Eric Merola’s Documentary Shows Pharma Politics Reversed Positive Studies
Public Spokesman/Idealist Ralph W. Moss Resisted Cover Up, Got Fired
Time Brought Justice for Both Sides but Not Yet for Laetrile
By Anthony Liversidge
One of science and medicine’s best buried political secrets has burst like Frankenstein out of its grave into the open this week with the release of Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering, a documentary directed by Eric Merola, which will be premiered with Q/A at Cinema Village (22 East 12 St) at 7pm Friday (Aug 29 2014).
The film beautifully dramatizes and clarifies one of the greatest scandals in the ongoing war between pharma and the alternative natural remedies it labels “quackery”, but which tend to look better and better in mainstream lab research.
Rather miraculously, Second Opinion manages to be riveting despite being essentially nothing more than the testimony of one talking head, the whistleblower in the affair, Ralph W. Moss.
Moss, luckily, has the lively charisma and intelligence to carry the film through seventy six minutes of revelation, aided by images and footage illustrating his story – their own research results that were denied by the poobahs of a great research hospital, their false testimony to the press and to Congress, and the family who backed him in his youthful decision not to lie to keep “the best job I ever had”.
Playing politics with science
The absorbing film dissects the fairly disgraceful attempt by the rulers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the great cancer research and treatment temple in Manhattan, to bury studies by one of their own, a very respected (pioneer of chemotherapy) scientist named Kanematsu Sugiura. His experiments with mice inconveniently showed that the much maligned “quack remedy” Laetrile actually had value, and should have been pursued with further research.
Instead, the research hospital’s administrators arranged to fold his study in a paper of their own (for the Journal of Surgical Oncology 10:89-123, 1978. C.C.Stock et al: Antitumor Tests of Amygdalin in Spontaneous Animal Tumor Systems) which denied that Laetrile had any value and suggested that Sugiura, a grand old man of science who had been with them for nearly sixty years, was mistaken. The further studies added saw his positive results vanish amid skulduggery – “a funny thing happened”, as the Dr Sugiera put it to the press – which mixed up groups of mice and swapped their feeding solutions.
The conclusion of their published paper was the opposite of the truth: Laetrile had nothing to offer. Or as MSK president (and director of Squibb pharmaceuticals) Lewis Thomas put it, testifying in July 1977 at Senator Kennedy’s hearing on Laetrile, the data showed that “Laetrile is without any effect at all.”
Public humiliation of an honest researcher
At the huge press conference mounted in June 1977 to satisfy outsiders on this point, video of which director Eric Merola has miraculously unearthed, the unfortunate Sugiura is seen both inclined to be loyal and politely agree with his employers, yet quietly refusing to renounce his own findings. “Of course, my results don’t agree, but I agree with what my institution says.”
But asked pointblank by reporters if he stood by his results, he replies, “Yes, I stick.”
He added, “I hope somebody will confirm my results later on.”
Meanwhile the preprints of the group paper in which his work was buried were placed by the PR staff behind a curtain so that reporters would use the misleading summary a young science writer at Sloan-Kettering Ralph W. Moss, 34, was forced to author.
The politics inside medical science
This is not quite as much of a blatant embarrassment as the just preceding Sloan-Kettering scandal of the seventies, where William Summerlin used a Magic Marker to darken mice in a bogus demonstration that he had transplanted skin successfully between them.
But this history of the top brass at Memorial Sloan Kettering caught red handed trying to suppress the good results of the ancient and gentle Dr Kanematsu Sugiura is educational for all who might think that the medical community, even today, welcomes studies indicating that natural remedies have potential, though these have accumulated into a small mountain of paper in the forty years since Laetrile was politically defeated.
None of this scientific trickery would have emerged into the light of day except for the integrity and bravery of a young whistleblower on the pr staff of the renowned hospital-research institute from 1974 to 1977. Ralph W. Moss, now 71, was a bright young Stanford Ph.D and classicist hired to master the arcane labyrinth of modern cancer research and translate it for the press. He had the distasteful assignment of blandly peddling the false impression favored by the brass that Dr Sugiura’s results were contradicted by tests at another institution. Being new to science and medical politics, and a young man of unusual integrity, he didn’t take kindly to the role of compromising the truth. Nor did his wife Martha, who said “They want somebody who is going to lie? That is not you!”
So Moss became a mole for truthseekers in the press. He slipped the papers of the esteemed Dr Sugiura that showed that Laetrile (actually the naturally occurring chemical amygdalin drawn from apricot and peach pits, and the kernels of bitter European almonds) was far from useless to the New York Times, but Jane Brody’s front page revelation of the affair (4 Cancer Centers Find No Proof of Therapy Value in Illegal Drug Mon Jul 21 1975) was the reverse of what Moss hoped for – not even mentioning Dr Sugiura (whom Brody didn’t interview, Moss noticed), denying that any positive results could be duplicated and crediting the research of notorious Laetrile enemy Daniel S. Martin at the Catholic Medical Center in Queens which supposedly proved Dr Sugiura wrong, but which was later shown to be based on faulty cancer assays.
Laetrile – a promising direction
As the film shows, Sugiura had in fact found the much maligned Laetrile did not cure but did work very well in slowing breast cancer, curbing new tumors, preventing pain in significantly many test mice, and stopping the deadly spread to the lungs (11 per cent suffered this compared to 89 per cent in one test). Their health and appearance was markedly improved. Moreover, there were two other scientists at Memorial Sloan Kettering who had got similar positive results for Laetrile. Franz Schmid found that even 40mg, a fiftieth of the dose (2000 mg per kilo of body weight) used by Sugiura, extended the life of the mice after they were given cancer by half. Elizabeth Stockert’s results also matched Sugiura’s, all confirmed by the five pathologists that counted lesions and tumors at Sloan-Kettering.
In fact, on July 2nd 1974 the top leaders of Sloan-Kettering (Lewis Thomas, Robert Good, Chester Stock and Lloyd Old) visited with the NCI and FDA in a large meeting to persuade them to allow clinical trials, and it was agreed to consider trials to treat cancer and relieve pain, and “the FDA will publicly endorse good research on amygdalin as in the public interest.”
Federal sun turns to wind and rain
But a later, bigger meeting at NCI on March 4th 1975, with higher ranking NCI officials, was attended by Daniel Martin of CMC, newly a national quackbuster and adamant opponent of Laetrile, and federal permission for trials was cancelled. To Moss’s bafflement, with the exception of Lloyd Old, the head of research, with no change in the science his top officials’ tune changed to “misrepresentations and egregious lies” claiming Laetrile had no virtue whatsoever. Chester Stock, director of the Sloan-Kettering’s Walker labs told the press “We have found Laetrile negative in all the animal systems we have tested.” It was at this point Moss realized there was a “cover-up”.
Only Lloyd Old responded to his concerns. As Moss sat in Old’s office, the head of research said to him “Do you want to know where we get all of our new ideas?” and took down a copy of the American Cancer Society’s Unproven Methods of Cancer Management which blacklisted Laetrile and other innovations as quackery. “This is the Bible!”
Moss says that “scientifically speaking, this was the most mind blowing moment of my life!” Later, he reports, Old handled his inner conflict by holidaying in Tahiti when Sloan-Kettering had its press conference, where as the film shows every one of its leaders present from Lewis Thomas down had to lie convincingly to 100 reporters and cameras, and did so with great acting skill.
After Brody’s failure to present the correct science a doubly disenchanted Moss sent the research in mid 1975 to the main Laetrile lobbying group, but they turned out to have too many members from the extreme right wing John Birch Society, which didn’t help gain traction. So Moss turned to a small left wing group, Science For The People, run by physician-activist named Alec Pruchnicki, and formed the secretly authored Second Opinion movement, to produce an underground sheet for employees at Sloan-Kettering to write anonymously about work issues, which became a must read for all managers on the day it was distributed.
Six months after the press conference held by Sloan-Kettering Moss wrote a 30,000 word monograph correcting the deceptions of his top brass. He decided to hold a press conference about it at the New York Hilton, with the head of Science for the People and others to speak. When assigned by his boss at the research center to spy on it, he confessed that he was the lead speaker. Next day, he described what had really happened with Laetrile research at Sloane-Kettering, a devastating account of corporate deceit in reporting scientific research. “Laetrile in fact is better than all the known anti-cancer drugs. All told, there were 20 positive experiments between 1972 and 1977”. Ultimately, he blamed “the profit system” for the scandal.
The brouhaha and the allegations of cover up landed on the front page of the New York Post, and his boss, Gerald Delaney, finally fired him when he came in on Monday, for “betraying the trust placed in him as a member of the public affairs department of this cancer center,” as he told the New York Times. Meanwhile the papers and statements from Second Opinion were “irresponsible and totally incorrect”.
Moss felt devastated by what seemed “so unfair” – that “an institution ostensibly devoted to seeking scientific truth” should behave in this way. Sloan-Kettering padlocked his filing cabinet and two armed guards told him never to enter the building again. But his wife says she was proud to be his wife, and Sugiura sent him a letter congratulating him on the accuracy of his report.
In the end, all the men who sold out science at the renowned institution have passed away, and as Moss notes, all of them died of cancer.
Ralph Moss as cancer reporter
The public is fortunate that Moss was kicked out from what he has described as perhaps “the best job I ever had”. The radical classicist went on to carve out a prominent place in cancer research information as perhaps its best consultant and writer. He described the notorious but soon forgotten Sloan-Kettering affair in a chapter of his 1980 book on The Cancer Industry and has now returned to the topic in a new book devoted to the battle, Doctored Results, published in February. He has become an unusually useful and widely respected source, publishing 12 books on cancer research and treatment and building a 35 year record of researching the best available treatment for all major types of cancer, and currently writing the Moss Reports, impartially assessing conventional and unconventional research and experience for over 200 cancer diagnoses.
His writing and editing has appeared in publications on both sides of the battle to reform medicine, from JAMA and the Lancet to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, including a monthly column on the “War on Cancer” for the Townsend Letter. He has even been back to lecture as an honoree at Sloan-Kettering, as well as many other medical centers here and abroad, with a slew of awards and honors around the world. He was invited by Harold Varmus who was then director of the NIH, in 1994 to sit on the NIH Alternative Medicine Advisory Council and help found the Office of Alternative Medicine, although this unfortunately has failed to live up to its ambitious charter since.
Why this movie matters
To revisit this storm in a fine china teapot may seem irrelevant forty years later, when Laetrile has been replaced in interest by numerous other plant substances. Especially in the last twenty years, peer reviewed studies in major centers around the world (even by institutions as deeply established as the Mayo Clinic) have shown that substances as common as green tea, resveratrol, curcumin (in turmeric) and the ubiquitous plant flavonoid quercetin might well have or even provably do have beneficial effects in humans in regard to cancer and other major ailments. But mainstream medicine is still not enthusiastic about using them: evidently, the same system flaws are at work.
Whether viewers of this unusual documentary will get its real message seems uncertain, since it spends little time on who’s to blame, and what should be done about a medical cancer research system clearly still in the pocket of big pharma. On this there is but the one telling quote that comes at the end. “Nobody is going to pay $70,000 for a new cancer drug if they can buy Laetrile for 75 cents.” – William W. Vodra, Former Associate Chief Counsel for Drugs, FDA.
The film’s bottom line message is that Memorial Sloan-Kettering should correct the record, and Laetrile should be revisited and properly assessed. Unlike chemotherapy it is not toxic, by the way, contrary to the impression given by Wikipedia. Raw (not roast, marzipan is made in Europe from roast bitter almonds) apricot kernels in huge amounts (more than sixty, say, at 0.5 mg each)) are toxic and even fatal to take orally (the enzymes release cyanide from the molecule) but purified Laetrile itself (amygdalin, C(20)H(27)NO(11)) is perfectly safe in reasonable amounts to take orally, one gram per day, say, in a human. (Given the way cyanide works, nothing much will happen to you if you eat fewer than sixty apricot pits at once, since the body is able to detoxify them in lesser amounts).
Whether current Sloan-Kettering executives will be prepared to take responsibiity for their predecessors misleading the press and public seems highly improbable given that the forces that made them do so are still in place and more powerful than ever. But the crying need to have clinical trials for Laetrile is well established by this careful account of a political crime against good science. As Moss says “to this day, if there are any better agents that have been proven as effective at preventing the spread of cancer they are unknown to me.”
Merola’s Corrective Moviemaking
This is Merola’s second major documentary of this kind, factually supporting pioneers in medical research against unscientific repression of their results. He made the excellent movie about Burzynski, Burzynski! , the Polish anti-cancer pioneer, in 2010, illuminating the excesses of the FDA in persecuting that independent researcher regardless of his promising and now officially validated results in countering brain cancer, something established medicine is largely unable to do. This important movie can be seen free at the Dr. Mercola site A full transcript is available at Burzynski! transcript A part II was completed and released in March this year, see Burzynski Movie. In June the FDA acknowledged the safety and efficacy of Burzynski’s “antineoplastons” and allowed Phase III trials.
Here is the trailer, which is worth watching: