Cancer sufferers put faith in Te Kiri Gold bleach water
A tonic being used to treat cancer by hundreds of patients at $100 a bottle is effectively diluted bleach and a "snake oil cure", according to experts.
A company with a Taranaki dairy farmer and an American doctor as major shareholders is selling the water product called Te Kiri Gold while conducting an in-house clinical trial slammed by experts.
But despite the trial not meeting international guidelines, Medsafe (NZ Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority) and the Ministry of Health are not investigating.
Desperate terminally ill patients appear to be ignoring medical advice to take the product.
The claims of therapeutic benefit first came to light in late 2016 when rugby great Sir Colin Meads spoke of its healing properties after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
Although Meads has since backtracked, he said at the time the solution had extended his life expectancy and "it's doing me real good".
Organic dairy farmer Vernon Coxhead says he developed Te Kiri Gold (TKG) over three years and drove to Te Kuiti to give it to Meads.
TKG was "the same basic ingredient as your immune system", Coxhead said.
Coxhead does not claim the product is a medicine, saying only it improves quality of life.
But he is quick to point to testimonials from users of Te Kiri Gold who claimed it cured their cancer. He declined to provide the names and contact details of any of those who made those claims.
"I can't run around and say, I've got a cure for cancer. They'd just shoot me down straight away."
Coxhead says interest in TKG exploded after Meads spoke of its effect. He estimated that over 500 people were now taking TKG, and said he was "forced" to charge for the product this year to meet costs.
"I'm not selling it for an absurd amount, or trying to hawk it, or advertise it," Coxhead says.
A 2-litre bottle of Te Kiri Gold sells for $100. At its highest dose, customers are advised to drink 600ml a day for eight weeks, the equivalent of 17 bottles, costing $1700.
Coxhead's company, PureCure, could earn more than half a million dollars if 300 people took this eight-week dose.
Otherwise, customers take 50ml a day, amounting to one $100 bottle a month.
"They only take it for eight weeks at that high dose, and then once they decide they're clear or they decide they're in remission, they don't take it any more, but some people do."
Coxhead said Te Kiri Gold is electrolysed water, though he modifies it slightly.
Waikato University associate professor of inorganic chemistry Graham Saunders says this amounts to "basically dilute bleach".
Electrolysed water is a known disinfectant. Saunders said it is created by passing an electrical current through saltwater, creating hypochlorous acid, which remains in the water.
"What happens is the hypochlorous acid eventually breaks down into chlorine gas and the gas is lost from the water, that's why swimming pools smell of chlorine," Saunders says.
TKG has this familiar smell, and is labelled as containing less than 1 per cent hypochlorous acid.
At such a level, it is likely harmless, but at a higher potency, it can cause burning, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
"It strikes me as strange that anyone would willingly drink bleach at more than the most dilute solution," Saunders said.
Dr Shaun Holt, who lectures on clinical trials and natural medicine at Victoria University Wellington, said everything about the sale of Te Kiri Gold is disturbing.
"[Electrolysed water] is one of those known quack, snake-oil cancer cures. It's been peddled out here under this local brand; there's not a jot of research I've ever seen that shows it might work.
"This looks to be as bad as anything I've seen. All the warning bells of alternative cancer cure nonsense are here in droves."
Holt has led over 50 clinical trials in his career and says the claimed TKG trial was "light years away" from meeting any international or national standard.
"There's absolutely zero excuse. No researcher with any sort of ethical behaviour or credibility would consider doing medical research without going through the ethics committee."
Cancer claims and cures must be taken seriously, he says.
"Even if the product is actually harmless, there's still danger in other ways. First of all, people could be basically wasting their time and their money, and if they've got terminal cancer, their time is very precious.
"Also, a lot of people will just use this product and not use the treatments that have got the most chance of helping them, from their doctors."
Holt was surprised Medsafe and the Ministry of Health were not investigating Te Kiri Gold.
"This is a dubious legality, and extremely dubious ethical behaviour from whoever's behind this, whether they're a doctor or not."
Terminally ill patients who take TKG share their stories and ask medical questions on a closed Facebook group, which Coxhead allowed Stuff to access.
Some users indicate they are foregoing conventional treatment in favour of TKG, while others report issues with it.
"My husband had his third dose today, so we have hung all our hopes and dreams on it," one woman writes. "He has stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer."
A man writes: "Unfortunately I stopped the TKG after severe bleeding and clots in my urine,"
The page moderator responds, "... please give us a call so we can explain to you what's happening."
A Facebook respondent Vern Coxhead, advises another woman that TKG will reduce the side effects of her father's chemotherapy, despite doctors requesting he stop drinking it.
One woman says on the Facebook page she turned down a mastectomy, ignoring the advice of a specialist.
"As I was feeling a good response from the TKG, I postponed the operation, wanting more time to assess my progress … There has been small shrinkage in the size of 3 tumours."
When questioned about this, Coxhead says he is unaware of a woman's decision to decline a mastectomy, even though this testimony features on the Te Kiri Gold website.
"I don't ask anyone to give up anything," said Coxhead. "If they decide to do that, that's their choice."
Taranaki GP Dr Mitchell Feller registered PureCure in June 2016 and holds a 50 per cent share in the company.
On the side of a Te Kiri Gold bottle, a testimonial from a "Dr Mitch" endorses the product.
"I've repeatedly seen it work in my surgery. Patients can't believe it and immediately want more. See what you think. That's my guarantee! - Dr Mitch."
In 2005, Feller was convicted in the United States for self-prescribing OxyContin.
His New Zealand medical registration was removed in 2014 after the international firm which hired him unexpectedly ended his contract. Medical Council New Zealand reinstated his practicing certificate later that year.
Feller, who has moved twice since he registered PureCure to a Hawera address last year, was unable to be located for comment.
When contacted by phone, he immediately hung up.
Mountainview Medical Centre in Hawera, where Feller now works, said the situation was "delicate" and declined to comment.
Coxhead and Feller have both previously told media they were conducting a clinical trial to prove the therapeutic benefit of Te Kiri Gold.
But they have not registered the product with the Health and Disability Ethics Committee, the first step in conducting a clinical trial, and the Ministry of Health confirmed that no correspondence seeking registration had been received.
Instead, the trial is being conducted with volunteers who buy TKG online.
They are asked to sign an informed consent, and provide medical information including their terminal status, life expectancy and the national health index number assigned to everyone by the Ministry of Health.
The Ministry of Health has since informed PureCure it is wrong to call this a clinical trial, but is not investigating the product or conduct.
Coxhead said he and Feller were following international rules, were no longer conducting a trial, and have not collected any data.
All the information describing a trial on the PureCure website and Facebook page remains online.
Coxhead said he was willing to prove TKG's efficacy.
But he is convinced of its safety, saying there is no need for a double-blind placebo test, and will not pursue a legitimate clinical trial.
"Everybody else that's not taking it is the clinical trial, isn't it?
"Big pharmac [sic] and all that do [double-blind placebo testing] because they're all about making money."
Coxhead is wary of being shut down if TKG is deemed a medicine by regulators.
"I can't stop making it for six weeks because I'm doing it incorrectly," he said.
"People will die."
Why people will die without TKG was unclear.
Auckland University oncologist George Laking says, at best, the statements supporting Te Kiri Gold were pseudo-science.
"I wish that they would not use the language of science. But I think it's too late."