It was the early 1970’s: a time when America’s populous was campaigning for peace, love, and bigger bellbottoms. At the same time, a controversy was quietly brewing within the cancer research community. It revolved around a proposed cancer treatment drug called Laetrile, and allegations that the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center was deliberately trying to discredit the therapy by withholding positive research in favor of the medication from the public.
Inspired by a book that was motivated by a scandal, Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan Kettering takes an in-depth look at the actions of doctors then working at the cancer center at the time, and the science writer, Ralph W. Moss, PhD, who risked everything to bring the truth to the public.
Directed by Eric Merola, the documentary provides scientific evidence that may lead its viewer to form a second opinion about the cancer drug, now infamous to many as a “quack therapy”. A few days ago I sat down with Eric and Ralph to discuss “Second Opinion”, and this is what they had to say.
The purpose of this documentary Ralph, isn’t to gain a public opinion in favor of the use of Laetrile, but instead, to establish that there was one American research study performed, which did produce a positive result in CD8f1 mice as a probable, short term, treatment for certain types of cancer, and the controversy surrounding Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center keeping these results from the public?
Ralph: Yes, I would say more like eight positive experiments. I wouldn’t emphasis the short term effect. I would say that the results on metastases had been greater than those of any other agent which had been studied up until that time.
Eric: It was also not just in CD8f1 [mice] but there had also been results with Swiss albinos; they did other mouse trials.
Ralph: In AKR leukemia, there were 3 animals’ systems that were tested, mostly CD8F1, breast cancer that metastasizes to the lungs; and then also Swiss albino mice, retired breeders that spontaneously developed breast cancer; and [the] AKR leukemic mouse, which was another standard mouse.
What is a CD8F1 mouse?
Ralph: It’s a specially bred mouse that no longer exists, but it was specially bred by Dr. [Daniel] Martin to have a high percentage of cases of breast cancer, and also cancer that metastasizes, so they can study the effects of chemotherapy to see whether or not that chemotherapy would prevent the spread of the cancer.
Eric: They said that the mouse models where cancer was surgically implanted [weren’t responding] to the therapies, so why not create a mouse model where cancer spontaneously grows within the first year? And that’s what the CD8F1 mice were.
You didn’t say this as part of your question, but I’m going to throw this in since we’re on the subject; when they first started trials with laetrile on mice they tried it with the surgically implanted ones and it didn’t have any efficacy, than they switched over to the spontaneous ones and all of a sudden it was working.
Eric, How did you become involved in this project?
Eric: I was living in New York City, and it was sort of at a transitional period for me personally, career-wise. I was sort of unhappy with what I was doing, and I really wanted to be doing something more entrepreneurial, or mine, if you will. I was tired of working for people, and I always wanted to make a documentary film. I was always kind of boggling around my brain, what would I do it on? I didn’t want to do another film about Iraq, or oil, I’ve always been very activism -and social activity- conscious and I just picked up [Ralph’s] book, The Cancer Industry, which he wrote and published right after the events occurred; that occurred in the documentary, and I was just taken by it. I must have read it ten times, and I read it back and forth on the subway, and I had all these post-it notes and highlights, and I started to e-mail him. At the time I had really no documentary credentials, and I couldn’t blame him. He’s sort of tired of this story, that’s what he’s known for.
Anyway, so he kind of initially turned me down and then I went on, and based on another chapter of this book, I started studying another subject within it, and I did a couple of movies on that one. Those went pretty well, and then I went around again and managed to coerce Ralph into letting me do this.
Ralph, explain to me what Laetrile and amygdalin are? What are the differences between Laetrile, laetrile and amygdalin?
Ralph: So the name “Laetrile” is an invented name. A scientist named Ernst Krebs, in San Francisco, coined this name to describe what he thought was a unique chemical that he had invented. But he couldn’t produce this chemical, and so in a kind of a -I would say confusion- the name Laetrile then became attached to the raw material for the drug that he supposedly had invented, and laetrile was then; what he and his opponents called laetrile, was actually a well know chemical called amygdalin.
Amygdalin had been isolated from apricot kernels and bitter almonds in the early 19th century, [it] had been used just by coincidence as a cancer treatment in 1844, so it was a well-known entity in any chemical supply company, and produced and provided. It is a common chemical found in the kernels of fruits of the rose family, especially apricots, peaches and bitter almonds; not sweet almonds. So when we talk about Laetrile – the true Laetrile, the substance for which the name was invented, can be produced, but only at substantial cost, so it never really figured in to the controversy. Everything else that was called laetrile was some variation on amygdalin and the best thing to do when testing laetrile, or B17, as it is sometimes called, would be to use the purest form of amygdalin, such as is found when it is directly extracted from the apricot kernel. So in my book Doctored Results, which is the companion book to the film, I state all this and then I say, “from henceforth we’re going to say that amygdalin and laetrile, ‘lowercase’ laetrile are the same thing”. “Uppercase” Laetrile is of historical relevance, but has no relevance in terms of this question. What they tested at Sloan-Kettering was amygdalin provided to them by the Norton Foundation, which at that time was the main manufacturer of amygdalin. Better yet, would be for future researchers to buy amygdalin from a good chemical supply house and just use that chemically pure, identified, well-defined chemical.[That’s the] long way of saying amygdalin and laetrile are really the same thing and the other stuff was just adding tremendous confusion to the question, and that confusion, by the way, made this situation an even more difficult topic to research.
Does laetrile send cancer into remission?
Ralph: I don’t think we can say that. Sugiura’s research showed a growth inhibition on small tumors, temporary, and the main effect of course was stopping the spread of the cancer. So I can say, no, I don’t believe that, except for rare cases. And I believe there were some rare cases where people went into remission after taking laetrile, but they were also doing other things which could have accounted for that. So most indications I have are that laetrile, by itself, is not very effective against cancer. But that said, it’s tremendously important that laetrile stopped the spread of cancer because that could affect millions of people, such as people who have been operated on for cancer and then they could give the laetrile if it pans out in human trials. That’s how it should be trialed. It should be trialed not in patients that have a large tumor burden, but in patients that have a large risk of recurrence, and they should give the laetrile to see whether or not it stops that recurrence from happening.
Eric: And also – its interesting, correct me if I’m wrong – but it seems it couldn’t penetrate the already formed, solid tumor. But it worked very well on the cellular level. That’s how the cancer spreads, it gets into the blood stream and it manifests somewhere else.
They also did a year-and-a-half long preventative study, again, spontaneous tumor mice, CD8f1. Sugiura did a year-and-a-half long study to see if it would prevent the spread of cancer, and it did that as well, 80 percent of the time, roughly. So again it just backs up that it works really well on the cellular level, but when it comes to an existing tumor it doesn’t really have much of an effect.
So would it be fair to say, that although there is no proof that [laetrile] can send the cancer into remission it could at the least buy patients with certain forms of cancer time to receive other treatments, or patients with terminal cancer more time in general?
Ralph: We don’t know. The truth is… we just don’t know.
What was Dr. Kanematsu Sugiura’s position at Sloan-Kettering?
When I met him, and when he started the laetrile testing, he was member emeritus, which is like retired full professor. They don’t have professors, they have members at Sloan-Kettering, and he was the most experienced, and probably the best known and most highly regarded researcher that they had. He had begun his research in cancer in 1909 at Roosevelt Hospital, catching rats in the basement of Roosevelt Hospital for experimental purposes.
Eric: He pioneered the idea of using mice to begin with.
Ralph: Pretty much.
What exactly, were his results?
Ralph: There were three positive results; the health and well-being of the mice seem to have improved. I base this on his observations based on his 60 years of experience working with mice and rats, that’s the first thing. The second thing is a temporary stoppage in the growth of small tumors. This went on for weeks.
You could see it in his notebooks, the stasis or the cessation of growth of the small tumors, because he had a little stamp, and with his stamp he would stamp the outline of the mouse, and he would with his calibers measure the tumor and then draw that on to the mouse. You could see week by week that the smaller tumors would stop growing, and in the controlled animals they just grew apace and killed the animals. But then eventually those tumors would start growing again.
The most important thing was the data he accumulated on stopping the metastasis, or the spread of cancer, and in that case the difference was overwhelming. The animals that got saline solution or salt water solution -which is a control substance and doesn’t have any effect on tumors- they had 80 to 90 percent metastases in their lungs and the animals that had got the laetrile had only 10 to 20 percent, so there was at least a 60 percent difference, gross numbers. There were four times the difference in as many animals with lung metastases as in the laetrile group, this was statistically significant.
From the publication of my book [Doctored Results], I hired a Penn State statistician to go over all the numbers from the Sloan-Kettering paper, and all the numbers from the book Doctored Results (or that we talk about), and he confirmed the statistical significance of these numbers. So we’ve double checked with modern day statisticians that this is correct, so that was the main thing. No one before has ever seen anything like this, and in the time since then -even though I read thousands of journal articles about cancer- I can’t recall anything that works quite as well. I think there are some anti- inflammatory drugs that if explored properly might have similar effects. But off the bat I bet that very few cancer researchers could name a substance which even had anything close to approaching what laetrile had.
What is NCI?
Ralph: National Cancer Institute.
From facts stated in the documentary, it would seem that the NCI was trying to procure documented evidence against Laetrile as a viable cancer therapy when the Institute awarded Dr. Daniel Martin a $1,000,000 grant- now worth $4,000,000.00 today- requesting that he use those funds to run tests whose results could discredit Dr. Sigura’s original findings. Talk a little bit about your opinion on this.
Ralph: Well Dr. Martin (who was a surgeon at the Catholic Medical Center in Queens, NY) supplied the mice which were used in the experiments. He was the producer of the CD8f1 mice. He had some general prejudice against what we would call alternative medicine, but what happened is that in 1975 when he was at the end of his ropes in terms of his career, he had a lawsuit against his own institution -Catholic Medical Center- and had been relegated to an area they called Siberia, an old discarded tuberculosis hospital out in Queens, so his career was really at a halt here. He stopped publishing and he had been turned down in the previous year for an NCI national grant to develop his mouse colony.
Suddenly out of the blue two things happened, one is he suddenly gets -against their against their pervious advice of less than a year before- he gets a grant of $1,000,000.00 to develop his mouse colony and he goes on a warpath against laetrile, he’s everywhere; speaking in public, giving T.V. interviews -I believe he did three separate op-ed pieces for the New York Times and other prominent papers against laetrile- and he would make statements like…like “Not only does laetrile not work against cancer, but it can’t work against cancer. I can tell you in advance what the test results are going to be because it can’t work”. Well, what that really meant was it can’t succeed because we, the medical establishment are against it, we don’t support it and will do everything we can to destroy it. You can never say that a substance can’t work.
We now know by the way (and I’ll bring this up to the current date from papers published just this month), that laetrile is highly effective against three different bladder cancer cell lines. So we can see the dose response curve, as you give more laetrile, you get more cell killing going on in all three of these cell lines -this was work just done in Germany; published in the last month or so- and its been shown in cervical cancer, and its been shown in prostate cancer. So we know that laetrile, from three countries, from three independent laboratories; by the way the repeated the test in Germany, just to be on the safe side, so you know it does have an anti-cancer [effect], but he [Martin] knew in advance that it wasn’t going to work, and he did everything possible to destroy it and to discredit it. But he, I would say, was the person who was the most responsible for turning the tide at Sloan-Kettering.
What is Second Opinion?
Eric: If you remember Second Opinion was the newsletter, it was Ralph’s way of fighting back, their way of fighting back (Ralph’s along with about 20 other sympathetic employees way of fighting back), and they dubbed it Second Opinion, because you know, for obvious reasons it was like getting a second opinion on your cancer diagnoses, etc…and this was their second opinion; so what started off as the way they leaked the documents, [and] other people started complaining “I want to complain about the nursing department”, “I want to complain about this racist firing”, and it became this sort of rebellion within the institution so that’s essentially what it is and I thought it would be a great title to the movie because, actually, one of the biggest issues was called Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering -which was he analyzed the paper, the big paper that was part of the press conference you saw in the movie-, so…
Is your outrage with this Sloan-Kettering cover up scandal fueled more by the possibility that there might have been some financial gain had by the medical institutes and practitioners involved in the cover up, or because you knew that by Sloan-Kettering holding back its positive findings it was taking away the peoples’ right to choose a drug that could possibly help them, even if it was only short-term? Or was there something else entirely which connected you emotionally to the scandal surrounding Sloan-Kettering and Laetrile?
My emphasis that I stated -I stated this at the time in Second Opinion- wasn’t so much about patient’s rights to use laetrile, but about the distortion and the corruption of the process of scientific testing. So I believe in science, I believe in the science of rigorous testing, and I believe we at Sloan-Kettering were on the track to add something really valuable to this store of knowledge about the activity of this agent, and that valuable knowledge which could have proceeded to the stage of clinical trials and to something useful for patients was aborted, was destroyed, was perverted -if that’s the word- into an dishonest direction, and entered into the scientific record false (and falsified) ideas about the actual effectiveness of this agent. That has had profound effects, because it created a dead zone around this compound to the point that -other than a few letters warning people not to take it- there has been virtually no research done on this topic since the Sloan-Kettering article appeared, and then finally that so-called clinical trial, and no one has felt that they needed to research it because if Sloan-Kettering said it didn’t work than why would we need to go ahead and do anything further, and also the animosity; the really ferocious animosity, of the funding agencies towards laetrile would discourage any researcher in his or her right mind from going ahead and further testing it.
So they create this, as they say “dead zone” around laetrile, which has lasted about 40 years. I don’t know a single researcher in the United States whose researching this class of compounds, but you do find some research going on in China, Korea and now in Germany, countries that are conspicuously independent of the influence of the United States when it comes to medical research, and it’s no coincidence those are countries that also have strong traditions of complimentary medicine, and folk medicine and so forth…and Spain also is a country were some additional testing is being done, but in the U.S. I can’t think of a single person who has been brave enough, or full hardy enough to gamble their career on investigating something that all the authorities will tell you doesn’t work; and their saying “it doesn’t work” goes back to the Sloan-Kettering experiments.
But you were willing to gamble your career to come forward as someone who knew this positive information on the findings of laetrile. Why did you decide to come forward and risk your job?
Ralph: And lose my job. I just realized I would spend the rest of my life looking in the mirror and feeling uncomfortable with myself and I couldn’t face that. My wife is a very strong willed and strong minded person, and she felt even stronger about this than even I did, and we have been married 50 years now…and I don’t know if we would have stayed married if I had coped out at that point. I mean you could ask her but my children are very supportive and without that family support, you know, I don’t know that I am such a strong person that I would have been able to do what I did. But I went ahead and did it.
It wasn’t easy. It was very, very stressful and not pleasant at all. I had no income for the next three years, literally- so it wasn’t easy, but as I say without family support I don’t think it ever would have happened.
What is the impact you hope this documentary will have on its viewers?
It’s hard to answer that question, but I’m going to do it the best that I think I can. When it comes to this genre it seems that the same people who would be willing to go up against the Iraq war, or fracking, or -pick anything- whatever that interest group may be that you’re protesting against, but when it comes to this most people go “oh no, no that’s not possible”, their belief system starts kicking in and they go “no, no, no, that would never really happen”, “if this were really true everyone would be using this substance”, or “if this was really true, they never would have done that, they never would have lied about it for monetary reasons”, or whatever, so I felt that in my process of wanting to make a documentary (that had never been done before) I wanted to pick a challenging one because the factual data is there, there is no argument on fact. It’s always an argument based on someone’s emotional belief system around it.
We really need to get this information out there -along with this book and proper media -somewhere, maybe in a perfect world, maybe Sloan-Kettering could own up to this and clean the stables; as Ralph once said, Maybe we can take a mature, responsible look at this, and maybe we can pick it up again.
Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering, had its New York City premiere on August 29th, 2014 at Cinema Village, and will continue to run there until September 4th. The film will than tour the country; having limited runs in many states, starting with California. To find out more information about the film, along with tour locations and schedule, please visit the film’s official website: http://www.secondopinionfilm.com. For interested persons, the website also provides information supporting the film’s content. The companion book for the film, Doctored Results is available on Amazon.com.