HOUSTON — Stanislaw R. Burzynski is not a respected name in science. But as he is fond of pointing out, neither were Copernicus, Galileo, Pasteur or Einstein when they first challenged the scholastic assumptions of their day.
No matter how many times Burzynski's experimental, unapproved cancer treatment comes under fire from state and federal authorities--and it has been an ongoing battle since he opened his clinic here in 1977--the Polish-born physician offers the same defense.
"I'm a pioneer," he said unapologetically, smiling in a white lab coat from behind his mahogany desk. He contended that his use of antineoplastons--a substance he discovered, named and patented--will ultimately prove to be "about as alternative as the theory, a few hundred years ago, that germs cause disease."
The mainstream medical community--as Burzynski would predict--dismisses him as a charlatan. Insurance companies accuse him of preying on the desperation of the terminally ill. Last week, the U.S. government put him on trial, charging Burzynski with enough counts of fraud and illegal commerce to send him to prison for the rest of his life.
Ordered by the Food and Drug Administration not to distribute his remedy across state lines, Burzynski chose to disobey "the very clear and definite laws that apply to any other doctor in this country," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Mike Clark. He also alleged that Burzynski falsified his patients' billing records, conspiring to deceive insurance firms into paying for a treatment they generally won't.
"As much as I would like to believe there's a cure for cancer, I can't see any possibility that this stuff works," said Saul Green, a retired researcher at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who has examined Burzynski's methods on behalf of the National Cancer Institute and the Aetna Life and Casualty Co. "What he's talking about as revolutionary is scientific nonsense."
If this were purely a medical debate, it likely would be relegated to obscure oncologic journals, hashed out in jargon that makes the layperson's head spin.
But the story of "Dr. B," as his patients call him, also is steeped in populist politics and raw emotion--a combination that has given the 53-year-old refugee a forum that the scientific establishment would rather deny. In the eyes of his often ardent supporters, many of whom are rallying at the federal courthouse here, he is nothing short of a folk hero.
This is a man, they say, who was born under Nazi occupation, then stifled by Soviet rule, only to come to America and have his pioneering achievement quashed by a federal bureaucracy. That message has resonated all the way to Congress, triggering a round of hearings last year about the FDA, an agency frequently accused of guarding the interests of pharmaceutical giants at the expense of promising new medications.
"What right do they have to tell me that we can't come down here and be cured?" asked Ric Schiff, a sergeant in the San Francisco Police Department whose 6-year-old daughter, Crystin, died in 1995. Although she was receiving Burzynski's treatment for a brain tumor at the time, Schiff believes that she was killed not by the cancer but the massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation prescribed by her more traditional physicians.
"If those are your other choices, which one would you choose?" Schiff added. "I mean, what is the FDA protecting us from?"
Burzynski's appeal to patients is, without question, heightened by the side-effects and limited success of most other cancer treatments. Many patients come to him having already been "poisoned and burned," as critics of those toxic methods put it. Often, another doctor has told them to prepare for death.
Burzynski offers them hope. He describes his antineoplastons as a nontoxic derivative of peptides and other amino acids found naturally in bodily fluids. He initially extracted the drug from urine--including his own--but now manufactures it synthetically. When pumped back into the body, he contends, antineoplastons function as "biochemical micro-switches," turning off the genes that cause cancerous cells to grow and turning on the ones that suppress them.
Thomas and Suzanne Johnson know only that something is helping their 9-year-old daughter, Hannah.
Diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 1995, Hannah faced a nightmarish battery of radiation and chemotherapy--with no guarantees she would even survive the treatment. Burzynski made no promises either, the Johnsons insist. But on the first day at his clinic, they found themselves surrounded by happy and hopeful patients sprawled on the waiting room's nine plump leather couches; the talk was of living, not dying.