October 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

A Panorama on the Texan doctor selling untested cures for cancer, while Unreported world charts rising sales in cosmetic surgery ...


A doctor in Texas believes he can cure cancer. And a lot of cancer-sufferers believe he can too. Last week Panorama investigated Dr Stanislaw Burzynski (pictured), a maverick doctor who uses substances in urine and blood to switch off cancer cells. He calls these substances antineoplastons.

But Dr Burzynski’s ideas have been rejected by mainstream medicine. His panacean antineoplastons are not endorsed by the Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) and Burzynski refuses to share his controversial concoction with other scientists or to honestly publish his results.

How then, you might be asking, can he continue treating his patients with unproven, even harmful chemicals? Burzynski exploits a legal loophole. He claims he’s conducting a clinical trial. A clinical trial that has been going on for over twenty years. Yet despite the wide-spread criticism from the scientific community for dishonesty and malpractice, cancer-sufferers keep placing their trust in him. Why? I suppose, for many patients in the late stages of the disease, hope is all they can buy.

At the start of the programme we meet two young girls. Both developed brain tumours when very young and both were told by the NHS there was little hope. Their parents successfully raised an extortionate sum of money – about £60,000 – and headed to Texas and the Burzynski Clinic. Both girls received treatment with antineoplastons. Within a year both girls had died, one became critically ill straight after the drugs were given.

In 2010 Burzynski released a film, Burzynski: Cancer is Serious Business. The film is a candid marketing ploy. It is unbalanced, unequivocal,unethical. Yet convincing. Burzynski depicts himself as a hero fighting mainstream drug companies.

Towards the end of the Panorama episode we finally meet Dr Burzynski. He’s a parody of the miscreant scientist with his thick Polish accent, wily grin and fierce eyes. He cannot reveal the results of his tests, he says, because the FDA won’t allow him. While according to the presenter, the FDA have said he can. The whole interview crawls and creeps with lies and deceit. It is desperation that attracts people to Burzynski, desperation for a cure, for life, for hope.

Though of a different order, Unreported world: Making Brazil Beautiful also documented doctors selling hope. Here the hope is not life, but beauty. We are whisked away to the cosmetic clinics of Brazil, which has seen a 40% rise in people having cosmetic surgery.

Early on we are warned: this film does have images of surgery. Certainly true. But after series like Nip/Tuck and The Perfect Vagina, I have become desensitised to cosmetic surgery gore. Still, it’s always weird to see how brusque the surgeons are with their patients, yanking up the stomach fat-flap like rawhide.

I learnt a new word for a nose job: rhinoplasty. An apt word, except these people – mostly women – don’t have horns. In fact they have very nice, very normal noses. But they want them squeezed, tweezered and pinched into a generic, prototype, slightly tilted button-nose, which normally makes them look a bit odd: chins and cheeks seem to gain weight, the aesthetic equilibrium somehow offset.

The doctors in the film go on about everyone’s right to beauty and the fact that this beauty should be available to all races and all classes. And they’re quick to point out all the psychological harm caused by cavernous nostrils or a Wotsit-sized willy, but none of them seem to see that if you give everyone an arse-lift, and everyone’s towing an bum that looks like it’s turning itself inside-out, then the right to beauty becomes a pressurised right to normality.

Let’s hope there will be a spring back: a time when bingo-flaps on the arms and sagging buttocks swinging below the knee are deemed irresistible. The Rococco epoch was surely more generous.