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Controversial Canadian Cure-All Elixir 714-X and the Debate Over Chemotherapy Alternatives

His work has been repudiated by the scientific community, but Gaston Naessens continues to claim 714-X works as an alternative to chemotherapy.

Photo via Flickr user Steven Depolo

Before Makayla Sault and J.J., Billy Best was the poster child for quitting chemotherapy.

However, it wasn't until I started following the stories of those two First Nations girls from Ontario who quit chemotherapy for alternative and Aboriginal medicine that I heard about him.

Torn between fully supporting Aboriginal rights and being unable to bear watching the slow, avoidable death of a child unfold in the news, I felt compelled to read the comments on news articles and Facebook posts about them, losing myself down a rabbit hole of links while trying to make sense of the world.

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There, Billy Best kept popping up as the example: an Aboriginal kid with leukemia who'd run away from chemo and traded that poison for a vegan diet and injections of a made-in-Canada cure-all elixir called 714-X. He lived. If he survived, so can they, the internet said. You can do it, Makayla.

Clearly, Best is living proof of something.

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For the past 21 years, he's told his story over and over again. According to his book, he got an all-expenses paid trip to New York to tell his story on Good Morning America. He found someone to co-write his biography and he self-published it. He's told his story to the desperate in cancer support groups around North America and used it to sell natural health products.

These days, his story has found new life on websites devoted to "natural" remedies and conspiracy theories about the medical-pharmaceutical complex. The anti-vaxxers love it.

He told his story to me in an interview recently, and called me back hours later, agitated, to clarify something: he wants no one to take any lessons from his story. There is no moral. Billy Best is simply a man engaged in the act of telling the world about himself, again and again, because he is blessed with being asked.

According to Best, if someone is inspired by him to quit chemotherapy to take 714-X or another natural remedy instead, and they die, it is simply not his fault.

"I'm just sharing my story," he said. "The blessing I have is to be able to share. I never really think past that."

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In 1994, when Best was 16, he ran away from his adoptive parents' home in Massachusetts and his chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin's Lymphoma at Harvard's Dana Farber Cancer Institute. After five rounds of chemotherapy, he fled on a Greyhound bus to Houston, planning just to skateboard until he died.

"I decided to run away and die. I wanted to die on my own terms," he said.

His aunt had cancer and had been getting chemo treatments. But she died on the same day he was diagnosed, and the synchronicity of that scared him. The chemo made him feel sick and he doubted the doctors who told him he had a high chance of survival if he stuck with it.

"I'd seen what it had done to [my aunt] and believed that after you got a cancer diagnosis, the doctors gave you poison and the poison kills you," he said.

His flight from modern medicine caused a classic American media circus. He parents made pleas on TV for his return and America was told to be on the lookout for a bald teen on a skateboard. Sure enough, he was recognized among the skaters he'd met in Texas.

He agreed to return to his parents, as long as he didn't have to go back to chemotherapy.

A charity bought him a flight home.

He was swept into a tide of television appearances. Talk show producers jumped at the chance to show a boy who was choosing to die rather than face another round of chemo, so they gave his family the five-star talk-show treatment in New York, with limo rides and free swag. Best details in his book, and in his interview with VICE, that even Oprah wanted him on, but he could only tell his story so many times back then, and he turned her down.

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With his newfound celebrity, Best attracted the attention of strangers who called his family and wrote him letters about 714-X, this amazing new alternative treatment from Canada that would build up his immune system to fight and kill his cancer. The way he describes those messages, full of hope and promise of a natural, alternative cure, sound like the posts on blogs and message boards about his 714-X story today, the "Unique Cancer Treatment Successfully Used by a Famous Run-Away."

His parents agreed to drive him across the border to Rock Forest, Quebec to meet Gaston Naessens, the creator of 714-X.

"It was very exciting," he said. "I was fleeing from the department of social services here—the doctors had just reported my parents when we told them that we were going to seek alternative therapy."

Gaston Naessens named 714-X after himself. G is the seventh letter of the alphabet and N is the 14th. X is the 24th, for his birth year, 1924.

It is mostly water, with nitrogen, camphor, mineral salts, and trace elements. He developed it in Canada, after he moved to a cottage in Rock Forest, Quebec from France in the 1960s.

It is to be injected directly into the lymph node in the groin, or, in some cases, inhaled, according to the product's website.

"It was purposely designed to restore the Somatidian cycle, which is the discovery that my husband made in the 1950s," Gaston Naessens' wife, Jacinte, explained to me in a phone interview recently, while Gaston Naessens, who speaks only French, was at her side.

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He did not consent to an interview in French, but she spoke with VICE and sent us a letter and some written answers to our questions on his behalf.

The Somatidian cycle is the life cycle of Somatids, according to Naessens, who claimed to discover these creatures in the blood that can only be seen with the special microscope he invented, the Somatoscope.

"It was based on a lot of work, necroscopy work, and his understanding of the blood at the time," she said.

Gaston Naessens believes small, indestructible Somatids are the building blocks of life itself and signify the health of the immune system, so when 714-X restores the Somatidian cycle, it strengthens the immune system, which enables the body to cure itself of what ails it.

If this sounds like something out of science fiction, you're not alone: the theory was completely rejected by the medical establishment.

Billy Best met Gaston Naessens at his home in Quebec in January, 1995. Naessens took a pin prick of Best's blood and put it under his Somatoscope.

"It was very impressive seeing the laboratory and the technology and the equipment, how he was able to see blood and it was magnified much greater than anything I'd ever seen the hospitals do down here," said Best.

Gaston Naessens introduced him to others who were taking 714-X for cancer, AIDS and other ailments—and it was "powerful" to hear their stories, Best said.

"To be able to see a person who has been through what you are considering going through—it was very helpful in helping me have faith in what I was doing was going to help. I had a belief the decision was the right one, and it was going to get me better."

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This was at the height of 714-X's popularity in Canada. A jury had acquitted Gaston Naessens of contributing to the death of a patient a few years earlier. He had been charged in the death of a woman who'd chosen to get injections of 714-X from Naessens instead of chemotherapy.

"It was not the patient that complained," explained Jacinte. "She had refused all other treatments; it was her choice."

Canadian evangelists of 714-X had rallied around Naessens in court, telling their stories of how it cured them, and they protested on the streets of Montreal, telling the court and the world that they believed in 714-X.

After the trial, Health Canada began authorizing the drug's use by the public through the Special Access Programme, which is meant for the release of non-approved medicine in serious or life-threatening cases before it has cleared clinical trials. Within a few years, Naessens was selling it to about 125 new people a week, the majority of them suffering from AIDS, but since then it has become used more for cancer, said Jacinte.

Dr. Gerald Batist, the director of the department of Oncology at McGill University and the director of the Centre for Translational Research in Cancer is, by definition, a member of the medical establishment that had always rejected Gaston Naessens. After the homicide trial, Naessens welcomed him to his basement lab to look over his research.

"I asked him to show me his best files, his best examples of cures and they were all bunk," recalled Batist.

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One of Naessen's examples was a patient who had had a tumour removed from his colon, by an actual doctor, Batist said. Afterwards, Naessens had injected the patient with 714-X. The fact that the he remained alive and well—which was the likely outcome for any patient in this circumstance, Batist said—made Naessens see him as cured by 714-X.

Another patient had an HIV-related lesion on the roof of his mouth and as he received 714-X injections it got smaller.

"Of course we know that these things have waxing and waning periods, they get larger and smaller, so it was absolute rubbish. Everything. He proudly gave me these cases and he didn't understand what he was treating. He didn't understand the nature of cancer."

In every case, according to Batist, the patients' improvement was easily attributed to the conventional medical treatment they'd received before trying 714-X.

The famous Somatoscope wasn't working, the parts not even attached to each other, Batist said. The Somatid creatures it is supposed to have found were "bunk" in the words of Batist, with no basis in actual biology.

Batist looked into Naessens background.

The story, documented in news stories and journal articles, was that Naessens had developed a "cure" for cancer called GN-24, which supposedly attacked cancer through an anti-fermentation process, and another, called Anablast, which he created by allegedly successfully immunizing a horse against cancer and turning that horse's blood into serum to inject into people.

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While the French government cracked down on Naessens in the early '60s, desperate parents from across Europe sought him out in Corsica to treat their children with leukemia, leading to the same kind of popular support and protests that would occur in Canada 20 years later over 714-X.

"He had to leave France because a couple of children that he was treating for Leukemia died," Batist said.

When Naessen arrived in Canada in 1964 he told the Canadian Press he was "convinced" his Anablast serum could cure a three-and-a-half-year-old Montreal boy of Leukemia. The boy's father said he believed Naessens had cured 500 people in France. Naessens gave the boy his injections, but it didn't save him.

According to Batist, Naessens assured him he has never told anyone to give up their conventional medical treatment to rely only on 714-X to cure them, but Batist came to believe that wasn't true. "I found a number of patients who, in fact, he had told to stop their treatment, and died when they had effective treatment available to them," he said.

It's not uncommon for people to want to stop chemotherapy and all doctors have patients who want to give up any treatment they don't feel working, said Batist. But, if they think they are stopping for an alternative that will help them, and it is a fraud, it's a problem.

"People are desperate, afraid and they grasp at things that seem promising. But all the promise in this is false," he said.

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Batist said it was a "horrible mistake" for the government to ever grant people access to 714-X through the Special Access Programme and it remains a "scandal for Health Canada" because it allows the Naessens to use that to give 714-X the impression of legitimacy.

"714-X is nothing," he said. "It is not anything that has any benefit to anyone—except, maybe, for the people who sell it."

In 2004, after 15 years of officially granting sick Canadians access to 714-X, Health Canada tried to stop granting it—because in all that time, no clinical study had proven it was effective at doing anything.

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But the people using 714-X fought back again, launching a class-action lawsuit against the government and giving more earnest testimony about the power of 714-X to make them healthy and the misunderstood genius of Gaston Naessens.

The court ruled against Health Canada, so the government still grants access to people who have terminal cancer, and whose doctors petition the government for access to it, today.

There are far fewer Canadian customers—like this woman from BC who is crowdfunding to afford it—today than there were in the '90s.

That's because of the bureaucracy, said Jacinte. 714-X is selling much more abroad where it's sold through doctors and direct online, especially in Japan where the Naessens were recently awarded a patent, she said.

The Naessens are trying to convince the Canadian government to consider 714-X a natural health product, which would allow them to sell it more broadly, and with fewer rules. In Canada, natural health products must be safe to use, but they do not need a prescription to be sold, do not need to be proven to work.

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After years of attempting to get a legitimate partner to prove it works in a clinical trial, Jacinte Naessens, said they are no longer trying. She said that is because 714-X isn't a typical "drug."

I asked her if she thought government's resistance toward that is because of the risk that people will give up on conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy, and trust 714-X to cure them. She said they never try to convince anyone not to take conventional medicine alongside 714-X.

"If they go with chemotherapy, it's not my decision it's their own decision," said Jacinite. "I go with their own freedom of choice."

According to Jacinte, Naessens never says 714-X itself will kill cancer. Instead, it helps strengthen the body's immune system, so the body can heal itself.

Asked whether he believes it can cure cancer, she wrote, "According to Naessens, when the immune system picks up, all is possible."

As for Dr. Batist, she wrote at length about how he has his own agenda in curing cancer by orthodox chemical means and she believes he "was and is still assigned by 'someone' to discredit Naessens in all possible ways."

She concluded with this message: "Two camps, two visions, stuck between ego battles. A sad story for cancer patients dying every minute."

After his trip to Quebec, Billy Best started taking 714-X, following a vegan diet and drinking a version of an old Ojibway medicine inspired therapy called Essiac Tea. When it became clear that he had survived cancer, he embarked on another media circuit telling the world his cancer was cured by healthy living and 714-X.

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His family went into the business of selling natural health products for a while. They continue to promote 714-X, Essiac Tea and natural cleaning products on his website. He isn't directly involved in the selling part, he said, he just continued to tell his story and working normal jobs. When we talked, he was preparing to go to Germany because his book has been picked up by a publisher and translated into German and he was preparing to speak at a conference there on natural health.

Sometimes, people tell Best his story has inspired them to give up conventional medicine and chemotherapy for 714-X, he said.

I asked him if he worries that, unlike him, they won't survive.

"I never said what happened to me would happen to everyone. I have never said what happened to me would happen to anybody. I have only shared something that was helpful to me," he said.

I guess, that way, he bears no responsibility for what people decide to do when they hear it.

When we last talked, Makayla Sault had died, and J.J was still alive and, as far as the public knew then, not on chemo.

Best said believes everyone who's capable should make their own medical decisions, if they're old enough.

There have been many children of different backgrounds who've refused chemo over the years—Daniel Hauser, Cassandra C., Sarah Hershberger—and though Best didn't know the two Ontario girls, he was adamant that, when it comes to First Nations children in particular, the government should not control their medical choices. His birth father is a Canadian residential school survivor.

There are parallels in the stories: all kids who'd abandoned chemotherapy for different kinds of alternative medicine, against the wishes of the medical establishment, in the middle of a media circus.

Weeks after I spoke with Best, the news broke that J.J.'s leukemia has returned and she has turned back to chemotherapy, alongside traditional aboriginal medicine. But he didn't know that when he said he had a message for her: stay strong.

"You've got people who have been through it before and made it," he said. "Just keep that in mind."

So, I don't know what—a sense of guilt, responsibility, fear or just a whim—made him decide to call me back a few hours later to insist that his story means nothing. All he said was that, in all these years of telling his story, no one had asked him what he wants people to take away from it.

After thinking about it, he said the answer is nothing.

Follow Jessica Smith Cross on Twitter.