Nurse Gail Ingram explores Vitamin B17, laetrile, amygdalin: Cancer Cure or Scam?
A patient undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma recently asked me about Vitamin B17. She had heard about a compelling new documentary and read online that it cures cancer. I took a deep breath and calmly replied, “Vitamin B17 is not a vitamin and it does not cure cancer.”
What is Vitamin B17 if it isn’t a vitamin? Vitamin B17 is a misleading name used to promote laetrile. Laetrile (short for laevorotartory & delonitrile) is a semi-synthetic, chemically modified compound derived from amygdalin. Amygdalin is a substance extracted from the pits of stone fruit (usually apricots) as well as almonds. Laetrile and amygdalin are being touted as natural, plant-based cures for cancer by members of alternative therapy communities and supplement manufactures. Unfortunately, this is an example of well-intentioned people being duped by others who seek to make money off their misfortune.
Research has shown, time and time again, that Vitamin B17, laetrile, and amygdalin are ineffective in treating cancer. As recent as 2011, a team of medical researchers from Germany, England, and Belgium did a comprehensive review of all scientific data concerning laetrile and amygdalin for the treatment of cancer. Eight databases were searched from as far back as 1951 up to February 2011. Review articles, reference lists, and experts in the field were contacted in an effort to discover any additional unpublished studies or on-going clinical trials. Over 200 references were found and 63 were appropriate for further analysis. All 63 random control trials, quasi-random control trials, or clinical trials were either low-quality, highly flawed, unreliable, unable to be verified, or most importantly, showed no reduction of cancer with the use of laetrile or amygdalin. The data review revealed that the risk of cyanide poisoning offsets any potential benefit from treatment. The authors concluded that the use of laetrile and amygdalin should be discouraged and that there is no justification for further research. Their findings were scrutinized by a panel of expert peers and published in the highly respected Cochran Database. This Level-1 systematic review is considered the gold-standard in the world of research.
Nevertheless, because scientists and pharmaceutical companies are eager to find a cure for cancer, laboratory experiments continue. Despite in-vitro (petri dish) data that may suggest laetrile or amygdalin’s anti-tumor potential, the exact mechanism of action has yet to be identified. These findings, combined with all other studies, do not warrant human trials.
Without human trials, there is no way to predict effective dosage amounts to potentially treat or prevent cancer. Recommendations by manufacturers must remain below the cyanide toxicity threshold, however it is the action of cyanide that is suspected to impact tumors. Therefore, the recommended dose will unlikely have any potential anti-cancer benefit. It takes 50-60 apricot pits to produce a lethal dose of cyanide* but the lethal dose of laetrile is unknown since it is chemically altered from its original form in unregulated processing plants. Broad-range testing of supplements has revealed that batches vary in potency and are rife with contaminants. Complicating matters and providing an additional risk, there are people with a genetic predisposition for inadequate cyanide clearance. Meaning, small amounts of cyanide build up quickly and a severe reaction occurs with a small dose.
But that doesn’t mean that plant-based products don’t have a prominent place in treating cancer. There are many plant-based agents with significant positive results currently being investigated and actively used in cancer treatments. Plant-based mitotic inhibitors are used in the treatment of breast and lung cancer, myelomas, lymphoma, and leukemia. In fact, many medications are plant-based, so the argument that big pharma doesn’t want a low-cost “natural” cure is just not true.
The cover-up conspiracy theories and counter-culture anti-pharmaceutical rhetoric is generated to sell products. Ralph Moss is a writer who found success promoting sensationalism and he draws income from telling his story over and over. Propaganda for the movie, Second Opinion, based on his personal perspective, would have you believe that he has a PhD in something medical-related. Don’t be fooled—he has a degree in classics (AKA literature). Calling the movie a documentary is like calling reality TV real. The extreme bias of this film is obvious to anyone trained in science or research or who understands the funding process for movies and the marketing of products.
I have spent years working with patients battling cancer in various contexts and I can attest that they are not claiming to have, nor are they presenting with, a reduction of cancer attributable to Vitamin B17, laetrile, amygdalin, bitter almond, or any linked compound or supplement. I have worked with world renowned experts in the field of cancer (both MDs and PhDs) and they agree. I can further state with confidence that any consistent trends noted in the oncology community would be rigorously explored. Indications that Vitamin B17, laetrile or amygdalin decrease cancer tumors would prompt qualified, licensed, and practicing oncologists to share this information and present a multitude of case studies. This is not happening because Vitamin B17, laetrile, and amygdalin do not cure cancer.
*Marcel, C. Apricot. CINAHL Nursing Guide. Ipswich, MA. November 21, 2014.
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