Amygdalin (ancient Greek word for almond) is a poisonous cyanogenic glycoside, found in many plants, but most notably in the seeds (kernels) of apricots, bitter almonds, apple, peach and plum. Since early 1950s both Amygdalin and a modified form named laetrile have been promoted as alternative cancer treatments, often using the misnomer Vitamin B17.

Laetrile- the trade name for laevo-mandelonitrile-beta-glucoronoside, is a substance allegedly synthesized by Ernst T Krebs Jr, and registered with the US Patent Office for the treatment of disorders of intestinal fermentation. This compound is chemically related to Amygdalin. Laetrile was tried as an anti-cancer agent in Germany in 1892, but discarded as ineffective and too toxic for that purpose.  Whereas this substance was tested again in 1972 Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ( MSKCC)  board member Benno C. Schmidt Sr,  convinced the hospital to test laetrile.

Kanematsu Sugiura performed the test and found that it inhibited secondary tumors in mice, though it did not destroy the primary tumors. He repeated the experiment several times, with the same results.  However, three other researchers were unable to confirm Sugiura’s results, but, the results were leaked to laetrile advocates resulting in significant public attention. In 1977, when tested again, MSKCC concluded that laetrile showed no beneficial effects. Then again in 2011, a review from Cochrane Collaboration found that the benefits are not supported by sound clinical data. There is a considerable risk of serious adverse effects from cyanide poisoning after Laetrile or Amygdalin, especially, after oral ingestion. The risk-benefit balance of these two substances as a treatment for cancer is therefore unambiguously negative.

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Apart from the substance being of no use to cancer patients, it does, however, have some benefits to the human body. Patients suffering from painful arthritis may benefit B17 intake in their daily diets. For many, this disease is caused by aging and nutritional deficiency related to B17 consumption.  On the other hand, quite a few hair-care products include substances extracted from apricots, including oil made from apricot kernels. Taking B17 on a daily basis could have long-term beneficial effects on hair. If one is prone to getting colds and other infectious diseases, the immune system may benefit from taking vitamin B17.

Some researchers believe that the cancer-fighting benefits of B17 are actually related to a stronger immune system that the patients feel when they include this supplement in their daily nutrition. Patients who are instructed to cut down on the fat intake for weight loss and cardiac health still need to consume good cholesterol which happens to be one of the strongest properties of B17. Foods that contain vitamin B17 are:

  • Bamboo shoots
  • Barley
  • Beet tops
  • Blackberries
  • Cranberries
  • Raspberries
  • Boysenberries
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Butterbeans
  • Lima beans
  • Fava beans
  • Garbanzo beans
  • Cashews
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Pecans
  • Currants
  • Flaxseed
  • Cassava
  • Lentils
  • Loquats
  • Spinach
  • Sprouts
  • Wheatgrass

Some people can be sensitive to B17, hence, they experience side effects such as weakness and headaches that are instantly alleviated by drinking orange, lemon, grapefruit or grape juice. Hydrochloric acid is given to prevent reactions. A few severe side effects are dizziness, liver damage, lack of oxygen to body tissues, drop in blood pressure, drooping eyelids, fever, nerve damage causing loss of balance and difficulty in walking, confusion, coma and eventually death.  Due to serious side effects it has, it is not authorized for sale in the European Union and the US.

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The advocates of the use of Laetrile have also changed the rationale for its use, first as a treatment of cancer, then, as a vitamin, followed by as part of a holistic nutritional regime, or as a treatment for cancer pain among others none of which have any significant evidence supporting its use.

Despite the lack of evidence for its use, laetrile developed a significant following due to its wide promotion as a “pain-free” treatment of cancer, as an alternative to surgery and chemotherapy that have significant side effects. The use of Laetrile has led to a number of deaths. Laetrile advocates in US include Dean Burk, a former Chief Chemist of the National Cancer Institute, cytochemistry laboratory, and national wrestling champion Jason Vale, who claimed that his kidney and pancreatic cancers were cured by eating apricot seeds. Vale was, however, convicted in 2004 for fraudulently marketing Laetrile, as a cancer cure, and the court found he made at least $500,000 from his fraudulent sales of Laetrile.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to seek jail sentences for vendors marketing Laetrile for cancer treatment, calling it as a highly toxic product that has not shown any effect on treating cancer. Some hospitals and clinics in Mexico offer Laetrile, but, they use a different type of Laetrile than the one available from websites. Some websites encourage people with cancer to travel to Mexico for treatment.

It is therefore not recommended to use the Laetrile treatment instead of the conventional treatment, as using unproven methods instead of conventional medical treatment, can seriously harm one’s health, further.

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