News

Texan clinic threatens UK bloggers with legal action over criticisms of its treatments

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d7865 (Published 02 December 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7865
  1. Margaret McCartney
  1. 1Glasgow

A US clinic has issued legal threats to health bloggers in the United Kingdom over their criticisms of its treatments.

The Burzynski Clinic in Houston uses antineoplaston treatments, which it says on its website “are based on the natural biochemical defense system of our body, capable of combating cancer without harming the healthy cells.”

The clinic was the subject of an article in the Observer newspaper on 20 November (www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2011/nov/20/a-family-gripped-by-cancer), written by Luke Bainbridge, a founding editor of Observer Music Monthly, which described a fundraising campaign by Mr Bainbridge to send his 4 year old niece, who has a glioma, to the clinic for treatment. Mr Bainbridge said that fundraising efforts were required for a “pioneering treatment at the Burzynski Clinic in Texas . . . The estimated cost is £200 000 [€235 000; $315 000]. It is not available in this country, it is new and there are no guarantees . . . But it might save her life. So you have got to try.”

Several UK bloggers then looked at the evidence for the treatments offered at the clinic. Andy Lewis, creator of Quackometer.net, said, “There are many warning signs given out by the clinic that are typical of cancer quackery, and so great caution is required.”

He went on to outline the costs that patients needed to pay to enrol in the clinic’s trials and stated that there was “no good independent peer reviewed RCT [randomised controlled trial] evidence suggesting it [antineoplaston therapy] is effective.”

Rhys Morgan, a schoolboy from Wales with Crohn’s disease, disputed on his blog the effectiveness of the treatment, after being contacted by a friend inviting him to donate to Laura’s treatment.

A man called Marc Stephens then contacted Andy Lewis and Rhys Morgan, through their respective websites, saying that he represented the Burzynski clinic. He wrote, “You published libelous and defamatory information. This correspondence constitutes a demand that you immediately cease and desist in your actions defaming and libeling my clients. Please be advised that my clients consider the content of your posting to be legally actionable under numerous legal causes of action, including but not limited to: defamation libel, defamation per se, and tortious interference with business contracts and business relationships.”

Mr Morgan was also told that he had published “libelous and defamatory information,” which meant that “you are now also interfering with my client’s business, emotionally affecting Dr Burzynski’s as well as his cancer patients around the world.” Mr Morgan was also sent emails with Google map screenshots of his house attached.

On 29 November the Burzynski Clinic published a press release stating that “Marc Stephens was recently hired . . . as an independent contractor to provide web optimization services and to attempt to stop the dissemination of false and inaccurate information concerning Dr Burzynski and the Clinic. We understand that Marc Stephens sent a Google map picture of a blogger’s house to the blogger and made personal comments to bloggers. Dr Burzynski and the Clinic feel that such actions were not appropriate. Dr Burzynski and the Burzynski Clinic apologize for these comments. Marc Stephens no longer has a professional relationship with the Burzynski Clinic.” However, the press release continued, “These bloggers will be contacted by attorneys representing the Clinic informing them of the specific factual statements contained in these blogs which the Clinic believes are false and defamatory.”

Peter Johnson, chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, said, “We’re concerned to hear that UK cancer patients are travelling to the Burzynski Clinic for treatment, as at the moment there is very little solid evidence to show that the antineoplaston treatment is effective against cancer.”

Mr Lewis said, “Oppressive libel laws have been used to close down legitimate concerns. This is not how science is done. It is not how a doctor should be addressing the public, patients, and scientists about their work.” His posts and those of Mr Morgan remain online.

Simon Singh, the science writer who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for comments he made in a newspaper article (BMJ 2010;340:c2086, doi:10.1136/bmj.c2086), said, “It is vital that patients know both sides of the story, but English libel law inhibits discussion and ultimately means that patients lack information and may make the wrong decision about their own treatment. If English libel reform is delayed, then it simply means that patients will suffer.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7865