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Regulators warn about online cancer 'cures'

December 5, 2000
Web posted at: 1:25 p.m. EST (1825 GMT)

In this story:

Earlier claims debunked

Regulating claims on the Internet

Threats from the FTC


(CNN) -- If you read certain Web sites, hydrazine sulfate sounds like the cure for cancer.


The component of jet fuel has been used for 25 years as an alternative method of treating cancer. Web sites that sell hydrazine sulfate -- and there are many -- are chock-full of statements such as "virtually side effect free" and testimonials such as: "One friend from S. Africa was diagnosed as terminal and was treated with HS. Today (8 years later) she has 3 children and is living well."

Another site claims: "Starve your cancer with hydrazine sulfate."

 Buying prescriptions drugs online calls for caution:
As the growth of e-commerce reaches into your local drug store, experts and regulators worry that online pharmacies could lead to "bad medicine" practices by Internet retailers.

To protect consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and others have been spreading the word that having a prescription filled online is risky. Improper drug doses or wrongly combined medications are just a few of the possible problems.

How can you tell if a Web site that sells drugs is legitimate or what should you do before you buy medical products online? First, the FDA recommends customers check with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy [(847) 698-6227] to determine whether a Web site is a licensed pharmacy in good standing.

Experts advise buyers to steer clear of sites that have no access to a registered pharmacist to answer questions about medications.

The FDA also makes these recommendations to online medicine buyers:

  • Don't buy from sites that offer to prescribe a prescription drug for the first time without a physical exam, sell a prescription drug without a prescription, or sell drugs not approved by FDA.

  • Avoid sites that do not identify with whom you are dealing and do not provide a U.S. address and phone number to contact if there's a problem.

  • Don't purchase from overseas Web sites at this time; in general, it will be illegal to import the drugs and there is little the U.S. government can do to help if you get ripped off.

  • Beware of Web sites that advertise a "new cure" for a serious disorder or a quick cure-all for a wide range of ailments.

  • Be careful of sites that use impressive-sounding terminology to disguise a lack of good science or those that claim the government, the medical profession, or research scientists have conspired to suppress a product.

  • Talk to a health care professional before using any medications for the first time.

Source: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

But a published report says hydrazine sulfate killed one cancer patient, whose name has not been released. The 55-year-old man, who had cancer in his sinuses, refused to undergo surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation, and instead obtained hydrazine sulfate from an Internet site. The doctors who treated him at the St. Francis Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, said the compound sent him into kidney and liver failure.

The report of his death is being published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

"This is one of the hundreds if not thousands of compounds that are sold, and for which there is precious little evidence of efficacy," said Dr. Martin Black, chief of liver disease at Temple University School of Medicine, who wrote an editorial in the journal.

Earlier claims debunked

Hydrazine sulfate first came into the spotlight in the 1970's when Dr. Joseph Gold, who runs his own cancer research clinic in Syracuse, New York, found in pilot studies that the compound inhibited tumor growth. Now, according to Dr. Gold, at least 100,000 cancer patients are using hydrazine sulfate.

Hydrazine sulfate works by depriving the cancer of glucose, which it needs to grow, according to Dr. Gold.

But in three larger, follow-up studies published in 1994, the National Cancer Institute found that hydrazine sulfate "showed no patient survival, weight loss, or quality of life."

Dr. Gold doesn't trust the results of the NCI studies and said he sees a conspiracy.

"They've been out to get hydrazine sulfate, and I don't know why," he said.

Officials at the National Cancer Institute say they felt the hydrazine sulfate conspiracy was settled long ago. "This is not new to us, and we're sick of it," said the source, who asked not to be named.

Regulating claims on the Internet

In his editorial, Dr. Black said he hoped hydrazine sulfate would come to the attention of Operation Cure.all, a joint effort by the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to end fraudulent health claims on the Internet.

Sometimes it's unclear how exactly a substance should be regulated. If a marketer makes a claim that a substance, for example, "cures" or "treats" cancer, then that claim is considered a drug claim and is regulated by the FDA.

But if words such as "treat" or "cure" are not used, then the substance may be considered a dietary supplement, in which case the Federal Trade Commission has jurisdiction over claims made in advertising and promotion.

Threats from the FTC

Dietary supplements are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, which over the past two years has identified 800 Web sites with questionable health claims as part of Operation Cure.all.

The FTC has sent letters to the 800 Web sites asking for scientific evidence to back up the claims, according to Richard Cleland, senior attorney with the division of advertising practices at the FTC.

Cleland said in the first batch of letters, sent out in early 1998, 13 percent of the sites were taken down without any further intervention from the FTC. In the second set, 28 percent of the sites were taken down.

Of the remaining sites, the FTC is trying to legally enjoin eight of the companies from making false claims, Cleland said.

He admitted that this means many of the original 800 Web sites are still up and operating just as before.

"We can only look at a small number of the entire universe of all the claims made, and we can only take action on a smaller percentage than that," he said. "That means consumers have to be even more vigilant than in the past."

Are 'functional foods' dangerous? Opponents renew call for stricter FDA regulations
July 19, 2000
Online drug sales save money, but may raise risks, FDA says
March 21, 2000
Internet can be quick link to bad health information
July 29, 1999
Internet alert: FTC warns against false health claims
June 24, 1999
Bogus health scares on Internet become increasingly common
April 8, 1999

Hydrazine Sulfate
St. Francis Medical Center of Hawaii
National Association of Boards of Pharmacy
Annuals of Internal Medicine
Temple University School of Medicine
Operation Cure.all
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
FDA - Buying Medicines and Medical Products Online

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