CPP Curiosities: Bad Medicine, Part One: Krebiozen

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Greetings, again, fellow historico-medico aficionados, and welcome to the latest installment of CPP Curiosities, our (semi) regular segment on all things thought provoking from the history of medicine. Past installments have run the gamut, from baseball legend Ted Williams’ cryogenically frozen remains, to the Greek demi-god of medicine who defeated death, to graverobbing after graverobbing after graverobbing.

On November 5, 2019, The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia unveiled a brand new exhibit examining cancer biology. Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer addresses how cancer behaves, common cancer types, the three most common forms of treatment, and ways to help reduce your risk. The exhibit was created by students in the fifth cohort of The Karabots Junior Fellows Program, a three-year summer and after-school program for Philadelphia high school students interested in careers in healthcare and medicine. The exhibit was part of a joint program with Swarthmore College to teach the public about cell signalling and cellular miscommunication and was made possible through a grant from The National Science Foundation. Students in the Karabots program also designed a complimentary lesson designed to teach middle school students about the ways cancer behaves and the relationship between cell signaling and cancer.

Main exhibit label for Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer

The three most common forms of cancer treatment are colloquially known as “slash, burn, poison,” referring to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. But what if I told you that you can treat yours or a love one’s cancer without resorting to surgery, medication, or radiation? Maybe there’s a magic pill that can cure cancer with none of the side effects of mainstream treatments? Maybe illness is just a state of mind, one we can counteract with the right degree of positive thinking? All this and more are out there for you…for a price.

Our students’ diligent efforts to learn about cancer inspired me to do some cancer research of my own. This led me down a research rabbit hole of cancer treatments and cures that are, for lack of a better term, not legitimate. It may come as no surprise that there is a long history of people peddling false or unproven cancer cures, taking advantage of cancer patients and their loved ones desperate for a miracle.

Alleged miracle cancer cures take on many forms, from supposedly natural supplements, to synthetic chemicals, to hitherto undiscovered anti-cancer agents hidden in the body, or even magical cancer-killing machines. However, their advocates share some notable similarities regardless of their angle. Most argue that cancer has some simple root cause that has hitherto eluded physicians, a root cause that has a simple chemical or mechanical solution. That solution specifically targets the cancer, quickly and easily destroying it with absolutely no side effects. Moreover these techniques have been known for years; however, their use is being suppressed deliberately by mainstream medical organizations, governments, pharmaceutical corporations, or a legion of other confederates who withhold the truth so they can profit from the suffering of cancer patients.

So, with in mind, join me for a journey through some spurious scientists, miracle-pushing machinists, and dubious doctors in a series I am calling Bad Medicine.

Bad Medicine: Episode One, Krebiozen

Image Source: Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

In the late 1940s, Yugoslavian physician Stevan Durovic claimed to develop a miraculous cancer cure while living in Argentina. His chemical, initially dubbed “substance X” and later renamed Krebiozen, was allegedly derived from a substance extracted from horse blood. According to Durovic, cancer was caused by a lack of this mysterious “Krebiozen” substance in the body, and adding more either through pills or injections caused cancer cells to shrink.

He brought his supposed miracle cure to the United States in 1951 and established the Krebiozen Research Foundation in Chicago, Illinois. There he developed some powerful local connections, including U.S. Senator Paul Douglas and Dr. Andrew C. Ivy. Ivy was a prominent cancer research scientist, a former medical adviser for the prosecution at the Nuremberg Hearings who claimed credit for developing the Nuremberg Code for medical experimentation on human test subjects, and Vice President of the University of Illinois. Ivy became Durovic’s gateway into the mainstream medical community, introducing his alleged cure to the world in a 1951 press event. Douglas, meanwhile, managed to secure Durovic, his brother, and their families permanent residency in the United States.

However, such bold claims inevitably attracted scrutiny. In 1959, the National Cancer Institute with endorsements from the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association called upon Durovic to allow researchers to test the drug’s efficacy. Durovic long asserted that the development of Krebiozen was a closely-guarded secret, which is often a red flag when it comes to medical research as many studies rely on reporting findings so other scientists can verify a study’s claims. Researchers later concluded that Krebiozen was nothing more than mineral oil containing creatine monohydrate, a naturally-occurring substance responsible for muscle growth (today creatine supplements are frequently used by people with muscle growth deficiencies or in bodybuilding).

In 1965, Durovic, his brother Marko, Ivy, and Dr. William F.P. Phillips were brought up on 42 counts of fraud as well as other charges related to the manufacture, sale, and use of their phony cancer cure. While a jury acquitted them of all charges in January 1966, the FDA banned interstate transportation of Krebiozen outside of Illinois and the Illinois legislature banned its sale in 1973. Once a prominent physician, Ivy’s reputation never recovered. (For more on the FDA’s investigation, there is this fascinating account by former FDA lawyer William Goodrich, pgs. 41-47.

For more information on the Krebiozen case, see this September 15, 2018, overview in The Chicago Tribune and this August 26, 2017, Washington Post article on FDA scientist Alma Levant Hayden, who scientifically proved Krebiozen was a fraud.

With that, our first installment of Bad Medicine is in the books. I hope you’ll tune in for our journey to find the “real” cure for cancer.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!