Laetrile (B17) – The Quack Cancer Cure That Will Give You Cyanide Poisoning

This blog post and subsequent video is based on ‘The Rise and Fall of Laetrile’ on QuackWatch.org. 

Modern medicine is better today than it has ever been, yet, paradoxically, the use of complementary and alternative treatments are becoming more prevalent. It is now not uncommon to see multiple alternative health stores on the high-street selling a plethora of products; all of which have very little, if any, evidence to prove their effectiveness. Whilst most of these quack stores offer nothing more than false hope (something which in itself is pretty insidious), others offer products and advice that have the real potential to harm. Unlike other dangerous alternative treatments I have talked about in the past, like turpentine therapy, black salve, or MMS, which people mostly know to be nonsense through common sense, there is one quack cure that goes under the radar, which is equally dangerous. An ‘all natural cancer cure’ that not only has been proven not to work, but it’s consumption may result in cyanide poisoning. I am of course talking about apricot kernels and the non-existent vitamin B17 it contains. 

In 1830, two French chemists, Pierre-Jean Robiquet and Antoine Boutron-Charlard, isolated a compound called amygdalin from bitter almond seeds. It was discovered that the compound that they isolated could be hydrolysed to form sugar, benzaldehyde, and hydrogen cyanide. For a brief time, it was tried as an anti-cancer agent in Germany in 1892, but it was discarded as ineffective and too toxic for that purpose, however, a hydrolysed version named Laetrile would find itself once again promoted as a cancer cure 60 years later by Ernst T. Krebs, Sr. and his son Ernst T. Krebs, Jr.

Ernst T. Krebs, Sr. was a pharmacist who got his medical degree from the San Francisco College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1903. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, he became convinced that an old Indian remedy made from parsley was effective against the flu. He set up the Balsamea Company in San Francisco to market the remedy as Syrup Leptinol, which he claimed was also effective against whooping cough asthma, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. The American government were not so convinced and, during the early 1920s, his supplies of Syrup Leptinol were seized by the FDA on charges that his claims were false and fraudulent. 

Ernst T. Krebs, Jr tried to follow in his father’s footsteps and attended Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia before being expelled after repeating his freshman year and failing his sophomore year. After taking courses in five different colleges and achieving low or failing grades in his science courses, he finally received a bachelors of arts degree from the University of Illinois. In 1973, Krebs, Jr., obtained a “Doctor of Science” degree after giving a 1-hour lecture from a now-defunct Bible college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The school, which was founded by evangelist Billy James Hargis, had no science department, and lacked authority from Oklahoma to grant any doctoral degrees. Despite this fact, Krebs, Jr is often referred to as “Dr. Krebs”.

In 1945, Krebs, Jr., founded the John Beard Memorial Foundation to “develop and apply” the controversial theory of the trophoblastic origin of cancer by Scottish embryologist Jon Beard. In 1902, Beard hypothesised that cancer cells and cells produced during pregnancy called trophoblasts are the same, and that chymotrypsin produced in the pancreas destroys the trophoblasts. Beard went on to postulate that if the pancreas fails to produce enough chymotrypsin, trophoblasts will circulate throughout the body of both mother and infant, making them vulnerable throughout life to cancer. In 1950 Krebs, Jr., published a version of Beard’s thesis, adding that amygdalin killed trophoblast/cancer cells, as they contain an enzyme that causes amygdalin to release cyanide, which destroys the cancer cells. He goes on to state that non cancerous tissue is protected due to expression of another enzyme that renders cyanide harmless. None of these theories have any rooting in scientific fact. 

For more information about the trophoblastic origin of cancer, I recommend you watch World Without Cancer – The Story of Vitamin B17 by G. Edward Griffin (1974)

Some time between the early to mid twentieth century, the Krebs began to synthesise Laetrile (a compound which they co-patented) by hydrolysing amygdalin from apricot kernels. It’s hard to get a precise time on when they first started to do this, as both father and son gave wildly different dates in an attempt to evade drug provisions and FDA laws. It is, however, known that in the early 1950s, they began to promote Laetrile as a cancer cure before later claiming that it “controlled” cancer, then, finally, branding Laetrile as a vitamin (B17) in order to have it classified as a nutritional supplement rather then a pharmaceutical, and then they pushed it as a cancer preventative. 

The Krebs soon received the attention of the California Medical Association, who were inundated with inquiries about Laetrile. When members of it’s Cancer Commission approached Krebs, Sr., asking for evidence of Laetrile’s anticancer, cancer control, and cancer preventive properties, he claimed that “limited” trials investigating its toxicity had been performed, but that the records had been destroyed. The Commission then evaluated the records of 44 patients treated according to the Krebs’ recommendations, and discovered that within two years of the first of these patients being treated with Laetrile, nineteen had already died, and there was no evidence that the compound helped any of the others. They were also able to obtain a small supply of Laetrile for animal tests on three medical cancers, which all produced negative results. 

Scientists have never been able to find any valid evidence to back up either of the Krebs’ theories. The cancer commission of the California Medical Association declared that Laetrile is ineffective and the California State Department of Public Health stated that Laetrile was of no value in the diagnosis, treatment, alleviation, or cure of cancer and issued regulation prohibiting its use. The fact that no reputable organisation had found any evidence to substantiate the use of Laetrile in the treatment of prevention of cancer did not stop the Krebs’ from promoting its fictional properties.

In 1956 Krebs, Jr., was introduced to Andrew R.L. McNaughton, of the McNaughton Foundation, whose function was “sponsoring independent research” to advance ideas contrary to prevailing scientific opinion.  Over the course of 3 days, Krebs, Jr., convinced McNaughton of Laetrile’s anticancer properties, and began promoting, producing, and distributing the compound. In 1961, he founded International Biozymes Ltd (later renamed Bioenzymes International Ltd) to facilitate distribution. McNaughton would later arrange for a freelance writer named Glenn Kittler to write the book ‘Laetrile: Control for Cancer’, which had an initial press run of 500,000 copies.

The book gained the attention of School teacher Cecile Hoffman, who had undergone a radical mastectomy in 1959. Hoffman traveled to Canada to visit the McNaughton Foundation, where she was given Laetrile, although she was unable to find an American physician who would administer the compound intravenously. She then traveled to Mexico where she met with former Mexican Army pathologist, Ernesto Contreras, who agreed to administer the Laetrile injections. Hoffman became convinced that Laetrile controlled her cancer and saved her life, and was a fervent supporter of the alternative treatment until she died of metastatic breast cancer in 1969. Whilst she was alive, she formed the International Association of Cancer Victims and Friends (IACVF), whose purpose was “to educate the general public to the options available to cancer patients, especially terminal cancer patients.” Contreras, meanwhile, expanded his clinic and added translators to his staff to accommodate the influx of American patients. In 1970, he constructed a new clinic named Oasis of Hope, where, still to this day, they offer alternative cancer treatments.

With the growth in popularity of Laetrile, it was only a matter of time before the American government stepped in, in order to protect vulnerable people from an unproven drug which, when in the body, releases hydrogen cyanide. They began to seize shipments of Laetrile, and forced a 3-year probation on the manufacture and distribution of the compound as part of a plea bargain after Krebs, Jr., and the John Beard Memorial Foundation pleaded guilty to interstate shipment of another unapproved drug, pangamic acid.

The Krebs family would find themselves returning to court several more times for disobeying regulatory orders, forbidding interstate shipment of Laetrile, failing to register as a drug manufacturer, and violating probation by continuing to advocate Laetrile, which landed Ernst, Jr., in the county jail for 6 months. In an attempt to prevent any further legal action and to circumnavigate laws regarding the “safety and efficacy” of new drugs, Krebs, Jr. began claiming that Laetrile was a vitamin, which he dubbed B17. He did this at the same time the McNaughton Foundation was attempting to have Laetrile recognised as a drug.

Contrary to what proponents of Laetrile would have you believe, the compound’s alleged anti-cancer properties were thoroughly investigated. In addition to the investigations of the California Department of Public Health and Canadian authorities, the National Cancer Institute tested Laetrile in animals on five separate occasions between 1957 and 1975, and found, time and time again, that it was not effective against cancer. Four independent cancer research centres undertook additional studies in 1975, and they too found no evidence of Laetrile’s cancer fighting properties. Still, to this day, no reputable organisation has found any evidence of the compound’s cancer fighting or prevention properties.

The American government became so worried about the increasing use of Laetrile that it sent a warning out in 1977 to to every doctor and nearly one million health professionals.

Due to the constant promotion of Laetrile from the likes of Krebs, the McNaughton Foundation, Contreras, and Hoffman (whilst she was alive), more and more desperate people were turning to this unproven, cyanide-producing quackery. As a result, it was only a matter of time before people started to die, which drew widespread media scrutiny. 

Joseph Hofbauer was a 9-year-old with Hodgkin’s disease, whose parents never allowed him to receive appropriate treatment; instead insisting that he received Laetrile. The New York State authorities attempted to place him in protective custody, however, his parents filed a lawsuit and convinced family court judge, Loren Brown, to let them make the treatment decisions. Brown stated, “This court also finds that metabolic therapy has a place in our society, and hopefully, its proponents are on the first rung of a ladder that will rid us of all forms of cancer.” Joseph died of his disease, which had a 95% 5-year survival rate with appropriate chemotherapy, two years later.

In the 1980s, in response to political pressure, the National Cancer Institute undertook a clinical trial. They followed 178 cancer patients who had received Laetrile at a quack cancer centre willing to give them it. The results of the trial should have been the final blow for Laetrile, as not one patient was cured or even stabilised. The median survival rate was 4.8 months from the start of therapy, and tumor size had increased in those who had survived. In addition, several patients experienced symptoms of cyanide toxicity, or had blood levels of cyanide approaching the lethal range.

“Laetrile has had its day in court. The evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, is that it doesn’t benefit patients with advanced cancer, and there is no reason to believe that it would be any more effective in the earlier stages of the disease . . . The time has come to close the books.” -Relman A. Closing the books on Laetrile.

Proponents of Laetrile responded to the study with three different lawsuits against the National Cancer Institute, alleging that the study’s results had caused serious financial damage due to a drastic drop in the demand for Laetrile.

As the Laetrile fantasy faded, those who once promoted it went back to basics, and started to push apricot kernels as an all-natural cancer cure instead. As I said at the beginning, these kernels contain large quantities of amygdalin (the unhydrolyzed version of Laetrile), which also is broken down in the body, releasing cyanide. I first became aware of this quackery back in 2012, when I read an article published in The Sunday Mirror.

The article reported that 78-year-old fellow Smoggy (someone from Middlesbrough), Allan Taylor, had cured his incurable cancer with a new diet. Allan was told he had colon cancer back in 2011, and had around 22cm of his colon removed. He also underwent a three-month course of chemotherapy, but was later told that the cancer had spread to his small intestine. The doctors decided that he would not benefit from extra chemotherapy or surgery, and he therefore decided to find his own cure. He began to research colon cancer cures online, and took advice from his local health food store on changing his diet. 

He began replacing red meat and dairy products with 10 portions of raw fruit and vegetables each day. But he believed that one of the crucial ingredients of his new diet was a teaspoon of powdered barley grass in hot water every morning. Months later, he received a letter from the hospital saying that his cancer had gone. Allan said, “There is no question in my mind that my diet saved my life”.

Allen’s story is difficult to debunk, partly due to the sensitive nature of the subject, but also, because of doctor-patient confidentiality, we have to take his word on his medical history, treatments and current health. To give credence to Allan’s story, and to give the impression that his new diet has both cured his cancer and made him strong and healthy, the writers (Dominic Herbert and David Paul) did one of the worst Photoshop jobs I have ever seen. 

The reason why Allen believed powdered barley grass was having an affect on his cancer was because he believed it could  “raise the alkaline level of the blood, reducing acid. Cancer loves acid”, which is a throwback to the quackery of Robert Young and his pH miracle diet. Another superfood on Allan’s list was, you guessed it, apricot kernels, which he says “breaks down cancer cells.” 

Allan’s story really struck a nerve with me, not because of how irresponsible it was of Dominic Herbert and David Paul to publish such a story, or that Allan was teetering on the line between victim and quack, but because this had happened in my home town. Up until this point, I had only ever talked about victims of pseudoscience who lived quite far away from me, and thus there was a level of detachment. For the first time, I was confronted with quackery on my doorstep, and I saw red!

A few months passed, and I had almost forgotten about Allan and his miracle cure, when a family member told me that she had seen the newspaper article posted on the front of a health shop window. I immediately jumped in the car to see it for myself, and 20 minutes later, I was stood outside the offending shop with a look of utter shock on my face. Apparently not content with selling quack products to a critically ill man, they were now advertising that they had done this, and were encouraging other cancer patients, and those who know cancer patients, to come in and ask about their cure.

I went in and asked to speak to the person who had helped Allen with his diet. Five minutes later, a young woman appeared from the back of the shop. I introduced myself, smiled and explained why I was there. I began to ask what I thought to be easy questions about the product sold to Allan, starting with where she had heard that barley grass powder can change the pH of your blood. She picked up a barley grass powder bag from the shelf and frantically started to read the information on the back. There was an awkward silence until I said that I thought I knew where this theory comes from. I pulled out my copy of The pH miracle from my bag and began to talk about the book’s interesting theories on treating the sick. At this point, I was finding it hard to get a response from her, and I saw her for what she was… a nine ’til five snake oil peddler. She did not care about her job; nor did she really know what she was talking about. She didn’t even know the basics of the bullshit quack theories that she was peddling. I was very disappointed, and could see I was wasting my time, so I jumped to my final question. I asked whether, after listening to a scientist (myself) who had spent a considerable amount of time researching the claims made within the newspaper article, and was able to refute everything, she would take down the newspaper article from the shop window. She quickly dismissed my request by saying something along the lines of, “people will try anything if they are desperate”. First of all, this did not answer my question, and secondly, it showed me how morally bankrupt she was. I was honestly shocked at how someone could say something so horrid. I tried again to convince her that having this newspaper article on their window was potentially dangerous, and how it was giving false hope to ill people, but she was not budging. So I thanked her for taking the time to talk to me and left. 

Over the next few months I contacted the main players in this story, including a spokesperson for the newspaper, a nutritionist named Gareth Zeal, who also gave Allan advice on his diet, and I even contacted Allen himself. What I discovered was a perfect storm of quackery, catalysed by extraordinary claims made online. No one single player was solely responsible for this critically ill man consuming something which produces hydrogen cyanide, but they were all amplifying one another, and capitalising on his desperation. 

Even my local newspaper, the Evening Gazette, helped to proliferate the spread of quackery in Teesside. Three years prior to Allan’s story, they published a piece on fellow smoggy and cancer victim, Debi Cuthbert, and her trips to Ernesto Contreras’ Oasis of Hope, where she was injected with “mega-vitamin, B17”. Nowhere does it mention that there is no evidence of B17’s anticancer properties, or that B17 isn’t really a thing, or that the compound she was injected with causes cyanide poisoning. 

The story of Laetrile is not one about the suppression of a known cancer cure by multinational pharmaceutical companies, scared that their profits will be affected if the general population finds out, as many Laetrile/apricot kernel proponents preach. It’s the story of how two con men with a history of selling bogus cure-alls to critically ill people patented a compound that is known to release hydrogen cyanide in the body so that they could make money off people dying from cancer!

The sad truth is that, so long as there remain crippling and fatal diseases, there will undoubtedly be individuals eager to offer “alternatives” to scientific treatment, and large numbers of desperate individuals willing to purchase them. That’s why it’s so important that we stand up to quackery in all its forms and move away from the mindset that people who fall for it deserve everything coming to them. 

I would like to end by sharing an email I recently received from someone who had watched my videos, in the hope to encourage others to counter the dangerous quackery they see in their day to day life. 

About Myles Power (707 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The Story of Ernest Krebs, Jr., and Bunk Cancer Cure "Vitamin B17"
  2. Laetrile (B17) – The History of the Quack Cancer Cure That Will Give You Cyanide Poisoning – Mindreka!

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