A Critical Look at William P. O'Neill, CCRG,
and Immune System Management (ISM)
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
When cancer is diagnosed, patients and families may face a bewildering number of options. In about 1998, the Canadian Cancer Research Group (CCRG) of Ottawa, Canada, began offering a "novel" treatment program as well help in choosing what other treatment to consider. CCRG (now called Immune System Management or ISM) is said to have been inspired by the experiences of William P. O'Neill and his wife Katherine after their 12-year-old son Liam was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that they allegedly cured with a treatment plan that "included the best of the world's most contemporary cancer information and consultation."  Although O'Neill implies that nonstandard methods cured his son, the doctors who treated him say that the tumor was removed by surgery and the boy received radiation and chemotherapy that cured a subsequent recurrence in the boy's spine .
O'Neill reportedly had a BA degree from Carleton University, took some MBA courses from the University of Western Ontario, "taught himself how to be a computer whiz," taught mathematics at Algonquin College for awhile, and worked as a computer systems consultant for the City of Ottawa before his son became sick . During 2002 and 2003, the CCRG Web site stated:
The Canadian Cancer Research Group is a clinical practice researching and treating cancer. The group is staffed by clinical and scientific experts qualified in cancer research, laboratory diagnostics, and therapeutics development. The group provides cancer diagnostics and therapeutics that are novel, non-toxic and effective in managing cancer.
The group's approach to cancer is very different from both conventional and alternative medical practitioners, in that it operates under the assumption that cancer is as unique as the patient. Understanding these unique clinical qualities can be the solution. In 10 years of laboratory research and clinical experience, with this patient-specific/evidence-based approach, the group understands that cancer is not so much a proliferative disease, but rather an immune system disorder. It is this approach that allows the group to diagnose the individual cause of each cancer and design therapeutic plans that will address the unique characteristics and clinical needs of each and every patient. It is also this approach that yields significantly higher response rates, clinical remissions and increased long term survival, with no known side effects as compared to surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy .
In 2001, CCRG's services cost CN$150/hour for assessment and evaluation (typically $750), $1,500 for "development of therapeutic plan, $10,000 ($5,000 in advance and $500/month for 10 months) for "orthomolecular diagnostic and assays," and $4,000 per "treatment cycle" for "immunotherapy" (maximum 4 cycles per year). Purchasers were asked to sign a "consent" form agreeing "to not hold liable Canadian Cancer Research Group for act or activity as it relates to the treatment of my cancer." .
For several years, CCRG's online "interview" form asked whether the prospective client had"general interest" in chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, immunotherapy, vaccine therapy and/or homeopathy and/or "specific interest" in antineoplaston therapy, Livingston therapy, Evers therapy, 714x, Issels' whole body therapy, Hoxsey therapy, hydrazine sulfate, Revici therapy, tumour vaccines, shark cartilage, Di Bella therapy, Kelly therapy, Laetrile, Gerson therapy, Essiac, Immuno-Augmentative Therapy (IAT), American Biologics therapy, Iscador, Macrobiotics, oxygen therapy, hyperthermia, chelation therapy, DMSO therapy, live-cell therapy, Aboriginal therapies, vitamin therapy, laser resonance, bio-electric therapies, herbal therapy, and Nieper therapy. No method in the "specific interest" list has been proven effective.
Previous versions of CCRG's Web site have claimed that CCRG "has developed the world's largest cancer knowledge base, Cancer Canada Net, fielding over 50,000 inquiries a year, and with an active case load of more than 5,000 international patients."  I seriously doubt that CCRG has "the largest cancer knowledge base." Even if O'Neill has managed to compile citations from the major cancer-related databases, the information would not be very useful without interpretation by a qualified cancer specialist. Moreover, these databases can be accessed free-of-charge on the Internet.
In 2005, O'Neill announced that Immune System Management (ISM) had "purchased the intellectual assets of CCRG" and intended to open a chain of clinics throughout Canada. However, it appears that the Ottawa clinic (now called ISM Clinic and Lab) is the only facility. O'Neill is ISM's board chairman. CCRG's Web site, which has not been updated since 2005, says that its programs are based on a blood test he calls the "Aminomics Profile." It states: "Your Aminomics Profile will be developed and compared to the Optimal Profile and you and your Case Manager will review a detailed report of our findings." The site further stated:
The means by which CCRG is able to diagnose the cause of disease is through its proprietary Aminomics© Diagnostics. Using state of the art advanced HPLC laboratory technology, CCRG is able to effectively blueprint a patient in determining their Individual Aminomics© Profile. Through comparison to the Optimal Profile, we are able to understand the underlying cause(s) of symptoms. By understanding the cause, CCRG's medical and scientific team is able to design a therapeutic compound to treat the cause.
The Aminomics/ISM site mades similar claims and contained more than 40 testimonials and "case studies" that lack sufficient detail to evaluate what was claimed. In April 2012, the site said that "ISM is directed by doctorate specialists in biochemistry and analytical techniques, teamed with management and finance professionals, and backed by a friendly client support staff." However, no staff members were identified.
In 2002 and 2003, CCRG's Web site claimed:
As a patient of the Canadian Cancer Research Group, you will have available to you healthcare and treatment that has proven to be highly effective in managing cancer, as well as managing the collateral damage from previous cancer treatments such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy. The group has consulted with and treated many cancer patients since its' inception in 1992. It receives referrals from oncologists and community based physicians and patients who self refer. Of these patients, with all stages and types of cancer, our average annual survival rate is approximately 1 1/2 times greater than the national average. In the case of advanced or Stage IV cancers, our annual survival rate is 2 1/2 times greater than the national average based upon comparison of CCRG data to Stats Canada data .
The "survival rate" comparison is not valid. In information distributed to patients, the above statement is followed by a table of "trends of one-year survival rates" of CCRG patients compared to patients treated by traditional methods." The table compares alleged percentages of one-year survival of patients with Stage I, Stage II, Stage III, and Stage IV for "all cancers" treated by CCRG and unspecified World Health Organization data. (The state reflects the severity of the cancer, with stage I representing localized tumors and state IV representing the most serious spread.) The numbers of patients and types of cancers are not specified. This is not a valid way to judge effectiveness. To have a meaningful comparison, it is necessary to be certain that groups being compared are comparable. At the very least, separate survival rates should be calculated for each type of cancer; the numbers in each subgroup must be specified; and use or non-use of standard treatment must be considered. The table also provides an overall "survival average," which appears to have been calculated by adding the survival percentages of each stage and dividing by four. That would not be valid unless the number of patients in each stage were the same, which is unlikely. Furthermore, survival data from different sources cannot be compared unless the sources have comparable follow-up data collection methods. Another table in the faxed information purports to compare one-year survival data for 13 types of cancer and concludes that CCRG's "total average survival" for Stage III and IV cancers is 77.3%, whereas Health Canada's is only 45.5%. Again the average is improperly determined by averaging the individual percentages without considering the number of patients in each category. Moreover, the 77.3% figure is similar to the 77% figure the first table gives for average of survival for all stages of cancer, which would be impossible.
Does CCRG/ISM accurately determine the stage of its clients' cancers, particularly those whose only contact is by mail? Does it actually know what happens to the majority of its clients? I doubt it.
Experiences of Former Customers
Reports that I have received by e-mail or seen in the media make it clear that O'Neill habitually promised more than he could deliver. In 1998, one of CCRG's former clients said the following in a letter to the editor of The Ottawa Citizen:
At the age of 32, my wife . . . was diagnosed with breast cancer. Initially we were happy with our contact with CCRG. After sending CCRG a pathology report and other information on my wife's condition, we received a 359-page binder of current medical literature concerning breast cancer treatment and also a paperback on alternative cancer treatment. But contrary to our expectation, the information received was not specific to my wife's cancer. In fact it was just downloads from material available from the Internet, and worse still, much of the 359 pages was the same article printed again with new page numbers. The next surprise came when we discovered that the Canadian Cancer Society will provide anyone with this material for free. . . Finally, tapping into the research aspect of the CCRG, we asked for a specific paper from a mainstream journal of oncology. Bill O'Neill never sent us the paper. Instead he sent a paper from the Internet on breast cancer, the same one already included three times in the original package. It seems clear to us that the CCRG was unable to live up to its claims. We left messages expressing our concern. We never heard back from the CCRG .
In 2003, Quackwatch received the following letter accompanied by five pages that CCRG had faxed to the writer about its services:
My sister was in Stage IV breast cancer in Feb. 2001. Her oncologist said she should not live past April of that year. Her family physician brought this group to our attention. We had looked into a lot of alternative procedures but with the help of Quackwatch and common sense had never purchased them saving us time, money and heartache. After speaking with William O'Neill over the phone and being sold on his methods we decided to try what he had to offer, feeling incredibly desperate. He faxed over an enrollment form and requested CN$5000 immediately. Thereafter there would be a $500/month fee for 10 months.
Upon receiving the initial payment, CCRG sent over some vitamins and a blood sample kit. Since I was in charge of organizing this treatment, I spoke with O'Neill many times over the phone. He gave us false hope and spoke in a manner that made it seem he had some medical raining which he never produced evidence of. The blood sample kit was immediately returned to CCRG but it took several weeks to so call "analyze," even though I emphasized the urgency of my sister's case. William O'Neill called with the blood analysis results and said we "may be able to turn this thing around" and "don't listen to doctors' timelines."
Her physical condition declined and I pressed them to start their "treatment." All that I was sent were capsules that she was unable to swallow consisting of amino acids, enzymes, vitamins and minerals. We opened the capsules and sprinkled some of the gritty powder onto her food. When I insisted on speaking to one of the physicians that were apparently involved with this group, I was told they were unavailable.
My sister died April 5, 2001 at the age of 39. I informed Mr. O'Neill of this upon which he expressed his regrets and promptly cut short our conversation. I spoke to him once more a week later when I asked if we could get reimbursed some of the $5000 we had initially sent since her treatment was cut short. Mr O'Neill answered "I'll see what I can do." After numerous phone calls to the office and many messages left, I never heard from him again.
I am convinced that CCRG is a profit-seeking scam targeting desperate cancer patients and should no longer be allowed to operate. It cost us time, money and frustration & in the end led to nothing but a sense of being cheated. At a time of immense grief, CCRG only added to the devastation. Reviewing the initial information that was sent, CCRG was trying very heard to make their "treatment" sound scientific. I wish I had written earlier; however, this episode of dealing with them was so painful & humiliating to put to words. I hope this information will help stop any other families from believing in CCRG .
CCRG was involved with two Canadians with cancer whose situations received considerable publicity. One was Tyrell Dueck, a 13-year-old with osteosarcoma (bone cancer) whose parents battled doctors in court to prevent the boy from receiving standard medical treatment . The other was 36-year-old Sandra Schmirler, a former Olympic medalist and three-time world champion curler who had esophageal cancer. Both died of their cancer even though with proper treatment they would have had a reasonable chance of surviving.
Another Canadian client was Annette Pypops, a 36-year-old activist/feminist with breast cancer whose involvement with O'Neill was reported in the Ottawa Citizen in July 1998. The article said that she had been told that immediate surgery offered an 80% chance of survival, but she didn't like the idea and used O'Neill to help her choose treatment with shark cartilage, coffee enemas (four times a day), organic carrot juice (ten glasses a day), Essiac tea, acupuncture, "a careful diet of only organic foods," "herbal supplements that her mother and grandmother used to take," and three months of "cancer vaccine therapy from Georgia." The article reported that she believed she was better, had become energetic, had blood tests that were "good news," and thought, by feeling it, that her tumor had stopped growing. She died six months later , but her optimistic story remained on CCRG's Web site until May 2001 .
In January 2010, the Ottawa Sun published an article about a man whose daughter who began treatment with CCRG in 2001 and died of her cancer in 2003 . The man filed a complaint against Dr. Eoghan O'Shea, who was the CCRG's medical director from 2000 to 2002 and from September 2005 through June 2006. In January 2010, in response to the complaint, the discipline committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario ruled that O'Shea had committed "professional misconduct" and:
- Must not engage or associate himself with the provision of "complementary" medical treatment for terminal disease
- Must not prescribe or compound products to treat terminal disease in the context of a "complementary" medicine practice
- Must never again work for or associate himself with the CCRG or its related organizations
- To the extent that he is permitted to practice "complementary medicine," must adhere to the College's corresponding policy, including obtaining informed consent and examining patients before prescribing to them
- Within one year, at his own expense, must complete the College's medical ethics and informed consent course
- Must pay the College $3,650 for costs .
CTV's Devastating Investigation
In January 2006, Canadian Television's W-FIVE team aired a vivid investigative report that demonstrated O'Neill's dishonesty. One victim who appeared was Teresa Bagyan, whose husband Frank had visited CCRG in 2003 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor that had a very bad prognosis. Teresa stated that "O'Neill looked Frank straight in the eye and said 'I've never lost a patient yet.'" After treatment began, Teresa said, O'Neill looked at an MRI and said that he was "extremely pleased . . . . Your immune system is attacking the tumor and is breaking it up." However, Frank died a week later and a radiologist told a W-FIVE producer that the MRI (pictured to the right) showed clear evidence of the tumor and no sign of healing. The picture shows cross-section of the brain in which the tumor mass appears as the light-blue circle.
As part of W-FIVE's investigation, two producers—one pretending to be severely ill with Stage III lung cancer—visited CCRG with a hidden camera. O'Neill stated CCRG's cure rates were over 80% for lung cancer and 100% for lymphoma, leukemia, and prostate cancer. After failing to respond to more than half a dozen requests for documentation, O'Neill agreed to an on-camera interview. But when he was asked questions about the Bagyans, he refused to answer them; and when the producer tried to get O'Neill to comment on the hidden-camera videotape, O'Neill refused to look at it and abruptly ended the interview .
In March 2000, Mr. O'Neill threatened to sue me unless I removed all mention of CCRG from Quackwatch. My response included the the following questions:
- What is the basis for your claim that you have the world's largest database of cancer information? How many citations are in your database, how many full-text articles does it contain, and how many abstracts does it contain? Why do you think that no one else has more?
- What is the training of the people who interpret the information you retrieve when you do an individual search? When you do a report, is a cancer specialist involved in its advice?
- Your web site states that you have an ever-expanding network of specialists. Please tell me how many and what kind of specialists they are.
- Your online interview contains no request for medical records. Am I correct in concluding that you do not review patient records before rendering an opinion? If you review them, who reviews them?
- Do you maintain any type of follow-up system to keep track of what happens to people you advise? If so, please let me know how you do it.
O'Neill died on March 31, 2013. He never answered these questions. His son Liam will probably continue operating his companies.
If you have obtained any services from CCRG or ISM,
please click here and e-mail me about your experience.
For Additional Information
- Our story. CCRG Web site, archived Nov 11, 1998 through May 17, 2001.
- Shahin M. Doctor Hope: Why thousands of desperate cancer patients have turned to Ottawa's Bill O'Neill for help. The Ottawa Citizen, July 4, 1998.
- Shahin M. Defying the cancer creed: Crusader fights to open country's first vaccine clinic in Ottawa. The Ottawa Citizen, July 4, 1998.
- Welcome. CCRG Web site, archived Nov 20, 2002 through Feb 11, 2003.
- Costs associated to enrollment and treatment. In CCRG information packet, faxed Feb 2001.
- Birrell SJ. Group never lived up to its claims. Letter to the editor, The Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 1998.
- Unsigned letter sent to Quackwatch from "a grieving sister," Nov 11, 2003.
- Mathews T. Alternative medicine and faith claims another victim. Annapolis Valley Skeptics Web site, accessed Dec 27, 2003.
- In memoriam: Annette Pypops (1962-1998). Match International Newsletter, April 1999.
- Casey D. Father's long crusade for answers: Daughter lost cancer battle after turning to naturopathic therapy. Ottawa Sun, Jan 22, 2010.
- O'Shea, Eoghan Brendan CPSO#: 63236. Findings of the CPSO Discipline or Fitness To Practise Committee, Jan 26, 2010.
- "Dr. Hope." CTV.Ca Web site, accessed Jan 28, 2006.