Hoxsey Herbal Therapy

Health Care Professional Information

Common Name

Hoxsey herbs, Hoxsey formula, Hoxsey method

Clinical Summary

Alternative therapy comprised of herbal tonics and restrictive diets promoted as cancer cure. The Hoxsey treatment, illegal in the United States, is available at the Bio-Medical Center and other clinics in Tijuana, Mexico. According to inventor Harry Hoxsey, the principal “brown” tonic contains potassium iodide, licorice, red clover, burdock root, stillingia root, barberry, cascara, pokeweed, prickly ash bark, and buckthorn bark. The diet involves eliminating pork, vinegar, tomatoes, pickles, carbonated drinks, alcohol, bleached flour, sugar and salt, and emphasizes iron, calcium, vitamin C, yeast supplements and grape juice. Hoxsey claims the treatment detoxifies the body, strengthens the immune system, balances body chemistry, and allows the body to digest and excrete tumors. Superoxide dismutase (SOD), vitamin B12, Gerovital (a mixture of procaine hydrochloride and vitamins), “Prolobin liver,” TST-100, rosette cactus, Koch Antitoxins, BCG vaccine, and Shulte's medications sometimes are included in the regimen.

Hoxsey was convicted many times for practicing medicine without a license; the U.S. government reported that the 400 patients Hoxsey claimed to have cured never had cancer, were cured before receiving his treatment, still had cancer, or had died from the disease (2). The National Cancer Institute evaluated 77 case reports submitted by Hoxsey and concluded that none showed efficacy (5). No clinical data support the value of this therapy.

Purported Uses
  • Cancer treatment
Constituents

Formulae have varied with time and by clinic.
“Brown tonic” (per 5 cc)

“Pink Tonic”

External Paste

  • Antimony trisulfide
  • Zinc chloride
  • Bloodroot

External Powder

Topical Liquid

  • Tri-chloro-acetic acid
    (1) (2)
Mechanism of Action

Hoxsey claims that the internal formulation “stimulates the elimination of toxins that poison the system, thereby correcting the abnormal blood chemistry and normalizing cell metabolism.” His head nurse added that it restores acid/base balance, normal metabolism, and immune function, and “deals with the DNA.” None of these claims is substantiated by scientific data. The herbal tonic was developed by Hoxsey's great grandfather, whose horse was reportedly cured of a leg tumor after eating wild herbs. Hoxsey combined these herbs with home remedies to create the “brown” tonic. In vitro and animal studies conducted with individual components (e.g., licorice, red clover, burdock, pokeroot, stillingia, barberry - see individual monographs) indicate possible anti-tumor and immunostimulant properties, but their concentrations and activity in the tonic have not been determined (1) (2).

Pharmacokinetics

No formal pharmacokinetics studies have been conducted.

Warnings

The American Cancer Society strongly urges cancer patients not to use the Hoxsey treatment, as no objective evidence exists to support its efficacy.
(2)

Adverse Reactions

External paste and powder: Severe burns, scars, and disfigurement can occur with use of the external treatments.
Iodine toxicity: “Iodisms” can result from intake as low as 60 mg/day or long-term use, causing pimples, excessive secretion of the eyes or nose, impotence, and inflammation of salivary glands.
Buckthorn: A violent laxative, causing abdominal pain, dehydration, anxiety, decreased respirations, diarrhea, nausea, trembling, vomiting.
Cascara: Only approved for short-term use. Laxative effects can cause abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, discoloration of urine, fluid and electrolyte imbalance, osteomalacia, steatorrhea, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, vomiting.
Licorice: Hypertension, lethargy, muscle pain, cardiac arrhythmias, sodium retention, hypokalemia, hyper-mineralcorticoidism, pseudo-hyperaldosteronism, decreased libido in men, and suppression of scalp sebum secretion
Pokeweed: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps. Ingestion has been associated with illnesses requiring hospitalization, and has caused deaths in children and heart block.
(2) (5)

Herb-Drug Interactions

Potassium iodide has been found to interact with the following medications:
Lithium: Concomitant use has been found to cause hyperthyroidism.
Anticoagulants: Decreased effectiveness.
(4)

Literature Summary and Critique

Only retrospective reviews have evaluated the Hoxsey treatment. In the 1940s and 50s, the NCI examined 137 case reports of patients Hoxsey claimed to cure with his internal herbal tonic. The NCI found no evidence that the tonic is effective. Researchers from the University of British Columbia followed up on 71 of Hoxsey's patients in 1957, also finding inadequate evidence for the treatment's effectiveness. Subsequent reviews of the available literature and cases by the American Cancer Society have reached the same conclusion.
(1) (2)

Richardson MA, et al. Assessment of outcomes at alternative medicine cancer clinics: a feasibility study. J Altern Complement Med 2001;7:19-32.
A recent evaluation of record keeping the Bio-Medical Center found that only 43.6% of patients treated for cancer had pathological confirmation, data needed for follow-up on outcomes was not available, and 60-90% of patients have received prior conventional therapy. The authors concluded that a retrospective study of survival to evaluate the efficacy of this clinic's treatment is not feasible.

References
  1. American Cancer Society. Questionable methods of cancer management: 'nutritional' therapies. Ca: Cancer J Clin 1993;43:309-19.
  2. American Cancer Society. Hoxsey Method/Bio-Medical Center. Ca: Cancer J Clin 1990;40:51-5.
  3. Smith M, Boon HS. Counseling cancer patients about herbal medicine. Patient Education Counseling 1999;38:109-20.
  4. Fetrow CW, et al. Professional's Handbook of Complementary and Alternative Medicines. Philadelphia: Springhouse; 1999.
  5. Hoxsey Herbal Treatment. American Cancer Society's Guide to Complementary and Alternative Methods. American Cancer Society: 2000.
    http://documents.cancer.org/6516.00/. Accessed October 29, 2012.
  6. Richardson MA, et al. Assessment of outcomes at alternative medicine cancer clinics: a feasibility study. J Altern Complement Med 2001;7:19-32.
  7. Janssen WF. Cancer quackery: past and present. FDA Consumer 1977;11:27-32.
  8. Austin S, Dale EB, DeKadt S. Long term follow-up of cancer patients using Contreras, Hoxsey and Gerson therapies. J Naturopathic Medicine 1994;5:74-6.

Consumer Information

How It Works

Bottom Line: The Hoxsey Herbal Therapy is not a cancer cure and some of its components may be dangerous.

The Hoxsey herbal tonic was developed by Harry Hoxsey's great grandfather after his horse was cured of a leg tumor by eating wild herbs. Hoxsey combined these herbs with home cancer remedies popular at the time to create a tonic to be taken by mouth, as well as a preparation for topical application. Hoxsey's remedies were promoted in newspapers and through his clinic through the first half of the 20th century, but eventually the U.S. government forced Hoxsey to stop selling medicines without a medical license.

According to Hoxsey, the tonic stimulates detoxification of the body while normalizing cell metabolism. However there is no proof for this. His tonic has never been tested in the laboratory, in animals, or in humans, and there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that it has anticancer effects in the human body. Hoxsey also claimed that his topical medicine would selectively kill cancer cells, however the caustic ingredients contained in the ointment are known to burn healthy tissue as well.

Purported Uses
  • To treat cancer
    No scientific evidence supports this use. Although some researchers have attempted to follow patients who used the Hoxsey herbal therapy at clinics in Mexico, the record keeping at these clinics is so poor that the studies could not be done.
Research Evidence

Cancer treatment:
A group of researchers followed 39 patients with cancer who were being treated at the Bio-Medical Center in Tijuana, Mexico, where Hoxsey Herbal Therapy is offered. Because medical records were not available, the researchers had to get all of the information about the patient's medical condition directly from the patient, and most patients were not aware of the stage of their cancer. After four to five years of follow-up, ten patients had died with an average survival of 15.4 months; six patients were still alive. The problems with this study include: 1) Many of the patients were lost to follow-up, so we do not know what happened to the remaining 23 patients. 2) This study included many different types of cancers with many different types of previous cancer treatments. 3) Without access to patients' records, the researchers had no idea what stage cancer the patients had, or if their cancer had been accurately diagnosed. This study does not provide enough evidence to support the use of Hoxsey Therapy.

 

Patient Warnings
  • The American Cancer Society strongly urges cancer patients not to use the Hoxsey treatment. No sound scientific evidence exists to support its safety or effectiveness.
Side Effects
  • The topical paste and powder have caused severe burns, scars, and disfigurement.
  • High levels of iodine from the potassium iodide can cause pimples, excessive secretion of the eyes or nose, impotence, and inflammation of salivary glands.
  • Buckthorn, one of the ingredients in the herbal tonic, is a violent laxative, and can cause abdominal pain, dehydration, anxiety, decreased respirations, diarrhea, nausea, trembling, and vomiting.
  • Cascara, one of the ingredients in the herbal tonic, is a laxative and can cause abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, discoloration of urine, fluid and electrolyte imbalance, osteomalacia (softening of the bones), steatorrhea (fat in the feces), vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and vomiting.
  • Licorice, one of the ingredients in the herbal tonic, can cause interact with the body's hormones and lead to imbalances in water, sodium, and potassium retention. High blood pressure, fatigue, muscle pain, cardiac arrhythmias, hypokalemia (low levels of potassium in the blood), and decreased libido can result.
  • Pokeweed, one of the ingredients in the herbal tonic, causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. Ingestion has been associated with illnesses requiring hospitalization, and has caused deaths in children.
E-mail your questions and comments to aboutherbs@mskcc.org.