On January 29, 2016, HBO Real Time host Bill Maher featured Samir Chachoua, a man who claims to have discovered a cure for HIV/AIDS, cancer, and a host of other illnesses. He is not licensed to practice medicine in the US; he operates out of Mexico where he charges rich visitors many thousands of dollars for treatment with his untested vaccines. Most of what he says on the program is unverifiable, demonstrably false, or frankly impossible.
Charlie Sheen: Failure, not a Success
The problem from the start is that Chachoua claims to have cured Charlie Sheen of HIV, and yet he admits that Charlie still has HIV. What gives? He says Charlie was dying from severe encephalitis, was incontinent, couldn’t tolerate daylight, and had severe liver failure. He claims to have “fixed” the liver, eliminated all the symptoms, and returned Charlie to vibrant health within a few hours of the first treatment. He claims that “within minutes” of starting his therapy, Charlie’s liver tests went to normal levels. That is simply not a believable claim, and no proof is on the offing. Damaged tissue takes time to heal. Recovery from chronic illness takes more than a matter of hours.
Charlie Sheen was also featured on a recent episode of Dr. Oz. There he described how Chachoua injected himself with Charlie’s blood. Bizarrely, he drew blood from some kind of lump on Charlie’s elbow rather than from a vein. Dr. Oz was appalled, as anyone would be. Not only was there a risk of HIV transmission, but there was a risk of transfusion reaction from mismatched blood that had not been typed and cross-matched. If the incident really occurred, it was nothing but a theatrical stunt demonstrating Chachoua’s overconfidence and poor judgment.
Sheen had been on antiretroviral medications that had reduced his viral load to undetectable levels. As with all such patients, this does not mean the virus had been eradicated from the entire body. When Sheen stopped taking the meds, the HIV titers (concentrations) remained undetectable for a while, but then started going back up, exactly as would be expected. Chachoua started treating him during the undetectable period and proclaimed Charlie cured. But then Charlie’s titers started rising again. He realized he was not cured and went right back on his antiretroviral medications on the plane homefrom Mexico.
Chachoua claims Charlie Sheen as an example of his treatment’s success, but he is actually an example of its failure. Charlie says he had offered himself as a guinea pig, he has accepted that the treatment was a failure, and he is not recommending the treatment to others.
Eradicated HIV/AIDS From an Entire Country
Chachoua even claims to have eradicated both HIV/AIDS and Chikungunya (a viral infection) from the island nation of Comoros in 2006 with his vaccines. That claim is demonstrably false. HIV has never been eradicated from any country. As of 2012 there were 7,900 people in Comoros living with HIV/AIDS, and deaths from AIDS are still being reported there.
What Really Happened at Cedars-Sinai?
Chachoua claims that Cedars-Sinai found his vaccines “more than 99% effective.” He further claims that they published the research as their own, and then buried it. Maher showed a 20-year-old NBC news video claiming that a federal jury awarded Chachoua $10,111,250. That is not an accurate summary of what happened.
Chachoua did indeed send samples to Cedars-Sinai for testing, and some kind of testing was done. He then sued Cedars-Sinai for a whole list of things, but only the “conspiracy to defame” and breach of contract claims went to trial; all of the other claims were dismissed prior to trial, many for lack of evidence. In the trial, Chachoua claimed that the test results were positive and were published by a researcher named Daar in the November 1996 issue of the journal AIDS Research Human Retroviruses. No such article is listed on the journal’s website or in PubMed or in Daar’s own list of publications. The court said Chachoua was unable to produce the alleged article and failed to even offer admissible evidence that he had personal knowledge of any such article. Among other things, Chachoua claimed that Cedars-Sinai had destroyed his vaccine samples, but the court found that it was undisputed that the samples had been returned within a few months.
At trial, Chachoua lost on the defamation claim but won a jury verdict of $10,111,250 for breach of contract. However: he never got a penny of that money. The judge determined that the jury’s award was excessive and reduced the amount to $11,250, the actual cost of testing the samples. Chachoua was given the choice of accepting that award or having a new trial on the breach of contract claim. He refused the award, and a new trial was ordered. The court case was a circus. Chachoua went through five attorneys and sometimes represented himself; he refused to obey court orders and repeatedly claimed to be too ill to attend court proceedings. The case was dismissed for failure to prosecute. Even if he had pursued the case, the maximum he could have won was $11,250, because the judge found his claims of additional damages too speculative. The dismissal of the case was affirmed on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He not only received no money, but he had to pay thousands of dollars of court costs to the defendants.
What About the Science?
Chachoua developed what he calls “The Nemesis Theory,” a conjecture that for every disease there is an infectious organism capable of destroying it. He found a community in Mexico that had no cases of HIV/AIDS, and discovered that people there were drinking milk from goats infected with Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis Virus (CAEV). This virus apparently has some cross-reactivity with the HIV virus. He believes CAEV protects people from infection with HIV. Instead of trying to test that hypothesis, Chachoua rushed to treatment, recommending patients drink infected goat milk; then he developed a vaccine based on CAEV that he thought would combat HIV. From this one unverified example, he expanded his vaccine hypothesis to include most other diseases. He claims “When measles or mumps or other viruses such as Newcastles or the goat arthritis virus, CAEV, wish to enter a human host, they must destroy whatever disease is preventing them from growing there efficiently. The right strains will therefore demolish viruses such as HIV or herpes and even change leukemic cells back to normal in order to grow happily inside healthy white blood cells.” There is no evidence that this is so, and scientists have good reason to think it is not so.
The testimonial page on Chachoua’s website reports miraculous cures of cancer, AIDS, heart failure, peripheral neuropathy, cardiomyopathy, multiple sclerosis, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, ALS, autism, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, sarcoidosis. It would be truly remarkable if one method of treatment were effective in such a wide variety of diverse diseases.
When David Gorski, a cancer surgeon and research scientist, evaluated the science sections of Chachoua’s website, he found the case histories unconvincing and the scientific rationale implausible. He characterized it as “a lot of horrifying pseudoscience based on a germ of real science.”
Chachoua claims his vaccines work on a genetic level, almost instantly switching off harmful genetics and correcting them. He says results are seen within minutes of starting therapy. That’s simply not possible.
If Chachoua really had a cure for HIV and cancer, it would revolutionize medical science and clinical treatment. A legitimate scientist would publicize his findings and share his knowledge with the world for the benefit of millions of suffering patients. Even if he had no research funding, he could publish case reports in peer-reviewed scientific journals with detailed descriptions of what he had done, so that others could do the necessary research. Then he could sit back and wait for a very well deserved Nobel Prize. Chachoua has never published anything that I could find. I doubt that he has anything publishable.
Does Chachoua Really Have Patents?
Chachoua says he was awarded a patent in 2003 for “methods for disease prevention, diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and monitoring. More particularly, the present invention relates to the identification and use of disease-associated organisms, elements and forces which may be used, whole or in part, in the diagnoses, therapy and prevention of a targeted disease or other unwanted bodily condition and/or facilitate a desired state.”
I searched the US Patent Office files and found only one patent under his name: a 1996 patent for the use of 2-MEA and related compounds. He may have applied for a patent in other countries. I did find a patent applicationthat seems to match his claim. Apparently it was not granted. A notation of “legal events” shows “examination request” in 2003 and “Dead” in 2005, meaning the patent application was abandoned. Anyway, patents are really beside the point. A patent doesn’t mean a method is effective, only unique.
Is Chachoua a Charlatan?
I don’t see how Chachoua could believe his own claims, but I can’t entirely rule out the possibility. People have been known to believe the most outrageous things. Chachoua might truly believe he is curing people. Every charlatan, quack, and snake oil salesman has testimonials from grateful patients. The effects they report are mostly subjective, unverified, and short-lived. In placebo-controlled trials, an average of 30% of subjects in the placebo group report improvement. If a quack only relies on patients who say they have improved and doesn’t do any long-term follow-up or controlled comparisons, it is easy for him to convince himself that his bogus treatment is working.
We have seen this over and over in the history of medicine. Early in the 20th century, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) ran a series on unconventional cancer treatments. On one page they would present a testimonial from a patient saying “Dr. X’s treatment cured my cancer!” and on the facing page they would present the patient’s death certificate showing that he had died of his cancer shortly after providing the testimonial.
Chachoua’s followers accuse the medical establishment of suppressing his cures. They see him as a lone genius battling persecution. Chachoua claims that individuals, not institutions, are the ones who make medical discoveries. He compares himself to Jenner, Pasteur, and Salk. He couldn’t be more wrong. Science has become increasingly complicated, and scientific discoveries are no longer made by individuals working outside the system. Salk’s polio vaccine was not the invention of a maverick; he built on accepted knowledge in mainstream science, and thousands of mainstream doctors worked together to test and validate his vaccine.
Chachoua’s so-called Induced Remission Therapy has been debunked on Quackwatch by Stephen Barrett. Dr. Barrett says, “Chachoua portrays himself as a conspiracy victim whose work has been undeservedly ignored and/or suppressed by the medical profession. However, his theories run counter to current understanding of cancer biology and immunology… No convincing evidence is available to show that Chachoua’s treatments could work as claimed.”
HIV/AIDS is one of the greatest success stories of modern medicine. In a matter of a few years, it was changed from a death sentence to a chronic condition that can be managed with a once-a-day combination pill to give patients a near-normal life expectancy with a good quality of life. It would be very foolish to stop these effective medications and switch to an untested treatment.
It is in this sense that Chachoua is a dangerous man. If he persuades patients to stop taking life-saving medications and injects them with untested vaccines based on a fanciful hypothesis that is inconsistent with much of modern medical science, that is perilous, as is giving him a platform on a national television show viewed by over four million people. Already comments are being posted on Internet forums that Chachoua’s appearance on his show is “the last thing AIDS activists need to be dealing with” and is likely to result in unnecessary deaths.
After Sheen’s appearance on the Dr. Oz show, Steven Novella blogged about it as a teachable moment. He explains that the average person is easily taken in by con artists. Without a high degree of science literacy and an awareness of the methods con artists use to turn people against the experts, it is very difficult to counter a sophisticated con. But try we must.
Note: Thanks to Jann Bellamy, JD, who provided invaluable assistance in helping me understand the complexities of a real doozy of a legal case.
This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine. It later appeared in Skeptic magazine.