Thursday, July 3, 2014

Is Polish Community Blindly Patronizing a Crank?

Living around the Polish community in New York City for many years, I have been exposed to a fair share of cranks and weirdos. I have been to the Silva Method seminars, Reiki sittings and other New Age meetings and conventions that defied reason and common sense.

As I mentioned on this blog in the past, I had first heard about Dr. Burzynski from Texas in the early 1990s. All the local Polish newspapers and magazines were publishing rave reviews of his revolutionary cancer treatment method, and it seemed like the final victory in the war on cancer is about to happen and the future is brighter than ever.

I'd lost track of the brave and maverick doctor for a few years, until, in the mid-2000s, I started seeing reports of his deeds on the blogosphere. It seems that Dr. Burzynski was busy running a whole bunch of clinical studies on the effectiveness of his cancer treatment throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. He also had some run-ins with the FDA over those studies and how he used his yet unproven research to treat patients. This typically would not be a problem, however in this case, the results of those studies were either slim, or they were not reporting any results at all, continuing forever.

At the beginning of this year an article in USA Today caught my interest: Doctor accused of selling false hope to families.

The author, Liz Szabo, presents the history of Dr. Burzynski's research, his never-ending clinical studies, their costs to patients, and finally potential and very real side effects that could sometimes lead to death. The controversy did not stop there, as the topic has been picked up by a number of skeptics in the US, including Orac, Bob Blaskiewicz, and one the best medical information resources on the Net, the Science-Based Medicine Blog. There is also a site that presents stories of patients that were not as successful, as the Burzynski Institute would like us believe.

It is a real eye-opener to follow the history of Dr. Burzynski's research, his influence on politicians and his duels with the federal regulators. For most of the lay public, the understanding of the topic usually ends at the conclusion that it is the "all-powerful" medical establishment and the big pharma that want to destroy someone who has some miracle cure for the rest of us. The truth is probably on the other end of the spectrum, as it is with most of the "independent" medial research, usually funded by the desperate people, or some powerful interests (like the supplement industry).

In this particular case, the lack of skepticism and critical thinking is particularly strong in the Polish community, which has been propagating myths and half-truths about Dr. Burzynski for decades. He is usually portrayed as a hero of the medical field, which might have been the case many decades ago, but can be questionable after years of failed medical research. As Burzynski goes back to his research, after FDA lifts a hold on it, one of the most influential Polish newspapers in the US, "Nowy Dziennik", produces a semi-advertisement for him and his Institute (in Polish). As always, there is not a single ounce of skepticism in the article, and the author just swallows Burzynski's arguments hook, line and sinker.

At the same time, Center for Inquiry, a skeptical, education and advocacy organization, releases a very strong letter to the FDA, demanding better explanation of their decision.

Let's hope this time around Dr. Burzynski can actually deliver some results of his numerous studies, and that they are positive, showing that his miraculous methods actually work. Otherwise, FDA should just circle back and take a hard look at his operation again and again, to ensure that people are not led to believe in therapies that have no result.

If he does, I'll be the first to cheer him up and wave the Polish flag in pride.