A Dominican Republic-based company is making the controversial claim that its scorpion venom drug can help fight cancer, but some oncologists in the United States warn it may provide nothing more than a stiff dose of false hope.
Russian émigré Dr. Arthur Mikaelian and his company, Medolife, produce a drug called Escozine, whose sole active ingredient is blue scorpion venom. Medolife said Escozine is an effective cancer treatment because a peptide in the venom called chlorotoxin -- the same chemical that paralyzes prey -- also happens to target and kill cancer cells.
Despite the fact that the unproven drug is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, thousands of desperate Americans are betting their lives on it.
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy medical director of the American Cancer Society, is skeptical of the cancer-curing properties of Escozine and cautioned against patients substituting alternative medicines for traditional cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy.
"There's no reasonable scientific evidence to show that this drug works in treating patients with cancer," Lichtenfeld said.
He said he has seen too many claims about alternative medicines, such as scorpion venom, that turn out not to work and leave patients in despair.
"Cancer patients have enough to deal with," he said. "To have to deal with unverified, undocumented hope is a burden that no one should have to bear."
Peggy Howe is one of those people who swear by Escozine. The Kansas grandmother said she was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer in 2011. Despite heavy chemotherapy and radiation, Howe's cancer spread to her liver and lungs. She said doctors told her and her husband Larry that she had just two months to live.
"We started making funeral arrangements, but I wasn't ready to die," Howe said.
As a last-ditch effort, Howe started taking Escozine. Without FDA approval, Escozine cannot be not sold in U.S. stores, but can be purchased online through Medolife's website.
"Within four days, I was starting to have more energy and then within six months it was gone," she said.
She also apparently took guidance from the company's website, and its "Escozine Success Calculator," which gave her a 76 percent chance of success, she wrote on a cancer survivor message board.
However, the medical records that Howe provided to ABC News don't indicate when Howe stopped or started taking Escozine, and therefore could not prove that Escozine affected her health. So did scorpion venom make her cancer go away?
Escozine isn't the first natural remedy purported to cure diseases. Some have turned out to have significant medicinal value. Lichtenfeld said the first chemotherapy drugs came from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, which were first used as folk medicines in China. But most of these remedies, such as snake oil and rhino horn, have been resoundingly debunked.
But Mikaelian and his partner Sebastian Serrel Watts attribute to Escozine almost miraculous powers. In addition to attacking cancer cells, Medolife says that scorpion venom might also combat auto-immune diseases, everything from HIV to hepatitis, and even male impotence.