Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dr. Michael Ellenburg, Quack/Professional Bullshit Salesman

Dr. Michael Ellenburg is a naturopathic "doctor" in Anchorage, Alaska, one of the few states which is unfortunate enough to have licensed naturopaths to hold themselves out as doctors. I was first exposed to Dr. Ellenburg's particular brand of quackery through his weekly radio show on Anchorage's local Fox talk radio affiliate. Each week, for one hour, he answers questions from callers about medicine, nutrition, health and science news. His website is www.drellenburg.com, where he lists the various types of services he offers, such as acupuncture, ultraviolet blood irradiation, ozone therapy, and more. Dr. Ellenburg has placed himself in a position of public trust and confidence, offering himself as an expert in the field of health science. 

So why does he market unscientific bullshit?

Among the various brands of tonic-salesman hokum he peddles to rubes is something called "bryomixol therapy." I had never heard of bryomixol therapy, so like any science-minded individual, I decided to do a little research. A thorough Google search seems to indicate (and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) that Dr. Ellenburg is the only practitioner in the country offering bryomixol therapy, which should be your first red flag that it's horseshit. But I'll get to that in a minute.

What exactly is bryomixol therapy, you ask (since there's suspiciously no wikipedia page for it)? According to Michael Ellenburg's website:
Bryomixol is novel therapy in medicine today where we typically only see therapies directed at killing tumors, viruses, or bacterial[sic]. 

Bryomixol is an herbal therapy that targets the patient’s immune system function. In patients who have cancer they need to get their immune system to start working properly. Anyone who has cancer does not have a proper functioning immune system, otherwise they would not have cancer. Chemotherapy and Radiation are directed against the tumor(s), they do nothing to support the immune system. Bryomixol can be used in cancer to treat the patient’s immune system; it is not a targeted cancer treatment. Bryomixol specifically effects Natural Killer cell function. NK cells are involved in seeking out and destroying tumor cells, bacteria, and viruses.
Ok, so it's supposedly a cancer treatment designed to bolster the immune system. But he doesn't list much more information, instead directing visitors to check out the therapy's official site, www.bryomed.net. So I did. Here's what I found there.
Bryomixol is a complex compound formed by the essences of the plants and minerals found in forests and deserts of the world, which are greatly diluted, energetically stored in sterile water, and introduced in tiny amounts into the human body, sublingually, by inhalation, and/or by intra muscular and/or intravenous injections.
For those of you not fluent in pseudoscientific nonsense, bryomixol is a homeopathic remedy. Here's how it's described on the Bryomixol website (pdf): 
"Homeopathic", a name given to substances that are used in our medicines because it is not possible to measure or detect by methods of modern science, we try to apply a rigorous semantics[sic] and scientific approach to the subject. Homeopathic Medicine is defined as that which is used to produce a cure in the patient, through the application of substances, which are capable of producing the same symptoms that cause the disease. The drugs used are given maximum possible dissolution because a significant dose can be toxic. The homeopathic theory says that the greater the dilution the greater the effect, because the properties of drugs are ultimately borne by the molecular memory of water. 
To understand homeopathy, you don't need to understand physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, or physiology, because the theory behind homeopathy has nothing to do with any of those subjects. Homeopathy is the belief that diseases can be cured by the same substances that cause them (the answer to bacterial infection is apparently more bacteria). This idea was conceived in 1796 by a German guy named Samuel Hanhemann who basically thought up the idea of the "law of similars" and just went with it, never bothering to ever verify if it was true or why (hint: it's not, not even close). These substances, which can be anything from chemicals like arsenic to herbal extracts to duck liver, are introduced into a solution of water, which is then diluted anywhere from 10 to 100 times until it is unlikely that even one molecule of the original substance remains. Each dilution requires a vigorous shaking of the solution. Why is this? Homeopathy claims that water holds a "molecular memory" imprint of the substance, to which the body can then respond when the water is ingested. The more the solution is diluted, the stronger the memory imprint becomes, and the stronger the homeopathic remedy. This, of course, is completely contrary to the laws of physics, which govern the interaction of molecules at the atomic and subatomic levels. Water doesn't have a "memory," you're thinking of an Etch-a-Sketch (which, coincidentally, is equally as clinically effective as homeopathy at treating cancer). Water is a molecule consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Add anything to that and it's no longer just H2O. Take away what you've added and it's back to plain old water. For a more thorough explanation of why homeopathy is antithetical to the laws of physics, check out this piece from the University of Colorado.

Big Pharma spent years researching this medicinal formula.

"Wait a minute," you're probably thinking, "these people expect us to believe that disease can be cured by a miraculous property of water that has never been scientifically proven to exist and which runs contrary to the laws of physics?" Yes, they're that stupid. Homeopathy is in direct opposition to dose-response pharmacology. Period. They are mutually exclusive concepts. Water does not have a memory, and no cell will react to the "memory" of a molecule in the absence of that molecule. "But Justin, you're a lawyer, not a scientist- what do you know about science?" You're absolutely right, astute reader. I'm NOT a scientist. So let's see what the scientists have had to say about homeopathy's claims:
When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects. The Lancet, Volume 366, Issue 9487, Pages 726 - 732, 27 August 2005
However, despite the large number of comparative trials carried out to date there is no evidence that homeopathy is any more effective than placebo therapy given in identical conditions. Aulas, J. Homeopathy update. Préscrire International 1996; 15(155): 674-684.
In our opinion, the results do not provide acceptable evidence that homoeopathic treatments are effective. 1: Hill C, Doyon F. Review of randomized trials of homoeopathy. Rev Epidemiol Sante Publique. 1990;38(2):139-47. Review. PubMed PMID: 2197682.
These are just a few of the countless examples of scientific studies showing the inability of homeopathy to produce clinically significant results. So what, then, do the inventors of bryomixol therapy have to say about this treatment?

Dr. Cesar Bertacchini hard at work on bryomixol
"Bryomixol does not contain any drug, medication, or chemical compound." 

But wait, the third paragraph on the very first page of your website says that "Bryomixol is a complex compound." So which is it? Is it a complex compound, or does it not contain any chemical compounds? If it does not contain any drug, medication, or chemical compound, what does it contain, exactly? How does it work to treat disease or improve immune system function? Either these doctors have a fundamental lack of understanding of basic physics and chemistry, or they're just unrepentant hucksters selling an imaginary cure. Either one is dangerous and despicable for a medical professional. 

"We have FDA approval in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala." 

But not the United States. So is Dr. Ellenburg offering unlicensed treatments to his patients in violation of FDA regulations, or does he admit that it doesn't require FDA licensure because it's not a drug and he's a fraud? Which is it, Dr. Ellenburg, because those are the only two choices, and only one of them doesn't end with you getting your ass handed to you by the FDA. Does he feel that the governments of Guatemala and Nicaragua know better than the United States Food and Drug Administration what is safe and effective for his patients? I'll also note that I am unable to find any indication that these drugs are actually licensed in any of these countries, and they're certainly not "FDA approved" in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua or Guatemala. The FDA is a United States agency with no authority to license drugs in any of those countries. So not only are they selling unscientific woo, they're blatantly lying to their patients. Here are some search results from trying to find out about this drug's FDA status:

This is what's known in medicine as a "smoking gun." 

Entire FDA site search for Bryomixol
Entire FDA site search for neobryxol
U.S. Patent & Trademark Office search for Bryomixol
U.S. Patent & Trademark Office search for Neobryxol

If anyone can find anything different, I will gladly retract my statements accordingly, but near as I can tell, not only are they lying about the efficacy of their treatments, they're lying about their legal status as medication. 

Lies don't get much more bald-faced than this. Assholes.

Surely there is some scientific basis for these quacks making these claims about bryomixol though, right? Let's see what the inventor's website has to say. From the page labeled "Scientific Studies," we can clearly see that there are no journal articles, peer-reviewed research papers, clinical trial results, or anything remotely resembling research that actually supports the claims made by these charlatans. One document, labeled "breaking news," claims that "It is my pleasure to be able to introduce you all to a group of new Homeopathic medications that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration." Except that once again, the FDA has never approved bryomixol to treat any disease.  There's also a paper labeled "National Congress of the Spanish Society of Oral Medicine," whatever that means. This is probably the closest thing to any kind of scientific study anywhere on this website, but guess what- it doesn't mention bryomixol, neobryxol, or any other iterations of these woo-peddlers' snake oil. It doesn't appear to support the claims in any way, yet it's cited as a "scientific study." There's also a paper that touts the proprietors' "15 years of therapeutical[sic] experiences using a homeopathic correct[sic]." Not only does this paper not describe how bryomixol contributed to any of these therapeutic experiences, it's a red herring entirely. I can study levitation for 20 years but that won't bring me any closer to being able to levitate, because levitation isn't real, just like homeopathy. In fact, I did a little research on the founder of this drivel, Dr. Cesar Bertacchini, whose bio on the website claims "Author of many scientific works of chemotherapy published in peer review media." This is interesting, though, because neither a Google search for "Cesar Bertacchini research" nor "cesar bertacchini publication" nor "cesar bertacchini article" revealed any published research within the first 5 pages of the Google result. The only thing I could find was one article on PubMed, written by a Claudio Bertacchini, M.S., who appears to be a biomedical researcher based in Italy, doing legitimate published research completely unrelated to homeopathic piffle. Either "Dr." Bertacchini (can we even be sure he has a medical degree at this point?) is so full of shit his eyes are brown, or his research is so minute, obscure and hard to find that even Google and PubMed combined can't cough it up. Either way, he's clearly a liar who shouldn't be trusted. I'm going to go ahead and apply Occam's Razor here and say that he's full of shit, just like Dr. Ellenburg and any other loon who promotes this nonsense.
Official portrait of Dr. Bertacchini

I'm not going to get into any of the other pseudoscientific beliefs Dr. Ellenburg espouses, like Traditional Chinese Medicine or acupuncture, because I don't think it's necessary in order to show that he's a quack (though I might at a later date). He is promoting a cancer treatment on his website and in his practice that is not based on science, not approved by the FDA, and not supported by any peer-reviewed clinical research or publications, and is not effective at treating cancer or any other disease. He is tricking desperate people into thinking that his treatments will help them when they clearly will not, and it's despicable and dangerous. It's dangerous because someone in need of actual medical treatment may seek treatment from Dr. Ellenburg instead. At best, they're wasting their time and money on Dr. Ellenburg's useless "remedies" to supplement their medical procedures. At worst, they are potentially putting their life at risk by avoiding real treatments based on actual science that actually have the potential to help in favor of completely ineffective magic water elixir. Don't give this charlatan any of your time or money, and least of all your trust and confidence. He may not be a bad guy personally, but by telling people that these treatments are effective without any evidence of such, he's promoting a dangerous form of ignorance and the world needs to be aware of it. A quack by any other name is still a quack.

He doesn't LOOK like a duck, but..

P.S. I am not a medical doctor, and nothing I write here should be construed as or substituted for actual medical advice. If you have a medical issue, for god's sake, go see a real doctor, not a con artist like Dr. Ellenburg. 


Kimberly said...

Any person who would take advantage of others' illnesses in such an underhanded way is indeed a bad person. Professionally and personally.

Anonymous said...

where is the "like" button?

Anonymous said...

Get ready for the cease and desist/threatening with a libel suit letter that seems to be the standard MO for pseudoscientific quacks when their operations are discussed in a sceptical manner.

Rhys Morgan
The Quackometer
Justin Vacula

Brought here by Pharyngula.

Anonymous said...

This Ellenburg is preying upon cancer patients' hope and money, particularly with his "Bryomixol Therapy." You don't promise "tremendous success with stage 4 cancer patients." As if all cancer patients have the same cancer. If this were true, they'd be giving out a Nobel prize in medicine for this. These quacks are sad and distressing and all too common.

Anonymous said...

Late nomination for Best Blog Post of the year. What is even worst is that even though you have shown him to be a total fraud, people who are ill will still hand over $$$ for his bs treatments.

Anonymous said...

Nice work.

jonesey said...

I absolutely hate homeopathic peddling quacks, but usually its for some $5.00 home remedy so I don't mind that much. I researched this after reading your amazing blog post (came from pharyngula) and became irate! I spammed their facebook page with my rage and was quickly deleted. I created a facebook page entitled "Byomixol is scamming cancer patients". I used your post as the primary website, because you said it all better than I could have. It is here:


Please like and share it so that hopefully we prevent some poor cancer patient from spending $10,000 to get water injected into their tumors and give them false hopes.

Michael Hawkins said...

Good post.

I've had issues with naturopathic quacks. If you find yourself where I found myself - receiving cease and desist letters and threats of lawsuits - I recommend becoming familiar with people like Ken: http://www.popehat.com/2011/12/19/pro-bono-victory-in-a-junk-science-slapp-suit-against-a-science-blogger/

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that I can take your "To understand homeopathy, you don't need to understand physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, or physiology, because the theory behind homeopathy has nothing to do with any of those subjects" for truth. I do know that there are 3 local Doctors that have used this Bryomixol and are now cancer free. Don't get me wrong I, I don't understand this all to well myself, but to say that it is "quackery" because you do not understand it makes you sound self-righteous and a bit more than ignorant. The FDA is the second leading cause of death in the US, with their so-called "safe" prescription drugs, so why would people not want to try something that has no side effects?

Matthew said...

Not sure about your info after researching a little more. http://fda.einnews.com/article/113026125

Floyd M said...

I have been a patient of Dr. Ellenberg's on numerous occasions. I received excellent results from his accupuncture treatment and chelation therapy for high levels of Mercury in my blood. In my experience and opinion, he is very reliable, forthright, and honest about his treatments. The author of this post obviously has an issue with Dr. Ellenberg, and should have taken it up with him directly instead of posting this cowardly and factually inaccurate blog. Homeopathy does not make materialistic sense, but has been around for centuries and has been documented to have helped many people who could get no help from conventional medicine. In my view, this blog is personally biased against Dr. Ellenberg and should be recognized as such. Floyd M