The so-called "cancer pill"
cancer pill brazil

The so-called “cancer pill”

According to the National Cancer Institute, Brazil will have 1.2 million new cancer cases between 2018 and 2019. This year alone 582,000 new cases are expected. The illness is responsible for millions of deaths worldwide; the annual mortality rate is of 8.8 million people, according to the World Health Organization. It is the world’s (and Brazil’s) second leading cause of death. A disease as deadly as this has the power to scare people. And when fear of death is in any equation, rationality seems to fade away.

This is especially true in a country where healthcare has been a struggle for decades. Millions of Brazilians still don’t have access to proper treatment for many diseases and the public health system is poorly funded. Research is rare and also lacks funds to fully develop in many areas – oncology included. That is why the story of a miraculous “cancer pill” sounds so odd.

It is still unclear when and where the story really began. What we do know is that Gilberto Chierice, a former University of São Paulo professor, is at the center of this controversy. He and some colleagues claimed that a substance called phosphoethanolamine could cure cancer. Research had been conducted for more than 20 years, he said, and trials were held in serious institutes – who denied this.

The case came to public knowledge in 2015 when authorities detained a man for distributing the cancer pill unlawfully; he did not have a permit to do so and the National Agency for Sanitary Vigilance stopped the scheme. He said Mr. Chierice taught him how to synthesize the substance. As a matter of fact, the professor himself had been distributing the “miraculous pills” to cancer patients for years, until the University of São Paulo ordered him to stop doing so.

That’s when patients started to fight for what they believed was their rights. Justice was called into action. Lawsuits were filed, requesting the production of the pills continued. What ultimately pushed Mr. Chierice and the cancer pill into national stardom, reported science journalist Carlos Orsi, was a series of stories EPTV (a Globo affiliate) did on the case, stories which are no longer available on the internet.

One of the pieces contained a quote from the former professor saying that the substance was “available to anyone who wants to cure cancer”. The damage was done.

With all the publicity, more cancer patients decided to sue the university in order to get access to the so-called cure. In October 2015, the Supreme Court accepted a request from Rio de Janeiro which, in practice, authorized more people to request phosphoethanolamine. The public outcry had been growing so much that Congress decided to act.

It passed a bill in March 2016 that made the production and use of the substance legal. Up until this point, there were no known studies to support Mr. Chierice’s claims – besides the anecdotal cases he mentioned in his public speeches.

Experimental treatments for cancer are nothing new. Researchers are constantly searching for new ways of stopping cancerous cells from growing and spreading through the body. But before any so-called discovery can be proclaimed to be an actual treatment, there are many steps that need to be followed. “Phospho”, the substance’s nickname, never crossed the threshold that separates a hope from an actual treatment: only 5 percent of the drugs make that cut.

Phosphoethanolamine is present in the human body as a component of cellular membranes. The substance has been known since the 1950s, but Mr. Chierice claimed that the method he and his colleagues use to synthesize it is what gives their pill miraculous curative capacities.

These claims were finally put to test in 2015, when the now extinct Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation created a task force to investigate the substance. Its conclusions were that evidence did not show that phosphoethanolamine could, in fact, have any therapeutic effects on cancer. The results were largely ignored by lawmakers when they approved the aforementioned bill to authorize use and production of the alleged drug. In May 2016, the Supreme Court revoked the law and put an end to the legal controversy of this case.

That same year, two renowned research institutes stepped in to give closure in the scientific sense of the matter. The Cancer Institute of the State of São Paulo administered phosphoethanolamine to 73 patients with 10 of the most common kinds of cancer and also found no evidence that it can be used as a treatment. Due to the lack of “significant clinical benefit“, it decided to suspend the research in 2017.  

But why would a former university professor make such bold claims without any evidence to back them up? According to Luiz Carlos Dias, a researcher at the Chemistry Institute of the University of Campinas, “the whole thing is a big scam created by irresponsible people who wanted fame and financial gain”. All the proper studies held so far, he says, have proven that the cancer pill is a farce.

Natalia Pasternak Taschner, a biologist who has been one of the most ruthless critics of Mr. Chierice and his associates, believes that there is no more need for further investigation. The outcry was based, according to her, on a populist appeal and it goes against everything scientists know about cancer. The public commotion was built on the patients’ hopes, Mr. Dias says. According to him, those who still defend the substance have manipulated the general public into believing that those showing the truth are “corrupted by big pharma”.

However, there seems to be no way of stopping those who “believe” in phospho’s powers. A company named Quality Medical Line, located in Miami, is selling supplements supposedly containing the controversial substance. Among its partners are Renato Meneguelo, a doctor, and Marcos Vinicius de Almeida, a biochemist.

A former partner, Humberto Silva de Luca, said publicly that the product they sold didn’t even have phosphoethanolamine in its composition. The University of Campinas, led by Mr. Dias, analyzed the capsules and found that 96 percent of its contents were substances that add color and texture. The remaining 4 percent had other components but, as suspected, no phosphoethanolamine. “People are being scammed and have no control over the quality of what is being sold to them”, Mr. Dias highlights.

The “cancer pill” case mingled politics, science, and belief in a way no other issue managed to in Brazil’s recent history. It shows how far people’s hopes of a cure for a frightening disease can go and the little influence hard science has on people’s imaginations. Mr. Dias’s definition of the matter is direct and telling. For him, this is the case that “embarrassed Brazilian science.”

Mr. Chierice did not respond to our interview requests.

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SocietyJul 08, 2018

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BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.