Cork Skeptics

Promoting Reason, Science & Critical Thinking in Cork City & Beyond


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Burzynski the Cancer Quack and other stories: Our roundup for January

Jen Keane speaking at Cork Skeptics(Photo courtesy Donncha O'Caoimh)

Jen Keane speaking at Cork Skeptics
(Photo courtesy Donncha O’Caoimh)

We were delighted to have Jen Keane down to speak to us on Saturday night. Jen has taken a personal interest in the Dr. Burzynski story. She has been a prominent voice on the Internet, challenging the widespread view that Burzynski is a “pioneer” and a “maverick”. Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski runs a cancer clinic in Houston, Texas. In recent years, he has become famous around the world for offering a supposedly side-effect free cure for certain types of cancers, deemed incurable by most medical experts. Many support groups have been formed to raise the huge funds necessary to send patients to the clinic in Texas, where they can partake in Burzynski’s “revolutionary” treatment.

Not is all it seems, unfortunately. Burzynski has published very few studies in support of his antineoplaston therapy. His treatment has not been approved by the FDA, and it is still – after 30 years – in clinical trial phase (which makes it highly unethical for him to be charging patients for his treatments). Although very little clinical information has been published by the Burzynski clinic, there is growing evidence that his treatments fall far short of the clinic’s promises, offering little or no advantage to anybody except Burzynski’s bank account.

burzynski_cancer_poster_ruffJen, who tweets as @Zenbuffy on Twitter, has had an ongoing interest in this story for some time now. Her father passed away recently from cancer, so she understands well the difficulties faced by patients, families and friends in such situations. She recognises the conflicting nature of the Burzynski situation: where patients’ freedom to choose knocks against the false hope on offer by the Burzynski Clinic. While patients should be free to choose, they and their families also need to be fully informed. This is not the situation at present. The information on offer by Burzynski is not the whole story. The press releases, glowing testimonials and documentary films are little more than advertisements. Information about side-effects, clinical trial results or negative results are much harder to come by. Patients, families and friends are not given the full story and instead are being told that critics are part of an organised conspiracy to silence Burzynski because he represents a threat to the special interests involved in the “cancer industry”. Mainstream media is not helping, preferring the publication of uncritical pieces rather than examining the many legitimate concerns of those who see another side to Burzynski. Thus, they are helping the marketing of Burzynski to a wider audience.

Jen had words of advice to those who might criticise patient support groups – “Be Kind”. While sceptics can and should be forthright in their concerns, little is achieved through ridicule, insults and insensitive comments on the Internet, of which there are many examples on all sides. The people who are fundraising and trying to help are usually doing it for the best of reasons. Unfortunately in this case they have been badly informed, and the responsibility for this falls at the feet of the Burzynski clinic.

There are many resources available, putting forward the position of prominent scientists, oncologists and skeptics in this area. David Gorski has been blogging about Burzynski for a number of years, as have Orac and Andy Lewis among others. A website, thehoustoncancerquack.com is fundraising to raise awareness of Burzynski’s activities, while simultaneously helping cancer patients in St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital.

This was a powerful, well researched talk. We’re looking forward in having Jen back in Cork at a future date.

Celebrities and Science 2012

Every Christmas, Sense about Science reviews some of the more extraordinary statements by celebrities in the past year. This year was no exception, with dried placenta pills being suggested as a mineral supplement, ground coffee beans as a treatment for cellulite and compressed oxygen to help slow down the ageing process. Is this the reason why “celebrity” and “credulity” sound so much alike?

GM Foods – a change of heart.

For years, Mark Lynas has been to the fore in the campaign against genetically modified foods. In a recent lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference he outlined a very different vision – one where GM foods could be part of the solution, rather than a problem to be eliminated. It’s a great talk, definitely worth a listen.

Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories

Following on from the terrible shooting at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut in December, a number of websites have sprung up claiming that the event was a conspiracy designed to part Americans from their guns. Some people have been targeted as “crisis actors”, while parents have been accused of not expressing “proper levels of grief”. They’ve produced a video about it – such is the level of insanity in parts of the conspiracy community.

Homeopathic Vaccines

The BBC’s Inside Out programme reported that Ainsworths, a homeopathy supplier in the UK, has been recommending homeopathic vaccines as an alternative to vaccines that inoculate against Measles, Rubella and Whooping Cough among other illnesses. Whooping Cough (Pertussis) and Measles are experiencing something of a resurgence in Ireland due to lowered vaccination rates.

The 12 Cognitive Biases that prevent us from being rational

The website io9 published an interesting article on 12 common faults in our hardwiring that make us prone to making huge errors in judgement. Errors include Ingroup Bias, Post-Purchase Rationalisation, Observational Selection Bias and Neglecting Probability. These biases help us to understand why rigour is required in science. Simple observation and anecdote does not guard against bias, so when it comes to the critical questions we need a greater standard of observation and analysis.

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January Skeptics In The Castle: Jennifer Keane Examines the Burzynski Clinic & Its Purported Cure For Cancer

burzynski_cancer_poster_ruff

Our next meeting will take place on Saturday 19th January at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm.

This talk by Jennifer Keane will examine the Burzynski Clinic and its purported side-effect free cure for cancer. Jen has kindly supplied the following summary of her talk:

Stanislaw Burzynski has a cheap, effective, and side-effect free cure for cancer, and the FDA don’t want you to know about it. For over 30 years, Burzynski claims he has treated cancer patients who had no other options, and given them back their lives. In the past, most of Burzynski’s patients have been in America, though recently, a surge of celebrity-led publicity surrounding some UK patients and their fundraising efforts means that Burzynski has well and truly crossed the pond. Increasing numbers of UK, and now Irish patients are signing up for treatment, and while some patients are claiming shrinking or disappearing brain tumours, many more seem a lot further from success.

In this talk, I hope to shine a critical light on Burzynski’s treatment, the financial burden that it represents for those who sign up for it, and whether or not he is really offering a cure, or just expensive false hope.

About the speaker: Jen became interested in scepticism and science investigation while in college, when a group project on clinical trials ended up highlighting the problems with trials, and the inconsistency in their quality, execution, etc. The group project sparked an enduring interest in clinical trials, and science communication, which would ultimately culminate in her winning the Whittaker Award, twice consecutively, for talks on the TGN1412 clinical trials, and on biofuels. She graduated from NUI Maynooth with a double honours degree in Biology and Computer Science, and is currently pursuing a MSc with the Open University.

Jen blogs and tweets as Zenbuffy, and began writing about about science and scepticism in 2009, and has covered topics such as homoeopathy, psychics, miracle cures, and science reporting, to name but a few. Though always an area of interest, her father’s battle with cancer has made the area of cancer cures and quackery a particularly important one for her.

This talk is open to the public, and is free to attend. Directions to Blackrock Castle Observatory can be found on our information page. We hope to see you there!