Hello, greetings, and salutations, fellow medico-historico aficionados, and welcome to the latest installment of CPP Curiosities, our semi-regular foray into weird and interesting chapters in medical history. This is part two in Bad Medicine, our ongoing subseries on dubious and fraudulent cancer cures. This series is a complement to Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer, our new Mütter Museum exhibit developed by students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program. Last time, we looked at Krebiozen, a miraculous substance derived from horse blood that, while not curing cancer, led to its purveyors getting charged with over forty counts of fraud and destroyed the reputation of one prominent university vice president.
This time around, we are going to keep the dubious medicine train rolling with a look at a “cure” you might have been sent by your conspiracy-minded relative on Facebook. Hang on tight, because we are taking a look at Vitamin B17.
Image Source: Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Vitamin B17 treatment, also known as amygdalin or laetrile treatment, is based on a semi-synthetic compound called laetrile. Laetrile is derived from amygdalin, a compound found in the pits of several nuts and fruits although most commonly associated in this context with apricots.
Amygdalin treatments date back to the 1930s; however, their alleged cancer benefits are usually associated with the father-son duo of Ernst T. Krebs, Sr., and Ernst T. Krebs, Jr. The former was a physician from San Francisco who ran afoul of the Food and Drug Administration in the 1920s for peddling a substance called Syrup Leptinol, a supposedly magical cure-all derived from parsley that could allegedly cure influenza, pneumonia, and asthma. His son, meanwhile, was a self-proclaimed biochemist who claimed to isolate laetrile from apricot seeds in the 1940s. According to the Krebs and their supporters, cancer is not caused by genetics, environment, or lifestyle; rather, it is the result of a vitamin deficiency. By this line of reasoning, to cure cancer one simply needs to reintroduce the necessary vitamin back into the body. Krebs, Jr., claimed to discover this missing vitamin, dubbing it Vitamin B17. His alleged cancer cure gained traction in the 1970s, inevitably attracting scrutiny from members of the medical and scientific communities.
Krebs, Jr., and his magical cancer cure raised several red flags. An exposé published in the June 26, 1977, edition of the New York Times revealed the so-called Dr. Krebs, Jr., had no medical degree. The extent of his formal scientific training was a tumultuous three years at Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Medical College where he was expelled twice. The article further revealed his highest degree was an honorary doctorate from American Christian College, a now defunct small Evangelical Christian college based in Tulsa, OK, that did not issue doctorates at all.
Krebs’ decision to characterize laetrile as a vitamin rather than a pharmaceutical appeared to be an attempt to circumvent the rigorous testing required for pharmaceutical products to get federal approval, and a 1977 report from the Food and Drug Administration accused him of doing just that. The American Institute of Nutrition Vitamins does not recognize B17 as a vitamin; it is more accurate to consider it a supplement, and supplements, unlike pharmaceuticals, are not subject to rigorous scrutiny before going to market. Current FDA regulations place the onus on a supplement’s manufacturer to ensure the product is safe and does what the product’s marketing claims it does.
Scientifically speaking, there is no evidence that laetrile is a useful or effective cancer treatment. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite as laetrile, when taken in high enough quantities, especially when taken orally, can cause cyanide poisoning. A study reported in the January 28, 1982, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine tested laetrile treatment on 178 cancer patients. The study reported it offered no therapeutic benefits and, citing the risk of cyanide poisoning, concluded, “Amygdalin (laetrile) is a toxic drug that is not effective as a cancer treatment.” In the 2010s, the Cochrane Collaboration, an independent non-profit medical research firm, examined over 200 separate studies investigating laetrile treatment. In a 2015 report, the organization concluded there were no discernible benefits in laetrine/amygdalin as a cancer treatment, and its cyanide toxicity made it more harmful than helpful:
“The claims that laetrile or amygdalin have beneficial effects for cancer patients are not currently supported by sound clinical data. There is a considerable risk of serious adverse effects from cyanide poisoning after laetrile or amygdalin, especially after oral ingestion. The risk-benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is therefore unambiguously negative.” Miazzo S and Horneber M, “Laetrile Treatment for Cancer (Review),” The Cochrane Library (2015), No 4.
However, some of laetrile treatment’s supporters see something more sinister afoot. G. Edward Griffin, a self-proclaimed journalist, filmmaker, and author of World Without Cancer: The Story of Vitamin B17 accused the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, and the National Cancer Institute of deliberately suppressing the clinical benefits of laetrile treatment, collaborating with drug companies who financially benefit from the status quo. Claims of government/corporate suppression of the “real” cancer cure are widespread on the internet.
The Food & Drug Administration outlawed Laetrile in 1980. Those who attempt it today have to either travel outside the US or have it smuggled into the country.
If you’re looking for more information on the controversy surrounding Vitamin B17, a July 17, 2017, article for Buzzfeed addressed the topic in detail.
Until next time, catch you on the strange side!