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News and Comment

Statement on libel threats to critics of The Burzynski Clinic

29 November 2011

Bloggers discussing an unproven cancer treatment have been threatened with libel action.

A purported representative of The Burzynski Clinic, which promotes an unproven antineoplaston therapy for cancer, has threatened libel actions against bloggers for criticising the treatment.

The blogs were prompted in part by an article in the Observer on Sunday 20th November 20111 on celebrities including Peter Kay, Radiohead and Cheryl Cole helping to raise £200,000 to send a 4 year old girl with an inoperable brain tumour to the clinic in Texas to join a trial of the treatment. Bloggers wrote about their concerns that patients and their families risk wasting time and money and putting their health in danger chasing false hope.2

Síle Lane, Sense About Science: “It is appalling that threats of libel action are being used to try to intimidate3 people into silence. We have to be free to ask questions, discuss evidence and in some cases raise concerns about medical treatments being offered. This is especially important when it concerns treatments offered to people who have little hope of a cure and who are very understandably desperate enough to put their hope and their savings into unproven therapies. Threats of libel action should not be used to close down this discussion. As the law stands, these bloggers and others are forced to remove their material and fall silent because even fending off a claim without merit costs £30,000 and many months. Instead bloggers should be able to rely on a clear, accessible public interest defence when threatened by vested interests. The Government has promised libel reform early in 2012. It can’t come soon enough.”

Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician: “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. Furthermore, the way that Burzynski’s research and trials have been carried out raise many questions about his therapy. For example, it’s very unusual to ask patients to pay to enter clinical research trials – let alone charge many thousands of dollars - and he hasn’t published any trial results for several years.

Sense About Science alongside English PEN and Index on Censorship form the Libel Reform Campaign; campaigning for reform of England's libel laws for a stronger public interest defence.

1.            “The worst year of my life: cancer has my family in its grip”

2.            As we note in our annual Celebrities and Science Review, when a celebrity gets involved in something it gets covered around the world. Every year Sense About Science reviews the odd science claims people in the public eye have made - about diets, cancer, magnets, radiation and more - sent in to us by scientists and members of the public. Many of these claims promote theories, therapies and campaigns that make no scientific sense. We ask scientists to respond, to help the celebrities realise where they are going wrong and to help the public to make sense of celebrity claims. We encourage celebrities to call us to check out the science to avoid sending the wrong thing viral.

3.            The letters were sent by an individual who works in web-marketing for the Burzynski Clinic. He threatened school boy Rhys Morgan with libel action, telling Rhys he would write to his school and attaching a screen capture of a satellite view of Rhys’s house on Google Maps. The letters are here:

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