I was contacted by a journalist about a local cancer "cure", Te Kiri Gold, and sent a response (with a little help from ex-chair of the NZ Skeptics, Vicki Hyde):

Thanks for contacting the NZ Skeptics about the report on the local "magic water" cancer cure.

From what we can gather about Vernon Coxhead's "Te Kiri Gold" footrot remedy from the news, it's highly unlikely that it's an effective treatment for cancer. Coxhead's own description of how he invented the water makes it sound pretty implausible.

With all potentially emerging cancer cures, whether alternative or medical, it's very important to have clear, unambiguous data from well-designed clinical trials that have been peer-reviewed. That's the gold standard for any health claim. It is important that the data is collected before offering the treatment to people outside of trials, even if you're giving it away for free.

If you jump the gun and give people your product before you've proven it works, you're likely to raise false hopes or exploit the highly vulnerable, regardless of how much you believe in your product. It's all too common for claims to be made, often supported by a celebrity endorsement, without the backing of any evidence.

It would be great to have a simple, effective cure for a range of cancers, but all the research in the world has shown that it's not that easy. And, sadly, monitoring sites like whatstheharm.net (and skepdic.com and quackwatch.com) show us that a lot of unnecessary pain, misery and death can be caused by such claims.

If we're fussy enough to ask for proof that a rust bucket really is worth the price on the sticker, then we should be even more fussy about proof when it comes to health claims.

Vernon Coxhead says that he's conducting a clinical trial for his product. However, it's unlikely that he understands the importance of blinding, placebo control or proper data analysis. It would be great if the details of the current protocol were published publicly (at www.anzctr.org.au), so that we know whether the trial is well designed. Even better would be to see him working with one of New Zealand's universities or clinical research companies to test his product properly and independently. Once Mr Coxhead's product is approved by Medsafe as a treatment for cancer, as other cancer drugs have done, we will be happy that he has proven its worth.

Cancer, like a number of other conditions, is recognised to have spontaneous periods of remission, or survival rates beyond prediction; times when symptoms are relieved and so on. That makes it one of the most vulnerable to alternative claims as people desperately seek for things that might have caused it - it could be the chemo or the crystals, the radiation or the reiki. Or it might have happened on its own, and without proper testing there's no way of knowing which is the case. We can tell, from trials and patient data collection, that some of those things work, and some don't. But that doesn't necessarily stop people being exploited.

There are many questions that should be asked about this "magic water":

  • What type of clinical trials have been undertaken? What are the protocols? The sample size? The monitoring time?
  • Have the results been published in any recognised peer-reviewed journal? Or monitored/repeated by an independent team?
  • Is there a clear biologically supported mechanism for anti-cancer activity on the part of the product?
  • How effective/extensive is the patient screening? It's an odd fact but the alternative health industry is fairly notorious for curing people of cancer and other conditions who never had them in the first place!

If they really do have an effective cure, then the results should speak for themselves. But a celebrity endorsement does not have the weight of actual evidence, no matter how big the man.