By Vanessa Bauzá | Havana Bureau | Associated Press
Jaguey Grande, Cuba · For most of his patients, Jose Felipe Monzon’s tidy home on the edge of an overgrown sugarcane field is the last stop on a long road of failed conventional medical treatments.
Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, they arrive early and eagerly wait their turns on tree-shaded iron benches, swapping stories of hope and healing.
Many have trekked to this tiny, central Cuban town for years, convinced that Monzon’s homemade tonic—scorpion venom diluted with distilled water—has attacked their cancerous tumors or at least made their final days less painful.
Others are cautious converts who have sought out the tonic behind their doctors’ backs because they have nothing left to loose.
“We only hope the time my mother-in-law has left is the best it can be,” said William Vazquez, whose mother-in-law’s cancer spread despite two mastectomies and radiation treatment. “We didn’t think she would see her birthday in November. This has stalled the cancer.”
Cuba’s life expectancy and infant mortality rates are comparable to those in the United States. Medical procedures from chemotherapy to surgery are free. But the public health system suffers from chronic problems that make basic medical care uneven and often substandard. These shortcomings—combined with some patients’ willingness to try almost anything and what some describe as a cultural affinity for natural remedies—mean more Cubans are turning to alternative medicine to battle everything from cancer and hepatitis to asthma.
Natural elixirs include the dark, syrupy Vimang, made from the bark of certain mango trees. Touted as a powerful antioxidant, Vimang is distributed by doctors to hundreds of patients at a countryside clinic outside Havana. Others are drinking juice from the fruit of the Noni tree, which has long been used in Hawaii to treat everything from high blood pressure to arthritis. Shark cartilage pills are said to have cancer-fighting properties. Traditional Chinese medicines and acupuncture have been popular here for years.
But perhaps the most seriously studied alternative remedy is Escozul, made from the venom of the four-inch, blue tinged Rhopalurus Junceus scorpion.
More than 10 years ago Monzon’s daughter, Niurys, became one of the first Cuban cancer patients to try the tonic developed by a Guantanamo biologist. She says the all-natural concoction, which has a slight fishy taste, worked where chemotherapy and radiation failed and had no side effects. Today the tumor in her pancreas has disappeared. Monzon and his daughter are among several Cubans who make Escozul at home, providing it to Cubans as well as to visitors from Europe, Russia and South America.
“I’ve treated every kind of cancer that exists,” said Monzon, from the round dining table where he sees patients and recommends treatments. “The doctors don’t want to believe in this, but the proof is in the patients.”
One of Niurys Monzon’s former surgeons, Dr. Andres Savío, confirmed that her tumor has disappeared. But he could not attribute her recovery to scorpion venom. Like many who take Escozul, she had conventional treatments as well, making it difficult to definitively identify the factor in her recovery.
“You have to keep in mind that she did have radiation therapy and chemotherapy,” Savío said from his office in Havana’s Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital. “I have no scientific proof to endorse the scorpion venom. I do think it deserves to be studied and put to clinical trials.”
A former tourism worker with a degree in physical education, and no medical background or training, Monzon admits he has learned what he knows about oncology on the fly. He started distributing Escozul free of charge—though patients leave donations—to share it with other families battling cancer. In the past decade his makeshift practice has grown mostly through word of mouth from about 100 to 8,000 patients, he said.
Escozul creator Misael Bordier—who first tested his concoction on rats and dogs, but is not a doctor either—said proteins in the venom act to inhibit the growth of tumors. However he and other Cuban researchers have yet to pinpoint the active agent.
“My hope is that we can synthesize this just as penicillin was synthesized so we can distribute it across the world,” Bordier said.
Some Cuban oncologists, however, dismiss Escozul as a dangerous fad that offers only false hope. Cancer specialists in the United States also express concerns about experimental or alternative treatments that have not been proven effective in scientific studies or clinical trials.
K. Simon Yeung, a pharmacist at the Integrative Medicine Service of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York said snake and scorpion venom are commonly used in alternative medicines in Asia and Central and South America, but remain untested and unregulated by health authorities.
“Most of these natural medications are usually not regulated, unfortunately,” Yeung said. “There are risks that people should be aware of: allergy, infection and dosage range. Whether they’re safe or not is difficult to tell.”
When considering an alternative treatment Yeung recommends patients “be skeptical and do their homework. If indeed some [alternative] medicines have a proven effect usually they will be incorporated into mainstream medicine.”
Despite the skepticism, a group of researchers at some of Havana’s most prominent laboratories are putting Escozul to the test. They say their studies have confirmed that the venom contains a protein that reduces swelling and fights pain.
But Jorge Luis Maestre Mesa, a researcher with Havana’s Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine, said it is too early to determine whether Escozul can eliminate tumors, as Bordier claims.
Both agree on one thing: “It’s a natural product which improves the lives of patients,” Maestre Mesa said.
At Labiofam, a laboratory partnering with the institute, doctors say they have seen some benefit in about 65 percent of the 1,000 patients treated with Escozul over the past eight years. Some have switched from morphine to less powerful painkillers while others have stopped using oxygen masks or developed better appetites, said Dr. Niudis Cruz Zamora, who heads the medical team at Labiofam. But the tonic has not cured the cancers or eliminated the tumors, researchers say.
“My only worry is to have enough scorpions to make the medicine and to find the active agent to give it to all patients,” Cruz Zamora said.
She said Labiofam’s clinical studies have not yet been published in a medical journal or presented at a conference, two venues often used in reporting a new medical treatment.
About 70 percent of American cancer patients report using alternative treatments, according to a 2002 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Patients should “bear in mind that what appears to be a cancer cure is unlikely to be so if it is not used in the major cancer centers of the world,” said Barrie Cassileth of the Integrative Medicine center at Sloan-Kettering in a 2001 issue of Cancer magazine.
Clinging to hope
Susana Montero has battled breast cancer since 1994 and was the first Labiofam patient to try the scorpion venom concoction. An enthusiastic champion of natural remedies over aggressive treatments like chemotherapy, Montero, 51, has only ever taken one other medication, an estrogen inhibitor used to treat breast cancer.
Five years ago her health was so deteriorated “people were practically saying goodbye to me,” she said. Today, though she complains of digestive problems and nodules that appear on her neck, Montero’s health has stabilized. She is unsure which treatment—natural or manufactured—has helped, but says she will not stop taking the scorpion venom.
“I don’t think any hope is false,” Montero said from her Havana home, acknowledging she has not done follow-up testing to determine if her cancer is gone. “I recommend it to everyone.”
Researchers at Sloan-Kettering are studying a component in snake venom that inhibits a protein in cancer cells, making it more difficult for them to spread.
“Hopefully in the next three to five years there will be a cancer drug based on this mechanism,” said Yeung, the Sloan-Kettering pharmacist.
At least one American lab is testing a synthetic version of the venom derived from the giant yellow Israeli scorpion to see whether it helps treat brain cancer. Researchers think the synthetic venom, to which they have added a radioactive dose, acts like a “smart bomb,” delivering a radioactive payload to the cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unscathed.
“We’re taking advantage of mother nature’s ability to create a molecule that knows how to target a specific receptor on tumor cells,” said Matthew Gonda, president of TransMolecular, a private biotechnology company partnering with the University of Alabama, City of Hope in Los Angeles and St. Louis University Hospital.
Trial results from 18 patients will not be available until February. But even if a successful study confirms his initial research, Gonda warned against drawing any parallels between his synthetic venom with the added radioactive medicine and the Cuban homemade tonics, which he said could contain impurities.
But at Monzon’s home it seems likely families will continue to cling to hope rather than heed warnings as they seek a little relief for their loved ones.
“Many people have told me this worked for them,” said Raquel Hernandez, 62, who was picking up her first two liter bottles of Escozul to treat her brother Osvaldo’s prostate cancer. “All I want is for him not to have any pain.”