue to support Burzynski). Sound familiar? Burzynski had juice, and so do a number of COVID-19 misinformation-promoting doctors.
Instead, I want you to consider the case of Stanislaw Burzynski. He has been in private practice administering his antineoplastons to cancer patients since the late 1970s, around 45 years. During that time, he’s grown old and rich off the backs of desperate patients. Yet, despite multiple attempts, the last one culminating in failure in 2017—the sanctions placed on Burzynski’s practice were a slap on the wrist given that he didn’t lose his Texas medical license—Burzynski apparently continues to practice. A search on his name shows that this year there have been patient families exhausting their financial resources in order to access Burzynski’s quackery, for instance, the family of a girl named Jashly Avalos with DIPG, a deadly brain tumor:
Twelve-year-old Jashly Avalos is known as a fun, creative girl who loves to cook and snuggle with stuffed animals. Her family was shocked when they found out she has a rare type of brain tumor.
“She has what’s called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, which we call DIPG. Doctors told her she would have six months to live and that was almost 18 months ago, and she’s been surviving. And all through the summer, she was doing well. All of a sudden, just very quickly, she started to deteriorate. That’s basically what the main hospitals do is they say that there is no cure,” explains family friend, David Grai.
He says doctors offered chemotherapy and radiation to extend her life, but just for a few months. They’re hoping for treatment that will allow her to live well into adulthood.
Burzynski is indeed a quack who preys on false hope, particularly in patients like Jashly and their families. The story above could easily have been a tragic story that I wrote about a decade ago. Easily. For example:
They learned the Burzynski Clinic in Houston has a history of curing patients with this disease.
Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski administered a special treatment to a girl in a similar situation decades ago. “Her life expectancy was only two to three weeks. She recovered completely! She is now 23 years old, she is a mother of three children and she leads a perfectly normal life. It’s possible to cure it, but only for some patients,” states Dr. Burzynski.
What makes it impossible for this family is the high cost of the medications. It’s such a rare condition, the treatment is outrageously expensive.
“The most expensive part of her treatment is gene-targeted medications, which need to be obtained from a pharmacy. These medications, from the pharmacy, cost about $30,000 a month or even more,” exclaims Dr. Burzynski.
Except that, no, the Burzynski Clinic does not have a history of curing patients with DIPG, nor is Burzynski’s quackery “gene targeted,” no matter how much he tries to claim that it is. (It’s really “make it up as you go along.”) There is no evidence that DIPG patients treated by Burzynski do any better than average, and, as I’ve shown in my discussion of many testimonials of supposed “miracle cures,” there is always an alternate explanation for why the patient did well. Basically, it is true that DIPG is a very, very deadly cancer, but it is not true, as Burzynski himself likes to claim, that no one ever survives it. There are occasional long-term survivors, documented by science, as well as cases whose tumors respond far better than usual to conventional therapy.
I also can’t help but note another example, Dr. Rashid Buttar, whom I’ve been writing about since the very beginning of this blog, back when he was a cancer and autism quack, when the North Carolina Board of Medical Examiners finally disciplined him. Unsurprisingly, today Dr. Buttar is one of the usual quacks and grifters promoting COVID-19 and COVID-19 misinformation. Like Dr. Burzynski, all Dr. Buttar got was the proverbial slap on the wrist, even after having called the Board a “rabid dog“. All the Board did was to restrict Dr. Buttar’s practice so that he was no longer permitted to treat children or cancer patients. Why children and cancer patients specifically? Simple. Dr. Buttar had been known for his antivaccine views that blamed mercury in the thimerosal preservative in vaccines caused autism, and his treatment was a “transdermal chelation therapy” that we disparagingly called “Buttar’s butter“, and he was a cancer quack, to boot. Two years later, Dr. Buttar was free to practice medicine again mostly unencumbered.
And don’t even get me started on the case of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, the Texas neurosurgeon who is the topic of Dr. Death, a fictionalized account of his misdeeds on Peacock. Dr. Duntsch maimed and killed a number of patients with seeming impunity before it was not the Texas Medical Board who finally stopped him, but a prosecutor.
So let’s get back to the FSMB, AMA, and various specialty certification boards making statements that doctors who spread COVID-19 and antivaccine misinformation should face discipline. I agree. I’ve been saying the same thing for literally decades now. In fact, I’ve gone way beyond that in stating that doctors promoting quackery, antivaccine misinformation, and general dangerous health misinformation should have their medical licenses suspended or taken away altogether. I’ve said repeatedly that being a physician is a privilege, not a right, and that by accepting that privilege we physicians should agree to use the power we have responsibly. The First Amendment does guarantee us the right to free speech, just as it does for anyone else. However, our speech about health carries much more influence than that of Joe Average, and professional ethics demands that we should not misuse the platform our privileged status gives us. There should be consequences to physicians who do misuse their status that way, as so many have been doing for a long time and whose disinformation has been turbocharged since COVID-19 emerged up to and including permanent loss of that privileged status.
I’m therefore happy that certain medical authorities responsible for certifying and licensing physicians are finally waking up. I and other skeptical physicians have been banging this drum for a long, long time (despite the dismissal before the pandemic of our efforts by certain prominent physicians as being akin to LeBron James “dunking on a 7′ hoop“), and we welcome the help.
The reason that I wrote this is not to discourage those who want to hold physicians spreading COVID-19 misinformation accountable. Rather, it is because I want them to know that none of this is anything new. I want them to know how long and pervasive this problem has been since long before the pandemic rubbed our profession’s face in it in a way that can no longer be ignored and swept under the rug. I want them to know how just how involved and difficult our task will be, given the way that the law in states such as Texas and others, seems to treat a medical license as a right rather than the privilege that it is. By challenging them, I aim to find out just how serious they are about it. I’m reminded of this scene from The Untouchables:
No, I’m not saying that violence will ever be required. Far from it! What I’m asking is this: How far are we willing to go to shut down the quacks, grifters, and antivaxxers? I realize that I’m sounding like an old fart, but that doesn’t mean my concerns aren’t valid. What the cynic in me sees is a scenario in which, as the pandemic finally abates and resistance to public health interventions becomes less intense as such interventions become less and less utilized, those who’ve jumped on the bandwagon to discipline doctors who have proven that they should no longer be doctors will fade away, leaving us longtime skeptics alone once again to fight the battle.
I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that the AMA, which tends to function more as a trade association protecting the financial interests of doctors more than a true professional organization, sticks to its guns, as it did not do in the 1970s with chiropractic. I hope that state medical boards actually take the FSMB statement to heart and put some real teeth into it. I hope all the doctors who’ve had their “St. Paul on the road to Damascus” moment due to COVID-19 stay with us after the pandemic is over. Contrary to the way we are portrayed by quacks, it is actually skeptics who are the “pitiful little band,” not the quacks:
After all, we still have the problem of “integrative medicine,” which, despite its seemingly increasing popularity in “integrating” quackery with medicine, was a magnet for antivaxxers before the pandemic and is now the same for COVID-19 misinformation. Reversing that will be a generational task, and we need all the help we can get.