The case of Amelia S. is a hard one to write about, because it tipped skeptics off to a pattern in the stories that patients at the clinic were telling, that their worsening symptoms were signs of improvement. As you will see, this is a story that Burzynski’s patients have been relating for decades. It’s a long post, but it’s important that you read to the bottom.
3-year old Amelia S. lived in Reading. In about September of 2011, Amelia started displaying neurological symptoms–wobbliness and a trembling left hand (often drawn into a fist). The family brought her in to the hospital after she started falling down. On Jan 30th, 2012, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and on the 1st of Feb it was determined to be a large tumor on the brainstem. Surgery revealed a grade 2 diffuse astrocytoma, which the family was given to understand meant that the core of the tumor was likely grade 3. Doctors were unable to remove much of the tumor, only the 4 biopsy samples.
Amelia’s medical team was honest. The benefit offered by radiation and chemotherapy, on average, could be measured in weeks. These are bad, bad tumors. The family brought Amelia home on the 20th of February, her mobility and speech impaired, opting to spare Amelia the unpleasantness of the chemotherapy and radiotherapy. When they saw Amelia improving (we’re not told what those improvements were–whether they were reduction in tumor size or reduced swelling as she recovered from surgery, for instance), however, family understandably felt obliged to look for other options.
They found Burzynski. Immediately, the enormous price tag of his antineoplaston treatments spurred the family on to raise funds. Amelia’s father began documenting their journey to Burzynski in a couple of places, at ameliasmiracle.com and on a Facebook page of the same name. As a whole, his story is the most moving and insightful account of parental heroism that I have read since I began this project, and I strongly recommend that you read it for yourself.
By the end of February 2012, the family had decided on Burzynski. We were introduced to Amelia on February 28th in a video posted by her father:
Attached to the video was a simple plea:
Our daughter, Amelia, was diagnosed at the beginning of February with a very rare type of inoperable brain tumour. She has only a few months to live. We have a ray of hope – treatment for her is available at the Burzynski clinic in Houston, Texas. This treatment in total will cost around £200,000. We need to raise this money to allow Amelia to have the chance to live a normal life.
From the beginning, the family sought media attention to raise money for the Burzynski Clinic, as we see in a Facebook post. the earliest example of Amelia’s story appearing in the press was in the local Wokingham Times on 8 March 2012. The public campaign was launched. And by 14 March, £45,000 had been raised by the community, enough to get Amelia in the door at the Clinic (recent accounts put that initial consult at $30,000). The Wokingham Times seems to have informally adopted the family and followed their progress closely for the rest of the year. These community fundraisers appear as human interest stories and reaffirm that people are basically kind and generous and trusting. In fact, my first exposure to Burzynski and realization that something was profoundly wrong came after I did a newspaper database search for all of the patients that I could find. Of those patients I could find an outcome for, every patient who appeared in the international press, usually begging for money, with a single exception was dead.
A week before Amelia hit the papers, on the 6th of March, Eric Merola, who made an uncritical hagiography to Burzynski unironically called, Burzynski: Cancer is a Serious Business, interviewed the family about their upcoming trip to Houston for his new movie, a sequel, which comes out soon. He planned to follow Amelia’s progress in the film. On the 17th, as they planned their trip to the US, the family put up a short video for Amelia’s donors:
So, she clearly she packed everyone’s hearts into her suitcase. Such a dear.
They left on the 23th of March for America, having raised a staggering £75,000 for Burzynski. In a Wokingham Times piece, her father stated some of the opposition that the family had met:
Mr Saunders added that he was amazed at the number of people who had suggested the American treatment would be fruitless.
He said: “I was warned about this before we decided to go with the Burzynski treatment – it is like there is a vendetta out against the man.
“It is so strange, and all I keep getting are contacts from patients who have been or are being cured by the treatment, or at the very least have had positive results.”
People for whom Burzynski’s treatments fail tend not get into contact with other patients. We are witnessing what is known as survivorship bias. You can talk to a dozen survivors and have a positive impression of a treatment but fail to take into account the 10,000 failures, which would put a treatment well below the efficacy of chance remission, misdiagnosis, and unrecognized responses to traditional therapies. This is why controlled trials are so important to determine efficacy, so we can sort out the background noise of chance from real effects. It is also an important reason that dependence on patient testimonials is a red flag for quackery.
Amelia has had a hole opened in her chest where a Hickman line has been inserted, where she will receive her ANP. These frequently have complications with infection and clogging.
By the 30th, Amelia has her backpack full of antineoplastons, as we see in a video. Her family will spend the customary 3 weeks or so in the US learning to administer the ANP themselves. They are infused at high doses almost continuously.
Amelia’s dad shares his first impression of the Clinic on the facebook page:
The clinic have been fantastic. I am still amazed that people give them such a bad press. They have literally bent over backwards to get this started for us. The receptionist Irena even has a photo of Amelia behind her desk, she is so lovely!
Well there is a reason, of course. It’s because they apparently tell patients that they can tell brain tumors are shrinking by looking at their urine:
Mr Saunders said: “Every day is a milestone and the clinic is being extremely thorough in its tests – Amelia has regular blood tests and these are all closely monitored to check for signs of all sorts of things.
“Interestingly, they can actually see the early signs of the tumour breaking down by how her body excretes it in her blood and urine. This might be the only time in my life I get excited by seeing this kind of information!
I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean, and before Amelia’s story I would not have even noticed this. I can see why a parent clinging to hope would sieze onto any augury of healing. Remember, this family has not had good news about Amelia since her diagnosis. Little steps, literally, mean the world to them. I contacted research oncologist David Gorski, who studies and treats breast cancer, about this claim, and he replied:
“Oncologists don’t monitor anything in the urine for tumor breakdown, at least not for that tumor. There is such a thing called tumor lysis syndrome, but that’s usually only seen in leukemias and lymphomas as a result of induction chemotherapy that kills a lot of cancer cells really fast, releasing potassium, and a number of other byproducts. However, as I said, you don’t generally see this in solid tumors (mainly because none of them respond nearly as dramatically to chemotherapy as hematological malignancies). It’s also a complication to be managed, because its most frequent result is renal failure. It’s possible that he’s referring to GFAP, which is a biomarker for glioma under study, but I don’t think it’s really been validated as a measurement of response to therapy.”
There are apparently no biomarkers for glioma that appear in urine. Amelia had chronically low potassium at this point in her treatment.
We don’t see a lot of what is going on at the clinic on facebook, where most of the story is told record, but we get a clue on Amelia’s other website:
10th April 2012
I realised I hadn’t updated the news section here for a few weeks, this is largely because we update our Facebook page daily and much of our time has been taken up going to and from the clinic. Every day has been a bit of a rollercoaster here. Amelia has been on antineoplaston treatment for a week and a half and at the end of last week we hit a bit of a wall with the treatment dosage. Amelia got pretty sick so we had to back down on the dose a little. Yesterday she started getting really bad headaches so we have now also put her on a low dose steroid as well. Other than this, she is doing well and responding well to treatment. We think there are some very slight improvements in her coordination of her left hand side. We are continuing the treatment, and the aim is now to increase the dosage more slowly to see how she responds. All in all we are doing well and looking forward to coming home soon!
So, she’s been up and down. The steroids are a recurring feature of treatment and can very quickly reduce inflammation in a way that leads to improvements of the type that the family is reporting. You see it a lot on this website. It’s hard not to think of John D., who experienced worsening symptoms while under treatment (and on steroids), which was met with joy on the part of the staff:
I want to mention that the IV nurse told mom today that she’s been there for 10 years & has seen this before & many times, the more severe symptoms that are seen as a result of the therapy is really a good sign that it’s working better. I know this nurse & she is very honest & helpful. She also runs the class they run every week for new patients.
On April 19th we hear that the family is preparing to return home, and on the Wokingham Times page where it is announced, we see that damned picture again, patients literally at death’s door, posing in front of the Burzynski Clinic. We get the update that they have arrived back in England on the 22nd. Amelia’s dad talks about the fundraising (truly amazing acts of generosity by the whole community) and how grateful he is for the immense support that the family has received. (Amelia gives her own thank you’s in an adorable little video a few days later.) He speculates on the road ahead:
I have come home from Houston with a strange kind of feeling. Perhaps a little apprehension, a bit of fear, a dose of happiness and a shot of hope. We still feel that every day is a roller coaster. We may be sitting on a ticking time bomb, and it may still be that any day we might lose Amelia. Every day truly is so precious, and it is a joy to watch her and her little sister back together again, albeit in a different way, a more careful one, where we have to watch them all the time.
The next day, it sounds like Amelia is having the unquenchable thirst that comes with ANP:
Amelia has been OK today, she was a bit sick earlier but we think this was because she drank too much too quickly – she was fine shortly afterwards. We’ve been getting used to life again at home and putting everything in place we need to.
And we hear that she is due for her first post-treatment MRI:
As far as the MRI goes, I just want to make a point that we aren’t expecting a lot to have happened with this next scan. As part of the medical trial we are required to get a scan done every 4 – 5 weeks – and these things take time to show any change. It is very likely the tumour may be the same or have grown slightly. This is fine and we expect this, and clearly if it has shrunk then great – but we aren’t expecting it to have done.
Tumors on which chemotherapy is working should probably not be growing at all. It’s the definition of “working.”
On the 25th:
Today has been a busy day. Unfortunately Amelia was pretty sick this morning – those of you who have been following our journey will know that we are trying to increase Amelia’s dose of drugs and it sometimes has side effects, this seeming to be the most common. She was fine afterwards and has been eating for the rest of the day.
We had an appointment at the hospital at lunchtime and ended up spending most of the afternoon there so we could get everything sorted. The doctors here are being very cooperative – but I must emphasise that they are recommending different treatment (chemo) and we have consistently turned this down. We have not found a single person with a DIPG tumour that has had any effect with chemo – so continue to find it strange that this is offered. Our plan is to continue the antineoplaston treatment for as long as required. We realise this is being frowned upon by the doctors here – but ultimately we are trying the only thing we found that had credible results.
Credible results would have been publication and replication of his trials. Burzynski can’t seem to complete his trials, much less publish them (which is odd given that he has the test agent already developed and the tumors he is working have outcomes comparatively rapidly). If trial completion were a batting average, he’d be at .015 and his trial publication average would be .000.
By May 4, Amelia is a celebrity. They have raised £160,000 (!) and she is meeting and hanging out with celebrities. And the paper has clearly been reading Amelia’s dad’s updates. Also, her dad’s website announces:
Well we have now been back from Houston for a few weeks – and Amelia has continued to slowly improve with both her walking and speech getting better. The Burzynski clinic were brilliant – we were made to feel so welcome and Amelia really made an impression on everybody there!
We had an MRI scan on Monday that revealed her tumour has stopped growing. Considering she has had no treatment other than the antineoplaston therapy from the Burzynski clinic, we are really pleased (and impressed) that the treatment seems to be working so quickly. We are now continuing the treatment and increasing her dose such that we try to get her to the ‘target’ dose for her weight.
This tumor “stopped growing” news is taken as validation that the treatment is working, so much so, that the Wokingham Times irresponsibly reports that result. According to her dad:
1. Amelia has been on treatment for less than 4 weeks.
2. She is not on full dose yet, and has some way to go to get there. This is a slow progress, perhaps taking another month or so to achieve this (or more).
3. She has a low grade tumour. Any response will be slow. In other kids where the treatment has worked it has taken many months to show response.
4. She is still on steroids.
5. Her previous scan showed a 13% growth in 7 weeks.
So, having now had several opinions of the scans, I can confirm that Amelia’s tumour has STOPPED GROWING. This is amazing news and we are over the moon that this is the case. For this tumour type, in this short time, with a tumour of the size of Amelia’s, this is an incredibly good result. This is an INCREDIBLY hard tumour to do anything with, one of the hardest to treat and normally very lethal. In most circumstances Amelia would no longer be here (in February there was no way we thought we’d get to May with her) so to have the thing stable is fantastic news.
A few important points. It’s a low grade (slow growing) tumor. This does not seem to have been a PET scan, which would give a sense how of active the tumor was–to see if it had in fact “stopped.” And initial responses to chemotherapy (and ANP is chemotherapy by every definition) correlate poorly to outcomes, which is, of course, the final goal that everyone involved is keenly interested in. Of course, the Clinic doesn’t convey that information:
I also had a good chat with our doctor in Houston earlier. Again all sounding very positive, and we have again increased Amelia’s dose tonight [...] The clinic sound very positive that Amelia’s tumour stopped growing so quickly. Let’s just hope we have more positive news on the next scan in June.
On 12 May, we get an update about Amelia’s progress:
Amelia was on top form today, she was pretty tired after the wedding but perked up and during doses, when we unplugged her from her backpack, she was really bubbly. Later in the afternoon she was doing some proper walking – unassisted. I think we have now realised that a lot of the walking problem now is just her confidence. She was walking almost normally, and certainly the same or better than she was before her operation. Fantastic.
So, they are at point zero, which considering where they have been is wonderful from the family’s perspective, but it doesn’t tell us that the ANP is working of if she has just recovered from surgery to her brain stem and is now on steroids. And this may be important, as dad mentions on the 20th:
She really has improved. We’ve both noticed significant improvements in her speech, mainly in the quality of her pronunciations and also the speed and which she speaks. Slow speech is a classic symptom of her tumour location, so any improvement is a good sign here. This might be the steroids causing this improvement so we have to be careful, but we have a lot of fingers crossed we’ll be taking her off the steroids within the next few weeks if we can get her second bag to target dose. We’ll see.
On the 21st:
Amelia has been a bit groggy, fairly lethargic and pretty reluctant to do a lot. [...] Because of the lethargy, the doctor in the US has recommended increasing her steroid dose very slightly. We’ll see if this improves things – if it does then this is a good sign. It does all tie in with us increasing her dose, which is now at maximum on her larger bag. No wonder.
Also on the 21rd, just over a year ago, the fundraiser reaches its goal of £200,000, and the tally continues to climb. In the intervening time, however, we hear that Amelia has had some complications with the Hickman line, which has been replaced because of a tear:
She is doing well otherwise, and we’ll be resuming her treatment tonight. She is now walking by herself, her coordination and balance have all improved and her speech is much better. It looks like the treatment is definitely helping her.
In early June, dad is rattled by the deaths of patients Billie B. and Supatra A., who had the same tumor as Amelia, and for a few days he rails against skeptics. Apparently some have been contacting him and criticizing him. This is wrong, in my opinion. Cancer patients have enough on their plate.
On the 21st, we hear that the tumor remains stable:
Firstly we are waiting on a further interpretation from Dr Burzynski, but as we suspected from our own view of the scans this morning, Amelia’s tumour remains stable. In other words, there is no change since the last scan.
The family accepts this as a sign that they have stayed the brain tumor:
We are 100% sure that without antineoplastons, Amelia would either be in a hospice by now or dead. She has a grade 2 tumour, on scans it appears as a grade 3, and it is very large and in a very dangerous part of the brain. Even a few mm of growth would cause a significant impact on her quality of life at this size. We are all walking on a knife edge. Dr Burzynski’s treatment is undoubtedly keeping her alive. I actually want to wave this in the face of all the skeptics we came across along our journey.
It’s worth noting that the tumor hasn’t shrunk. Small victories–including just not dying–are huge when your child has one of these tumors.
Amelia has her 4th birthday on the 22nd of June, and it is celebrated in the papers.
Again, we see that the steroid dose is being increased on June 25th to control the symptoms of the disease:
We have been advised by the clinic to increase her steroid intake back to how it was last week to see if we see an improvement in her. We will then try in a couple of weeks time to reduce it again but at a slower rate, reducing it by 0.25mg instead of 0.5mg per day. The steroid intake is a tricky issue as they are essential and help reduce the symptoms of this awful disease (headaches, tiredness), however long term steroid use is not good and cause side effects such as weight gain, muscle problems.
We still haven’t seen anything that looks like clear evidence of improvement past diagnosis; it sounds like the symptoms return when the steroids are tapered. She seems to be doing pretty well on this dose of steroids, going to school. (Her last day of nursery school is 11 July.)
On July 15th we hear:
Well – we have had a pretty good weekend. I had a truly amazing conversation last night. Purely by chance I’ve been contacted by the mother of another little girl, who is almost the same age as Amelia, who is receiving the same treatment (for longer), with the same tumour (DIPG) and her tumour just shrunk. By 36%. We are so, so pleased. There is so much hope in our hearts now.
I’ll just briefly mention how frustrated we still are to read so much crap on the internet about Dr Burzynski. I feel like we are ‘insiders’, in a way, and know how the whole thing works now. These doubters clearly don’t. The lady I spoke to last night was told her daughter would die. When she went to Burzynski, her doctor shut her off. Refused to speak. Thank God she chose to follow her heart, and not that doctors advice. She might just have saved her daughters life. There is no doubt this works, and we want it in every hospital in the world. We’ll keep spreading the word until it is.
This child, sadly, is now dead.
By August the tumor has not shrunk, but Amelia has been coping very well. A few weeks earlier she had a wonderful day at the zoo. She’s still a little wobbly on her feet and in the pictures her family put on the Facebook page, you can tell that her face is not symmetrical, but by God she’s enjoying her life, which is an immense thing in itself. On the 6th however, she gets pale and sick; when her blood work is done, they find that her potassium and magnesium are way down, though they stabilize her.
On August 8, we hear:
One of the many things I have said throughout this year is that I hope that maybe, one day, I can learn that another child has had success with this treatment because of the inspiration they gained from Amelia. I know of one little girl, Chey, who is waiting to go to the clinic right now. But due to some complications with the FDA and the clinic, there are some delays – but we are all hoping she will get there very soon. We felt so welcomed by the Burzynski clinic and everything we saw there made us puzzled why so many people don’t believe in it.
We just found out exactly what happened. According to an SEC filing:
In a letter dated June 25, 2012, the [Burzynski] informed the FDA of a serious adverse event which may have been related to the administration of Antineoplastons. On July 30, 2012, the FDA placed a partial clinical hold for enrollment of new pediatric patients under single patient protocols or in any of the active Phase II or Phase III studies under IND 43,742. The FDA imposed this partial clinical hold because, according to the FDA, insufficient information had been submitted by the Company to allow the FDA to determine whether the potential patient benefit justifies the potential risks of treatment use, and that the potential risks are not unreasonable in the context of the disease or condition to be treated.
According to the mother of patient Alynn H., her understanding was that a child had died (link is password protected). We have not heard anything else, only that the ANP trials, almost a year later, have not started up again and that the partial hold remains.
On August 13, Amelia’s dad posts a video about Amelia’s life since diagnosis. This write up an unusually long post for this blog, and I haven’t done justice to the support the family has received from their community or the sheer number of people who pitched in to help the family, and this video gives a sense of that:
On the fifteenth, we hear that the family is understandably anxious for the tumor to shrink:
Incidentally, we are well aware that a stable tumour is good. Mondays scan was one that we went into thinking ‘if it is stable then great’. I’ve had a few people come up to me and ask “is the tumour shrinking?”. Now I know people mean well – but it is a little like me walking up to somebody and saying “have you won the lottery yet?”. In other words, frustrating. I smile, say no, it will take time, and move the conversation on.
So far, the tumor’s behavior has been utterly unrelated to the dose of the antineoplaston chemotherapy. On Aug 25, we hear that Amelia is tired on treatment and that she has had a progression of symptoms:
We are still looking to increase her dose slightly as she has gained a little weight since Houston so she should be able to tolerate an increased dose (or at least we hope so). We will probably have to increase her steroids in line with this, but we have been considering this anyway as she seems to have become a lot more wobbly lately. We know from the MRI that the tumour hasn’t grown so an increase in her steroids should help this.
Now, I’m not sure how this was verified. The definition of a “stable” tumor can actually accommodate some growth, so, we can’t know exactly what is happening. And we hear from the family a few days later that they have come to a hard realization:
On the 27th, we hear:
Firstly, Amelia hasn’t quite been herself unfortunately. She has been very reluctant to walk, a lot more tired, slow and pretty lethargic. She was sick on Saturday night also. We are reasonably confident we have probably gone too far with the steroid reduction so we have actually increased these slightly again today. We decided we would rather have a happy and more alert Amelia than one who doesn’t want to do too much – so we made this decision today in coordination with the Burzynski clinic. We’ll see how she does. There is a small chance it is the tumour growing, but much more likely given the scans we have that this is due to swelling of the tumour caused by the treatment. Time will tell. [...]
The symptoms we are seeing right now are a direct result of the tumour, hopefully due to it swelling, and the steroids will fix this. They are also what we would see if it has grown.
It really, really looks that her wellness is linked directly to how much steroid she is receiving. And here’s another example of something that is…desperately, desperately wrong at the Clinic. The patient is being told that the tumor is swelling because of the treatment. How is it that only at the Burzynski Clinic that getting worse is indistinguishable from getting better? Second point: this is a tumor on the brainstem. If a possible side effect were swelling of the thing pressing against the brainstem, you’d expect that to be on the informed consent form, right? The type of thing that would be among the “serious side effects,” right? It’s not, at least not in a version of the consent form used after Amelia had started ANP:
(Burzynski’s supporters who have been saying that the treatment has no long-term side effects would do well to look at that first paragraph. The paperwork that every patient signs says it can have exactly that.)
On September 5th, we see a candid moment on the facebook page. The parents are committed to seeing this therapy through, but the father has that lingering awareness that this nothing the tumor has not shrunk:
Whether we have returned to a feeling of optimism or not remains to be seen. I still feel uneasy about the fact that we are so far on without the tumour shrinking. It is frustrating, because we have worked SO hard with the treatment – our entire lives are ruled by it and it is almost a full time job sorting it all out – we just share it between us and make it happen. We just know to be patient, and we 100% know it can work.
At this time, Amelia was returning to school (she had already been going to nursery school on treatment). And the way it appeared in the press, and certainly how I and other skeptics read it, it was being promoted as, “See? This treatment is working enough to let this little girl go back,” a human interest story (The Mirror’s coverage was profoundly disgraceful–suggesting UK doctors “refused to treat” Amelia, whereas when you look above you see that in fact: “The doctors here are being very cooperative – but I must emphasise that they are recommending different treatment (chemo) and we have consistently turned this down”), and by god it was good to hear that Amelia was having a great time, but there’s a lot more going on than is contained in the articles. On the 5th we see how much support was needed to get Amelia in. This was not the return of a healed child that everyone took away from the coverage:
“There has been a LOT of organising around this, far more than getting a healthy child to school. We’ve arranged our nanny, we’ve had to work around the school timetable, we’ve had meetings with the school and the teachers and the hospital nurses and made everything happen. The school have been absolutely fantastic every step of the way – we literally cannot fault them.”
On the 8th, we see on the Facebook page:
“On Monday we have a physiotherapist coming to look at her to see if she can get her walking again. I tried a little walking with her today and she is really, really trying. You can see she struggles, like her brain doesn’t know how to do it but the conscious Amelia that we see and know does. It’s a bit like trying to write with the wrong hand – you know what to do but you can’t quite make your hand write as well as the other. She tries to walk, but can’t quite make it all fit.”
This is not a child improving.
September 10, on they were visited by Eric Merola for his utterly uncritical documentary about Burzynski. More on that in a moment.
On the morning of the 15th, Amelia woke up crying with a pain in her head. She went off treatment for a day or so and got better, not trembling, perhaps speaking a bit better. One wonders if she is not experiencing relief from the hypernatremia that can appear alongside such massive sodium doses and can have such side effects.
Amelia has a great couple of days in late September (and she really takes to her school!), and her dad talks about how the awful waiting game goes in between MRIs, which I have learned is how time is measured by cancer patients:
I’ve said this many times before, but the really frustrating thing for me is not having anything really tangible that tells you this is working, until we get the scan image in front of us. This means an 8 week wait between scans when you really have no idea what is going on, and if she gets worse like she did a few weeks back then I think you naturally assume the worst. Then she gets better, and you relax a little!
The October MRI shows no change. But later that month, the family is trying to come to grips with what life will mean in the likelihood that Amelia is not with them. It’s a beautiful post, and I hope you read it. It’s immensely sad and healthy and you can’t help but feel the full force of their grief and fear. This family is mentally preparing themselves for a horrible future, and this makes what happened next absolutely inexcusable by any measure.
By November 19th, Amelia’s right hand is immobilized, a clear progression, and the family gets the results of a recent scan:
What I don’t want to do is get ours, and everybody else’s hopes up about things. I could not bear thinking that this is working and then to be told it isn’t. (emphasis added)
What I will elude to is that the Burzynski clinic feel that there is a cyst forming inside Amelia’s tumour, very slowly. This does seem apparent on the scan images but we want to make sure this has grown over the longer timeframe. A cyst will form where there is cell breakdown, so clearly is a good thing from a ‘killing the tumour’ viewpoint, but possibly bad in that you then have fluid in a very difficult place to get to. We’ll address that little hurdle if we get to it being a problem in the first place.
This sounds exciting (it is), but we are really trying to be careful about getting too much so. Amelia has got worse, although she has had some improvement over the weeks before her MRI. This could be due to a number of factors and we know the tumour has not grown.
Another point with this is that the tumour isn’t shrinking, but if a cyst is forming then it might be some time before the tumour does shrink. We’ve always said that due to Amelia’s tumour being very slow growing, we have more time on our hands more than most kids who get this.
When this news was released on the family’s Facebook page, followed by rapturous confirmation the next day, it was brought the the attention of Orac at Respectful Insolence, who gave an honest medical opinion:
It pains me greatly to do this, because, no matter how I write this, it will be perceived as trying to take away the hope for Amelia’s survival that the Saunders family holds. Such is not my intent, by any stretch of the imagination. However, these “cysts” almost certainly represent areas of ischemia (low blood flow) leading to tissue death as the tumor outgrows its blood supply. This is a phenomenon commonly seen in advanced malignancy. I know this because tumor angiogenesis ia one of my areas of research interest. [...]
Sadly, then, seeing “cysts” growing in Amelia’s tumor most likely says nothing one way or the other about whether or not it’s responding to Burzynski’s antineoplastons. That’s assuming that Burzynski’s interpretation of the scans is even correct, which I wouldn’t bet money on. Most likely, these “cysts” indicate that there is no therapeutic effect. I take no pleasure in saying this, but most likely this is true.
Amelia’s dad was understandably upset and actually responded to Orac on Nov 29th, but the day after Orac posted, the family updated their followers:
We know that some people doubt what we are doing. We understand that it is in human nature to question, and many people will not just take something on faith alone. But, ultimately, this is our choice. And that choice seems to be paying off.
Yesterday I sent a CD with the latest MRI scans on to our local oncologist and I’ll be waiting for their opinion. We’ll consider this, and then continue until the next scan and see if the cystic formation that we have been shown grows in some way. I don’t want anyone to think we just take things at face value and accept them – we consider what we see, what we are told, and get as many opinions as we can. We can see with our own eyes though that something has changed with the tumour and we hope this continues. Amelia’s tumour hasn’t enhanced or progressed, so we know it is unlikely to be anything other than cysts, but we will get that second opinion for sure.
Amelia had a magical week. She won a community award, the “Child of Courage” award, and was literally the star of a Nativity play with her friends. The reality of Amelia’s situation soon came upon the family, however. On 2 December:
The truth is, Amelia isn’t getting any better neurologically. We live with her every day and we see it. She is very slowly deteriorating and I think we would be putting our own heads in the sand if we didn’t accept this. On one hand we have the Burzynski clinic who believe the tumour is beginning to die. We are getting opinions here about this theory and we’ll very likely need another scan of a different type in early January to back this up. Everything is based on opinions – and nobody agrees, which makes it all very hard on us.
And the final assessment from the Great Ormond Street Hospital:
We had our meeting at Great Ormond Street yesterday and, sadly, they just don’t have anything for us. We kind of knew this before we went – but wondered if they might have a trial that we could take part in. Unfortunately they don’t.
They felt that Amelia is in the latter stages of the disease, and that what is called ‘progression’ has already started. This means her tumour is growing, the cancer is spreading and we don’t have a huge amount of time left. Again we had already guessed this was happening but it was good in a way to have another opinion of this.
Were it just a one-off bad interpretation of an MRI on the part of the Burzynski Clinic, we might have been able to write this off as a simple mistake. But it’s not. Not by a long shot.
Had Burzynski not used this line on the family who had given him by far the most publicity of any other in years, this recurring theme might have slipped by unnoticed. But it’s clear that this is not just a coincidence, it’s an M.O. predicated on false hope that strings parents and patients along. And it’s been going on for decades! And it leaves patients utterly crushed and confused. The few skeptics who have been working these stories in their spare time have found case after case of patients thinking that getting worse is getting better (a partial, growing list can be found in this post). Consider that the cases written up at this website represent 1/10th of the total cases we’ve been able to find and will be bringing to you, that we have only found a small fraction of cases, mostly from the most recent years, and that this guy has been operating for over 35 years! My god! Imagine what that means!
In light of this, when Eric Merola, in his new movie, says in a series of title cards:
Two months after this interview, Amelia’s tumor began to swell and fill with fluid.
There was confusion and disagreement among between their local radiologists and the radiologists in Houston, [sic] about why this was happening–
So her parents decided to discontinue antineoplaston therapy.
[Then he cuts to a picture of Amelia's obituary and says,]
“Amelia passed away with her parents by her side on January 6, 2013.”
…it is fundamentally dishonest. There was no confusion. There was the right diagnosis and Burzynski’s diagnosis, a story that’s been spun for decades to desperate parents, and it’s a goddamned disgrace that Merola suggests that the parents’ evidence-based decision could have been related in any way to the outcome.
Instead of the usual plea for a donation to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which researches children’s tumors and provides care for free, we’d like to ask you to make a donation to Naomi House, the children’s hospice center that cared for Amelia’s family in the last days and which seems to be the family’s preferred charity.
If you want to take action, protect the vulnerable, and put reliable information in front of patients who might be looking into this Clinic, the Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients (facebook page here) have put up guidelines about how to boost good information into Burzynski’s search results.