Feb. 21, 2003. 01:00 AM
The unfunniest scam of all

JENNIFER WELLS

The snake oil season is upon us.

No, I'm not talking about Brian Costello.

I'm talking about the kind of trickery that recalls the days when P.T. Barnum stuck the head of a monkey on the tail of a fish and called his creation a Feejee Mermaid.

Do you believe what you see?

Do you believe what you read?

This isn't a funny story. This is a story about cancer sufferers who read about a treatment called Zoetron Therapy, marketed by a Canadian outfit called CSCT Inc.

Corporately based in Naramata, B.C. that's about 20 minutes northeast of Penticton with an office in London, England, CSCT until yesterday was actively promoting its cell specific cancer therapy, which it dubbed Zoetron Therapy.

Up until yesterday, up until a U.S. federal district court judge ordered the Web site shut down, you could read all about Zoetron. It was quite magical. A non-invasive, non-surgical, chemical and drug-free cancer treatment. "Zoetron Therapy is designed to kill cancerous cells without harming normal cells in any way," read the literature. Particularly effective in treatment of cancers, variously, of the pancreas, lung, breast, prostate, skin, colon, stomach, ovary, cervix, larynx, gum, throat, brain, liver, kindey, penis, bladder and uterus.

You pretty much can't beat that for a sales pitch. To underscore its appeal, the CSCT people emphasized the distressing aspects of chemotherapy "chemicals poisonous enough to kill the cancerous cells but not so poisonous as to kill all the non-cancerous cells as well." And radiation "To exceed the suggested lifetime dose is to risk death from radiation poisoning." And surgery, well, who wants to opt for that if there are effective alternatives? "Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are all highly invasive and all result in side-effects and after-effects," went the CSCT promo.

Enter Zoetron Therapy. How does it work, or rather, how does it claim to work? I'm sorry to inform you that the answer to that is somewhat vague. "The Zoetron device uses pulsed magnetic fields to heat only cancerous cells to their temperature threshold from the inside so that non-cancerous cells are not involved and the consequence is that there is no collateral damage, pain or suffering. That is, there are no adverse effects or after effects." The cancerous cells are targeted, says the company, via the disproportionate accumulation of iron in the cells.

I can't tell you what the Zoetron 300 device looks like. "The Zoetron 300 ... offers a system that localizes and targets the tumour rather than drenching the entire subject in energy. This means that the energy applied is less than 6 watts."

If cancer weren't so unfunny, a writer could do something with a cancer killing machine that uses less energy than an alarm clock. Instead, let's proceed to what happens next. "Shortly after cell death the cell decays and the heated magnetic particles are released into the interstitial space (that's the cracks between the cells) where they quickly reach an equilibrium temperature closer to the normal body temperature."

Yesterday, Chicago District Court judge David Coar issued an injunction prohibiting the cancer-killing claims, shutting down the Web site and freezing the assets of John Leslie Armstrong and Michael John Reynolds, the corporate principals behind CSCT. In court filings, an excerpt from a telemarketing call quotes Armstrong, who is believed to live in the Toronto area, promising that the therapy "actually kills cancer cells."

According to Steve Baker, director of the midwest office for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, it was a three-way co-operative investigation between the FTC, the Toronto office of the Competition Bureau and Mexican authorities that led to the operation being shut down. Why Mexico? Because as part of the Zoetron Therapy program, patients who paid $15,000 (U.S.) up front for the treatment also had to pay their way to Tijuana to get their cells zapped. Mexican officials have shuttered the clinic.

Baker says he does not know precisely how many patients bought the Zoetron story. The CSCT Web site at one point claimed that 800 people had been treated, which implies revenues of $12 million not counting the company's readmission fee of $6,000 for patients seeking follow-up treatments. It's estimated that 10 per cent of the victims are Canadians.

In its release yesterday, the commission said that consumers would be shown tests that purported to indicate the effectiveness of the treatment and that the cancer had been destroyed. "If a consumer expresses some doubt, possibly because the consumer's observation of the tumour indicates that there is no change, the clinic will assure the consumer that the cancerous cells are in fact dead and explain to the consumer that the body simply takes time to eliminate the dead cancer cells."

Following treatment, patients learned "that not only has the Zoetron therapy failed to improve their condition, but that their condition actually has deteriorated." In some case, the FTC alleges, "the patient's condition has progressed beyond the point where it can be treated effectively by other means and the patient dies soon after leaving the CSCT clinic." Says Baker: "We know of a number of consumers who have died." He would not offer a figure.

Yesterday Baker was sounding upbeat about how well the three-way investigative alliance worked. "What we've found is that more and more of our fraud is going international," he says. As far as he knows it's the first time the three countries have worked together on the same case at the same time.

He knows that's little comfort to the sufferers who have been duped. "Consumers," he says, "need to consult their doctors and get good medical advice and not let their desperate hopes lead them into the hands of a scam."

Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, was quoted at a news conference saying the Zoetron was "one of the most reprehensible scams we have ever seen." And made in Canada at that.

Additional articles by Jennifer Wells





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