Apricot kernels

Image of white apricot flowersEarlier today I was browsing the mentions of Kate Granger, the doctor best known for setting up the “Hello, my name is…” campaign aimed at encouraging doctors, nurses and other health professionals to introduce themselves to patients when they meet them, and who is in a hospice with terminal cancer at the time of this writing, and I came across a series of tweets from someone trying to sell her apricot kernels (organic Himalayan ones, no less) which she claimed had cured an old friend who had stomach and lung cancer that had spread despite surgery (a bit of “spiritual healing” helped also). I didn’t see any responses from Kate (who is clearly too ill to tweet much) or her husband (who is too busy caring and making the most ot his last few days with her), but I do believe this nonsense deserves a response because Dr Granger is obviously not the only person with this disease and there will be other targets for these cranks.

I had a look on Wikipedia for basic facts on apricot kernels. It seems there are two types, bitter and sweet, and the sweet type (grown in Europe and central Asia) are used in cooking oil and as a substitute for almond flavour, while the bitter type is the one thought to be a cure for cancer. The bitter type has a high concentration of amygdalin, a chemical which when ingested causes cyanide poisoning (the sweet type has a much smaller concentration); a pack of the bitter kernels, at one point marketed in health-food shops as a snack, contained at least double the adult lethal dose. As for curing cancer, in 2011 the Cochrane Collaboration (which specialises in meta-analyses, or analyses of groups of clinical trials) concluded that the claims for amygdalin or a synthetic derivative, laetrile “are not currently supported by sound clinical data” and that in light of the risk of cyanide poisoning from oral ingestion, “the risk–benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is … unambiguously negative”. They recommended that no further research be conducted into the substances on ethical grounds.

The response from the amygdalin advocates was, predictably, to indulge in conspiracy theories and I’m sure some people will dismiss me as a “sheeple” (not sure what the singular of that is) for accepting “establishment” or “big pharma” science as fact. Readers might consider, however, that if this substance really was a cure for cancer, “big pharma” could have capitalised on it because even if they couldn’t patent it, they could have found more efficient ways to extract it from apricot kernels than small-scale activist producers could — and they could have developed and patented some derivative. They could have found ways to grow it here rather than import it from India or Nepal. They already derive medicines from plants, everything from aspirin from willow bark to the chemo drug vincristine derived from the Madagascar periwinkle, so why anyone thinks they would miss a chance to exploit a chemical found in a common fruit (and in other members of the same family) is beyond me. In countries like the UK where there is a public health system and chemotherapy drugs are funded by the state, it stands to reason that they would not pay for them if fruit seeds did the job better.

It’s obvious why people promote this junk. They don’t like big drug companies, they know that people don’t like taking drugs that make them sick and would use an alternative if one were available, and that people especially do not like allowing their children to be made dreadfully sick, and they prey on this desperation. They often present their ‘cures’ as gentler than the drugs ‘peddled’ by the big companies and the NHS, but in truth they are often poisonous, as with these seeds, or otherwise harmful, as (for example) with the bleach or anti-hormone agents marketed as cures for autism. If you’ve got a friend with a serious or chronic illness and you’ve heard of something that sounds like a miracle cure, think twice before recommending it to them. They’ve probably heard it all before (many, many times, and if the condition is a very visible one, likely from strangers on trains and the like) and if it were as simple as eating a few seeds, they’d have found this out from other people with their condition (yes, they have forums for these things). I know you don’t want your friend to suffer, but if they cease treatment because someone convinced them to try an alternative remedy instead, they could die. It’s happened many times.

It was Kate’s wish to raise £250,000 for her local cancer centre in Leeds before she died. That goal has been exceeded, but the JustGiving page is still open. She has also asked for donations to be made to St Gemma’s Hospice, also in Leeds, where she is being cared for currently. You may also like to donate to a hospice in your area, such as Royal Trinity Hospice in south London.

Image source: Wikimedia, sourced from Marco Almbauer; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

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