Film Review: Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering

Highly provocative documentary posits that a viable cancer drug has been suppressed for more than 40 years.

Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering uses the simplest of film formats (the talking-head interview) to present a little-known but remarkable story: how in the 1970s a science writer stumbled upon Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s cover-up of the results of its own cancer-curing research. Filmmaker Eric Merola does an admirable job of giving a platform to Ralph W. Moss, the eyewitness and “whistleblower,” though the director fails to add many other corroborating voices. Still, Second Opinion’s biggest liability might inspire concerned viewers to find out more about the drug in question, Laetrile, and the conspiracy of silence around it.

A disclaimer at the top indicates that Merola does not necessarily endorse Laetrile, but it is obvious that Second Opinion’s purpose is to air Moss’ grievances and show the print (i.e., hospital memo) evidence of his accusations against Sloan-Kettering. After briefly telling his early life story, Moss goes through the minute chronology of how he discovered the esteemed elder scientist, Dr. Kanematsu Sugiura, testing Laetrile and finding that the drug rid a majority of lab trial mice of cancer tumors. Initially, Moss says, the hospital was receptive to hearing the results (this was the mid-’70s era of “the War on Cancer”), but later, after high-level meetings and government interference, Sloan-Kettering disavowed Laetrile as a potential miracle therapy—for profit-making reasons, Moss asserts.

Moss then had to fight his own employer to get news coverage, but The New York Times slanted its story to the hospital’s position, so he leaked the test documents to two radical organizations, one associated with the right-wing John Birch Society, the other called Second Opinion, both interested in the findings. Unfortunately, Moss was discredited in the media by his desperate move and could only count on a news conference by Sloan-Kettering to bring out the truth. Despite some candid admissions by Dr. Sugiura, Moss says the institution was able to muddy the waters with new, deliberately inconclusive testing. Eventually, the Laetrile story died and Moss was tarred as a “quack.”

For most of the film, Merola shoots Moss at a side angle against a golden wall tapestry. One might think this approach would grow tiresome, but Moss is a lively raconteur, he speaks with conviction, and his backdrop is attractive. Not once during the 75 minutes of Second Opinion does the mind wander. The newsreel footage (particularly of the hospital news conference) becomes mesmerizing to watch in the context of Moss’ narrative setup. The supporting documents look authentic, though we have to take the film on faith that everything passed through legal and forensic examination.

Given the film’s title, which references seeking out an alternate doctor’s view, Second Opinion has an ironic flaw: Merola was unable to secure individuals other than Moss and (briefly) Dr. Alex Pruchnicki, a representative of the Second Opinion outfit, to confirm Moss’ contentions. Yes, we have Moss’ family (wife, daughter and son), who testify to his actions at the time of the imbroglio, but getting a senior-level medical person would have helped “blow the lid” off the story. Apparently, even today, no one in authority wants to talk about Laetrile or its Sloan-Kettering association.

Thus, we must conclude that either Second Opinion reveals something astonishingly tragic in the annals of medical history or Merola and company have been duped by a “Hitler’s Diaries”-type trickster. While the former is more likely, the pushback online has already started (one site compares Merola to Leni Riefenstahl, speaking of Hitler). It would have helped the film for us to hear from a few scientists or medical experts other than our garrulous, engaging central player, who admits he entered the fray without having a medical background.

Let’s hope this film will inspire others to be more forthcoming—not necessarily about this particular story, but any actions by the establishment to quash useful information.

Click here for cast & crew information.