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When you are sick with cancer, about the last thing you need to do is to travel half way around the world to try to find an insect dealer so you can eat live blister beetles. The cantharidin for cancer scam, which involves those blister beetles, is a good illustration of a horrible idea taken seriously. Here's why.

The blister beetle cancer "cure" has an element of truth in it.

Like most cancer scams, the idea of using blister beetles (Coleoptera, by the way, is just the scientific name for all beetles, there are 400,000 different species) to treat cancer is not utterly far-fetched. There really are beetles that secrete a blistering chemical into their stomachs (that's their stomachs, not the stomachs of people who eat them). More specifically, these are male beetles of some species of the Meloidae family of the Coleoptera order produce a fluid in their mouths that they store in their stomachs and bowels. Were you to eat the beetle, which would have to be a beetle identified as male, since female beetles don't make the toxin, you would be getting a dose of the toxin mixed with its feces.

Eating, to put it politely, feces, isn't a deterrent if you have terminal cancer and you really think it will work. The sensation of blister beetles burning your mouth and throat as they go down, however, should be. The stings are intensely painful. The idea of using the poison for a medical application, however, is not anything new.

The blister beetle scam involves a common, and, at least in pharmacological science, well-known substance in a new way.

Blister beetle toxin isn't new. It was used in both China and Europe as long as 2,000 years ago, in an era when doctors could more easily persuade their patients to eat disgusting things. It also made an appearance in its purified form, cantharidin, in the United States in the 1950's. Initially, this toxin was FDA-approved. However, the makers of the elixir of blister beetles never got around to proving that their product worked, so the FDA withdrew its approval in 1962. Then, 36 years later, the effectiveness of the blister beetle produce was finally proven, so the FDA has approved the use of the product since 1998 in the United States. There are three companies that make it, two in Canada (Paladin Labs in Quebec City and Dormer Laboratories in Ontario), and one in the United States (Delasco in Council Bluffs, Iowa). They don't sell directly to the public but they do make the blister beetle toxin available to doctors in the United States. No trips to Peru to track down beetle vendors are required.

The blister beetle toxin actually does break down abnormal tissues when applied appropriately.

Cantharidin actually does break up some kinds of aberrant tissues. It's used to treat warts and calluses. It's used to treat a particularly troublesome condition called leishmaniasis and also herpes, although these applications are "off-label." It's being investigated as a treatment for some kinds of skin cancer. The advantage of using the product is that it can remove skin growths without leaving a scar. That's no small benefit for dermatology.

However, the uses of cantharidin in treating cancer are wildly exaggerated.

It's not impossible that someone could take cantharidin and recover from cancer. It's also not impossible that someone could drink water, eat sliced bread, drive a car, pray, join an atheist club, play pinochle, or toss pizza dough and recover from cancer. It's a wonderful thing that even one person goes into remission, for whatever reason. That doesn't mean that any particular thing they did will work for everyone else.

There are some very exciting ongoing studies of cantharidin as a cancer treatment:

  • A group of researchers at Soochow University in China (where the use of blister beetles in medicines probably originated 2,000 years ago) have found that cantharidin probably has the potential to extend remission from pancreatic cancer when used with two cancer therapy drugs, erlotinib and gemcitabine. However, using enough of the drug to arrest cancer usually causes liver injury.
  • On the other hand, cantharidin induces changes in DNA that lead to bladder cancer. As the body removes spent blister beetle toxin from the bloodstream into the urine, the urine itself becomes toxic. Bladder cancer is easier to treat than pancreatic cancer, but it is still an unacceptable side effect.
  • Cantharidin is much more promising as a treatment for a particularly aggressive form of skin cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma, applied directly to the skin.

All of this means that if you manage to get the pure drug, and it's already available to doctors all over the world, and you take it by mouth, you may slow down one cancer only to cause another. The toxin probably is helpful for skin cancer, and your doctor can get it for you if he or she deems it best. However, this is not something you should apply to a skin cancer yourself. Why? There is a high probability you will get some of the cancer but not all of it. The skin cancer will simply grow back, and possibly have time to spread.

There is another aspect of cancer scams attached to this blister beetle toxin story:

Cancer cures that are supposedly suppressed by Big Pharma or the Cancer Industry are available in exotic locations.

Let's suppose you aren't willing to work with a doctor to get the real cantharidin at a reasonable cost. (An application of the drug costs about Canadian $7.50 or US $5.75, slightly more if you use the brand name Cantharone made by Dormer Laboratories.) Instead, you say, no, even though I am very sick, I am going to spend $10,000 to go to Peru to see if I can find a blister beetle vendor in some market and then eat the beetles, and all their germs, and feces, letting the toxin sting my throat, and give myself a different kind of cancer. 

You get to Peru. You travel to the Andes. You suffer altitude sickness in addition to everything else, and you die. This does not seem like a very wise plan, but it is precisely what some of the proponents of this magical cure for all cancers, which is in reality a proven treatment for some cancers, would like for you to do. Please work with your doctor at home.

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