As Stanislaw Burzynski heads to court again to answer charges made by the Texas Medical Board on behalf of a variety of patients, he is doubtlessly preparing by getting the testimony of current and former patients. In anticipation of this pony’s one trick, we are telling the stories of patients who have testified on Burzynski’s behalf over the course of his long, dubious career and see where they are now. Much of what follows is based on reporting from The Oregonian and on written testimony presented to Congress in 1996 in the same hearing in which Douglas W. testified.
Derek W. was just 7-years old but already knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a preacher. His proud parents nicknamed him the “preacher in sneakers” and ensured he was active in their growing church congregation. Derek also enjoyed participating in his local cub scout troop.
On November 6, 1995, Derek’s parents received the devastating news that Derek had a deadly tumor in his upper brain stem. According to his dad, the news was bleak, so they scoured the country for a solution:
Without treatment he was given 3-6 weeks to live. With paliatory treatments, primarily radiation, he was given between 4 and 18 months. As any parent in our position would, we researched all known traditional and non-traditional cancer treatments.
The doctors’ recommendation of radiation was not likely to be curative. So the family decided to try Burzynski’s treatment antineoplastons because it “appeared to be based on firm scientific data.” Derek’s dad said Burzynski “felt that his success rate was as high as 20%,” but the trusting father acknowledged that the number “was not scientifically documented”.
Sadly, the data released by the Burzynski Clinic over the decades has been notoriously misleading. Indeed, the 20% survival number remains unsubstantiated even two decades later. And yet, other desperate families are still under the false impression that antineoplastons have been demonstrated to be safe and effective.
For example, the family of McKenzie L. thought she had a 27% chance of survival by being pumped full of Burzynski’s concoction. To a desperate parent, a 1-in-5 or better chance certainly sounds infinitely better than the 0% chance that brutally honest cancer doctors sometimes are required by ethics to provide.
The mother of Brendan B., who paid $10k to the Burzynski Clinic in 1991, describes the psychology in a 1996 New York Times article:
“I would have gone out and stood naked in traffic,” Mrs. [B] said. “I would have died in his place if that were possible. I would have done anything to make this child live.” Dr. Burzynski, she said, “offered us a thread to cling to.”
When she and her son Brendan were in Dr. Burzynski’s office, she said, “a very interesting thing happened.” She explained: “I got caught up in this whole thing with all these sick people, people coming and saying they were cured. I feel so stupid even talking about it because I am intelligent and educated and so is my husband.”
She believed in Dr. Burzynski, in spite of herself she said, because “this beautiful child is dying and here’s this person who may possibly have something.”
In addition to Burzynski’s treatment, Derek received radiation as recommended by his oncologists. His father is hopeful that the tumor’s lack of growth is a good sign:
We had an MRI that showed no new tumor growth since we began Dr. Burzynski’s medicine. We still feel [Derek’s] situation is shaky, and this does not mean the medicine is working for sure. It is our one and only hope. Without it, he for sure would die. With it, we still have a chance.
If only Derek’s parents had been able to speak to Mrs. B, who said, “It’s fine to say Dr. Burzynski offers hope, but you have to have hope in something that’s not ephemeral.”
And if only Derek’s parents had reviewed the results of a 1982 visit to the Burzynski Clinic by Canadian doctors. The doctors’ report contained a horrifying picture of what was happening in Houston, according to the 1996 NY Times article and a Usenet posting:
We were surprised that Dr. Burzynski would show us such questionable cases. We were left with the impression that either he knows very little about cancer and the response of different tumors to radiation and hormonal measures, or else he thinks that we are very stupid, and he has tried to hoodwink us.
As we look back over the cases were were shown, we are left with the impression that the only patients who are still alive either had slowly growing tumors, or had received effective treatment before being referred to Houston.
And the Canadians reportedly concluded:
After reviewing 20 case reports, selected by Dr. Burzynski as his best examples of clear cut responses to Antineoplastons we were unable to identify a single case in which therapeutic benefit could be attributed to Antineoplaston.
We believe that it is unethical to administer unproven agents such as Antineoplastons to patients without satisfying the requirements of the FDA and an ethics committee, that the minimum standards for human experimentation are being met. We also believe that it is immoral to charge patients for this unproven, experimental treatment.
What’s true in 1982 is still true today, since the American Cancer Society agrees that “there is no convincing evidence showing that antineoplastons actually work.” In fact, Burzynski has, according to FDA inspection records, a horrible time satisfying them that his evaluations of his trial outcomes are accurate. Indeed, the FDA recently found that his outcomes are inflated 2/3 of the time.
Derek died of his cancer on December 13, 1996, just over 11 months after his diagnosis. There is no available evidence that antineoplastons improved Derek’s survival.
Derek’s parents wanted to create a special memorial to their son. So when their church expanded to include three 40-foot crosses, they made sure one of them was dedicated in memory of him. The crosses were made of steel and shared their message at least 2 miles away.
Derek’s mom thought the memorial cross was a fitting way for her “preacher in sneakers” to continue to preach: “You want a chance to remember the person who died and to have their dreams live on. [The cross] is a testimony to our hope.”