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That she, like Leandro, survived a brain tumor with the help of the venom is telling, says Dr. Alexis Diaz, an enthusiastic young Cuban scientist who's on Labiofam's small venom-research team. He says the medicine has produced results only on solid or organ cancers like those in the lungs, pancreas, brain, or stomach. It hasn't been found effective for liquid or blood-based cancers such as leukemia or lymphoma. Nor does the medicine always yield results like those that occurred with the two children. "Most patients seek the venom after everything else has failed," Diaz says. "These patients have very weak immune systems and the cancer has already metastasized, so it's hard to expect really surprising results every time."
But if the treatment is administered in the early stages of sickness, its impact is more profound, he believes. "We hope to help turn cancer from being a fatal disease into a chronic and manageable one, like diabetes."
Along these lines, Cuban doctors actively encourage using the venom as a complement to conventional methods. For example, after taking the venom for seven months, Leandro was strong enough for surgeons to create a permanent solution to his brain-fluid buildup. So his physicians, while maintaining his scorpion treatment, started him on radiation. This led to a further reduction in the tumor's size.
Dr. Luigi Di Lorenzi, director of the neuroscience department's rehabilitation unit at the Azienda Hospital G. Rummo in Benevento, Italy, tells a similar story. Unbeknownst to him, in 2010, one of his cancer patients began taking the venom-based formula. "My patient experienced an unexpected total pain relief with a good recovery of muscle strength, vital energy, and capacity to cope with daily activities such as eating," Di Lorenzi recalls.
Impressed, the specialist in rehabilitative medicine traveled to Cuba to investigate. "It is difficult to determine where reality ends and fantasy begins," he says, but "the common denominator seems to be a significant reduction of pain obtained in 100 percent of patients."
This, he stresses, should not be underestimated: "Pain therapy [is] crucial," he says, explaining how he described his experience for the Open Cancer Journal. "We do not aim to promote unproven therapies, [but] this venom certainly warrants further investigation," he wrote in a letter published last year.
Labiofam claims to have studied the effects of the venom on 10,000 patients, including 3,500 foreigners. But there is no public compilation of the methodology or results. No independent experts have conducted experiments, and none of Labiofam's work has been submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals.
The medical world is therefore skeptical. "Rhopalurus junceus, or blue scorpion venom, originated from Cuba... is often marketed as having anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties," reads the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website. "The manufacturers' research cannot be corroborated. Continued research... is needed."
What is established is the product's safety. Labiofam says it conducted toxicity tests before it began distributing it, and a reputable laboratory at the Biotechnology Institute of Mexico's largest university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), recently confirmed the venom formula to be nontoxic to mammals. Indeed, among thousands of online accounts of success or failure with the venom treatment worldwide, not one notes harmful side effects.
The harmlessness of the medicine, though, is curious considering its origins.
José Perera and Juan González race up the brambly hillside. It's late, almost noon, and their work will be more difficult when the midday sun sends their tiny, evasive targets out of sight. Lanky, with taut bronzed skin and matching buzzcuts, the two men in their early 40s make their way through spiny brush toward a cluster of rocks. They hold metal pincers in one hand and opaque plastic containers in the other. The pair crouches in unison, carefully yet quickly pushing aside rocks. After a few moments, a small wriggling mass appears. As if sensing something ominous, the scorpion scurries frantically. But these men are professionals. With one motion, Perera steadies his pincers. He quickly grabs the scorpion's tail, thus rendering it as harmless as a grasshopper, and drops it into the container.
"I'm a scorpion hunter!" Perera says with gusto, stretching his back and surveying the rolling hills of Cuba's Santa Clara valley. The duo is one of a dozen or so teams that spend their days scouring rocks throughout the country in search of the misnamed scorpion, which is actually beige and mauve, not blue.
Back at González's nearby house, they add their catch to the dozens already inside a large metal barrel, covered by several rusty slabs. No living creature could possibly escape. "I've been stung 13 times in five years," Perera says. But neither he nor González is afraid. Though the sting of R. junceus hurts like hell and can cause temporary numbness, it's not deadly to humans. "People hate these animals," Perera reflects, genuinely confounded. "I say, 'Bring on the scorpions!' "
Indeed, the scorpion might be one of the animal kingdom's most misunderstood creatures. Of the more than 2,000 species worldwide, only 20 to 30 are dangerous to humans, and in those cases, mainly to small children. Scorpions sting only when threatened.
They've also been used for centuries in healing. "One noticeable example is the use of Mesobuthus martensii in Chinese traditional medicine," says Jan Ove Rein, a senior research librarian at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology and editor of the website the Scorpion Files, which lists more than 25 species with medical applications ranging from pain relief to treatment for seizures and paralysis.