I have just been in Sao Paulo to give a lecture at the opening of a new university institute, ‘Question of Science‘. Under the leadership of Natalia Pasternak, the institute will promote scepticism in Brazil, particularly in the area of alternative medicine. Brazil currently has no less than 29 types of alternative medicine paid for with public money, and even homeopathy is officially being recognised and taught at all Brazilian medical schools.
But the most peculiar case of Brazilian quackery must surely be phosphoethanolamine. Gilberto Chierice, a Chemistry Professor at the University of São Paulo, used resources from a campus laboratory to unofficially manufacture, distribute, and promote the chemical to cancer patients claiming that it was a cheap cure for all cancers without side-effects. Remarkably, this was in the total absence of through clinical testing. In September 2015, university administrators therefore began preventing him from continuing with this practice. However, in October 2015, several courts in Brazil ruled in favour of plaintiffs who wanted the compound to remain available. In an unusual move of defence of common sense, a state court overturned the lower courts’ decision a month later, and the secretary for Brazil’s science and technology ministry promised to fund further research on the compound. In 2016, a law was passed in Brazil allowing the sale of synthetic phosphorylethanolamine for cancer treatment. Due to opposition from the Brazilian Medical Association, the Brazilian Society of Clinical Oncology, and the regulatory agency ANVISA, the country’s Supreme Court then suspended the law. I was told that a stepwise plan of clinical testing had been implemented. As the drug even failed to pass the most preliminary tests, the program had to be aborted.
This story seems like a re-play of many similar tales of bogus cancer cures of the past. They all seem to follow a similar pattern:
- Someone dreams up a ‘cure’ for all cancers that is cheap and free of side-effects.
- This appeals to many desperate cancer patients who are fighting for their lives.
- It also attracts several entrepreneurs who are hoping to make a fast buck.
- The story is picked up by the press and consequently a sizable grass-roots movement of support emerges.
- Populist politicians jump on the vote-winning band-waggon.
- The experts caution that the bogus cancer ‘cure’ is devoid of evidence and might put patients’ lives at risk.
- The legislators get involved.
- Law suits start left, right and centre.
- Eventually, the cancer ‘cure’ is scientifically tested and confirmed to be bogus.
- Eventually, the law rules against the bogus ‘cure’.
- A conspiracy theory emerges stating that the cancer ‘cure’ was unjustly suppressed to protect the interests of Big Pharma.
- A few years later, the subject re-surfaces and the whole cycle starts from the beginning.
Such stories remind us that fighting bogus claims is hugely important, even if it does not always succeed or turns out to be merely an exercise of damage limitation. Every life saved by the struggle against quackery makes it worthwhile.
I wish the new Institute ‘Question of Science‘ all the luck it richly deserves and desperately needs.