John Kanzius invented a radio wave machine that he believed would one day cure cancer. He got cancer researchers so excited, some are already testing it out on laboratory animals.
When 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl first met Kanzius, he told us he didn't have a background in science or medicine; he didn't even have a college degree.
What he did have was a deadly form of leukemia and a determination to use whatever time he had left to come up with a better way to treat the disease.
Using his wife's pie pans and what he knew best - radios - Kanzius, a former radio executive, built a machine in his garage that he hoped would zap cancer cells without the horrible side effects you get with chemotherapy and radiation.
60 Minutes decided to keep track of Kanzius and his invention, so we followed him for over a year, as he pushed to speed up the research on his machine and fought to slow down his own cancer, which was killing him.
When Stahl first met Kanzius in January 2008, he was finishing his 36th round of chemotherapy since being diagnosed with terminal leukemia. All that chemo had been keeping him alive, barely.
He said the leukemia was getting him mentally and physically. "And I didn't think that one could feel this bad and still be alive as I did back in January."
But we were surprised by how healthy he seemed seven months later, in August 2008, when we visited with him and his wife Marianne at their home in Erie, Pa.
"I must say you look like a completely different person to me. You look energetic. And you've gained some weight, am I right?" Stahl remarked.
"You're right about all of them," Kanzius replied.
He told Stahl he felt "great."
So great, he had spent the summer outside doing things he hadn't been able to do since he'd been diagnosed with cancer six years earlier, like playing 18 holes of golf a day. What happened?
"I decided it was time to turn the switch on and try it…Try treating myself," he explained. "Got in the machine, adjusted it, and turned it on for a minute the first time. And [I] didn't feel anything strange."
He had turned himself into a human guinea pig.
"I've done it nine times," Kanzius told Stahl. "Nine times and my blood work has improved all summer long. We're on vacation right now from cancer, I don't know whether it's a permanent leave but we're on vacation right now.
"Now that you feel so good, you feel great, you look good, do you have a constant worry that this is too good to be true kind of thing?" Stahl asked.
"Sure. I mean, you wonder when the bubble's going to break," Kanzius admitted.
So even though he had been feeling good for awhile, he admitted there was always fear his disease could take a turn for the worse. "The disease is relentless. It just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing."
It was that relentlessness of leukemia that had given Kanzius the idea to build his radio wave machine in the first place. When 60 Minutes met him back then, he showed Stahl how the radio waves - transmitted across a small field - created enough energy to light up a fluorescent bulb.
When moving a fluorescent bulb into the force field, the bulb lit up.
He then wanted to show us that radio waves are harmless to humans, and even moved his hand back and forth into the force field. "Nothing happens," he told Stahl.
But he knew that radio waves can heat up metal. So he wondered: if he injected a cancerous tumor with some kind of metal, would radio waves heat up the metal and cook the cancer cells to death, and only the cancer cells? He tried it out on a hot dog, injecting it with a metal solution.
He took a probe, and placed it into an injection site on the hot dog. When he turned the device on, the temperature went up in that one area where the metal was and nowhere else.
Kanzius thought he had discovered a way to attack cancer cells without the collateral damage caused by standard treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. "I said 'Eureka, I've done it,'" Kanzius remembered.
He managed to intrigue Dr. Steven Curley, a liver cancer surgeon at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Dr. Curley thought there was so much promise in Kanzius' invention, he began conducting his own research with the machine, using tiny bits of gold nano-particles that are so small, thousands of them can be injected into a single cancer cell. The radio waves then heat up the gold, which kills the cancer. But Kanzius wasn't happy with all the time it would take Curley to get through the usual human clinical trials and approval by the FDA.
He wanted to speed things up, which is why he made plans, without telling Dr. Curley, to try the machine on himself.
Asked why he didn't tell Curley, Kanzius explained, "I knew that he could not approve this, and he probably would discourage me from it."
Kanzius thought the doctor would have told him not to do it.
"When I found out about it, obviously I was very unhappy," Curley told Stahl. "I did ask him if he was out of his mind, but there were a few other, you know, words in there as well."
"I was stunned," the doctor said. "I said, 'Oh my god,' you know, 'Is this going to hurt the project in some way.' You know, 'Are people going to think we're crazy? Are people going to think we're a little bit, you know, off the ranch here?'"
Asked if he was crazy, Kanzius said, "Maybe crazy like a fox."
It was a non-descript warehouse where for three months Kanzius had been treating himself.
With Stahl present, Kanzius powered up his machine, to show how he used it, turning up the intensity of the radio waves that were entering his body.
His idea was to zap the cancer in his blood, without injecting himself with metal particles. Kanzius had a theory - unproven - that somehow leukemia cells had a special, intrinsic property that would attract radio waves. But was it really working without any metal?
To see if what he was feeling was real, he would get his blood tested after each treatment.
60 Minutes asked Dr. Peter Depowski, a pathologist, to compare the results to some of Kanzius' old blood counts, taken before he had started using his machine.
Asked if this was the blood of a normal, healthy person, Dr. Depowski told Stahl, "Well, what I guess I can say is comparing the numbers that we had months ago, comparing to what I'm seeing now, there's a drastic difference towards the positive direction, towards these cell counts getting closer and closer to what you see in a normal individual."
But Depowski wouldn't attribute the improvement to the radio waves and there was a dark cloud that Kanzius, in his euphoria, seemed to brush aside.
A CAT scan showed that lymph nodes deep in his stomach still had leukemia cells in them.
"I was so enthused after the first results," Kanzius said. "I tried over and over again to try to get rid of the lymph nodes, the swelling in the stomach," he told Stahl.
And he could feel it. "My stomach was getting larger, and I was getting embarrassed, actually, walking out in public."
His doctors convinced him to go back on chemo to attack the lymph nodes. And then he thought: "What if I use my machine along with the chemo? Would it work twice as well?" He called this "the double whammy."
"Here I am getting chemo therapy, and within an hour I'll be getting a little bit of RF therapy, and we'll see what happens," he told Stahl.
After the chemo, he went over to his lab and got in his machine for two minutes - longer than usual.
He said he did it without fear. Asked if he was getting over-confident, Kanzius said, "I was getting greedy. …I wanted what I want everybody else to have, is a cancer-free body. And I wanted to do it too quickly, I think."
A week later he was in the hospital ICU with a raging fever of 105.4. His body began to shut down.
"You almost died?" Stahl asked.
"I don't remember that, but Marianne tells me, yes, that I about expired," Kanzius replied.
"All his systems, all his heart, his kidneys, his lungs were all shutting down. And they were preparing me and asking me what I wanted to have done or on behalf of John," Marianne recalled.
That included the last rites.
Asked if he's going to do something like this again, Kanzius said, "Perhaps."
"We're talkin' about just plain, ordinary survival, at this point," he added.
When he was well enough, he got another CAT scan of his lymph nodes to see if his double whammy had had any effect. According to the radiologist, the change was not dramatic.
The report wasn't promising, but Kanzius wasn't having it. He just wouldn't accept the verdict that his machine had not worked.
"It looks to me like it's quite a bit smaller," Kanzius argued.
You could see in Marianne's eyes that she knew the picture was darker than her husband could deal with. That was early November. Just a few weeks after that, tests showed that his bone marrow had been taken over by leukemia cells.
And three months later, on Feb. 18, 2009, Kanzius died.
Even with all his hope and optimism and fight, his body simply couldn't take it any longer. Since his death, Marianne has been continuing his project, trying to raise money to advance the research.
"You know, he got in the machine to help the project," Stahl remarked. "Is there any fear that his having done it may have hurt the project?"
"I hope not," Marianne said. "I think that's why he told me to promise to continue to go on. I think he knows, he knows it works."
"The inevitable question is, did his going in that machine when he was on chemo end up killing him?" Stahl asked Dr. Steven Curley.
"No," he said. "It did not. You know, I don't think it killed him. I don't think it shortened his life in any way. What killed John, unfortunately, was his leukemia, and the effects of toxic treatments."
By toxic treatments, he means chemo. Not only does he say the radio waves didn't kill Kanzius, he says they never helped him.
Dr. Curley tried to duplicate in a petri dish what Kanzius had been doing to himself: zapping leukemia cells with radio waves alone, without any metal in them.
Curley said that didn't work.
"You know, I saw him, I'm telling you, he was completely transformed. He was the picture of health," Stahl remarked.
"Part of that feeling better may have been the fact that he had been off chemotherapy for a while during that same time frame," Curley explained.
"He'd been off chemo for ages," Stahl said. "Five months."
"Right. I mean, if you talk to patients who've been on chemotherapy, they will often tell you that it takes them three, six, 12 months to really kind of start feeling back to normal," Curley said.
"But the people in Erie were telling him that his blood count had dramatically improved," Stahl said.
"You know, his blood counts could've been improving because, again, he'd been coming off chemotherapy and his bone marrow was recovering enough to start make more blood cells," Curley said.
"So what I saw could merely have been a delayed reaction to coming off chemo?" Stahl asked.
"Part of it may have been the placebo effect. The human mind is a remarkable thing," Curley said. "That's a very powerful force."
So what does this mean for the Kanzius machine? Dr. Curley says the original idea, injecting cancer cells with gold nano-particles and then zapping them with radio waves, is full-steam ahead.
"Here's what you told us the last time. You said, 'This is the most exciting thing that you had seen in 20 years of cancer research.' Do you still feel that way?" Stahl asked Curley.
"Absolutely. No change," Curley said.
If anything, he's more enthusiastic. He's gotten funding for a new multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art lab, where, as a board on the wall says, he's been working on more than a dozen different projects.
Curley says every single one of these different projects is related to Kanzius' machine in some way.
Dr. Curley's ultimate goal is to treat metastasized cancers that have spread throughout the body. To do that, he's been designing special molecules that can target specific cancer cells. He's attaching those molecules to gold nano-particles and trying it out in the petri dish on pancreatic and colon cancer cells, killing all of them.
Curley says with the help of the Kanzius machine, these little nano-particles are racing around, honing in just on the cancer cells, and killing them.
He has begun to move beyond the petri dish by using his targeting molecules in animals with liver and pancreatic cancer, with early positive results.
"You're starting with the hardest," Stahl remarked.
"We're starting with the hardest," Curley agreed. "But we'll ultimately get to breast cancer, prostate cancer, leukemia and lymphomas."
He has already published six papers in scientific journals, and has been meeting with the Food and Drug Administration about human clinical trials.
Asked if he's anywhere near trying this on a person, Curley said, "No, I still think we're best case scenario, two to three years away. Could be as much as four."
"You know, I'm in the same position I was in when we first met John. And that is: we don't want to be in a position to hype this," Stahl said.
"Right," Curley said. "John used to make me very nervous when he would go out and tout that he had developed a cancer cure. And I would cringe. And I would say, 'John, do not use the cure word, please.' So, I'll state very bluntly: I don't know that we're going to have a cure. I think we're going to have an effective treatment and hopefully a treatment that is minimally toxic to patients unlike most of the treatments we now have."
"Okay. John died, but you've promised him his idea won't," Stahl said.
"That's exactly right," Curley replied. "I promised John we were going to get this treatment to human clinical trials. We are going to succeed. And that's where we're at. We are pushing forward."
Produced by Tanya Simon
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