Texas judges absolve cancer doctor Burzynski of most charges

Burzynski outside his SOAH hearing last November. (Credit: Tamar Wilner)
Burzynski outside his SOAH hearing last November. (Credit: Tamar Wilner)

Two Texas judges released their findings Oct. 12 in the case of Stanislaw Burzynski, the controversial Houston cancer doctor who’s been accused of deceptive advertising, making medical errors, and treating patients with untested combinations of drugs that amounted to “experimentation.” On most of these charges, the judges failed to find enough evidence of wrongdoing to discipline Burzynski.

The State Office of Administrative Hearings did find, however, that Burzynski is subject to sanctions for:

  • Aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of medicine by one practitioner;
  • Failing to properly supervise three unlicensed physicians who misrepresented themselves as doctors;
  • Inaccurately reporting the size of one patient’s tumor, causing a misclassification of the patient’s response to treatment;
  • Failing to gain properly informed consent from several patients;
  • Failing to disclose his ownership interest in the pharmacy that prescribed patients’ drugs;
  • Failing to maintain adequate records to support charges made to four patients.

The conclusions from the judges at Texas’ State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) are not binding, but come in the form of recommendations to the Texas Medical Board. It’s the usual practice for the board to accept and implement SOAH recommendations.

A hot take

I honestly didn’t know what conclusion to expect in this case, despite the many months I spent researching it for my Newsweek article last February. Burzynski has faced sanctions many, many times before, and it’s never impeded his practice much. So I don’t find myself particularly shocked by this result.

From my quick skim of the findings, it seems that SOAH failed to find against Burzynski on some of the most important charges because of missteps by the Texas Medical Board (who acted as the prosecution).

The board’s expert witness on the standard of care allegations, such as the use of untested drug combinations, was Dr. Cynthia Wetmore of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. But the judges found her testimony “troubling” when she accused Burzynski of violating the standard of care for Patient D — a patient who never received treatment at the clinic. The judges also noted that Wetmore is a pediatric oncologist in an academic, rather than private practice, setting.

They therefore concluded, “Dr. Wetmore’s expertise about the treatment of adult cancer and the standard of care used by physicians in private practice is limited and will be given little weight.”

That must have been a harsh blow for the medical board.

Has Burzynski “saved lives”?

The other surprising finding was this: “Respondent’s [Burzynski’s] treatments have saved the lives of cancer patients, both adults and children, who were not expected to live.”

With the caveat, again, that I have only skimmed the decision, it’s hard to see what reliable scientific evidence the judges had for this claim. Certainly I’ve never come across any. Yes, there are dozens of patients who claim that Burzynski did exactly that — save their lives. But did the judges really base this conclusion on anecdote alone?

The judges further listed, among “mitigating factors” meant to inform eventual sanctions against Burzynski:

If Respondent is unable to continue practicing medicine, critically ill cancer patients being treated with ANP [antineoplastons, the drug that has been the focus of Burzynski’s research] under FDA-approved clinical trials or a special exception will no longer have access to this treatment.

Amazing that after decades of research, with not a single randomized controlled trial demonstrating the effectiveness of ANP, the judges still see the loss of such drugs as some kind of harm to public health.

Note: The decision can be viewed by visiting http://www.soah.texas.gov/, clicking “Electronic Case Files,” then “Search Public Case Files,” then searching under Docket Number 503–14–1342.

Cross-posted from Medium, with minor alterations.

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