Tumorex: A Cancer Fraud

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Tumorex is an amino acid product claimed to be a powerful immune system builder that can successfully treat cancer. It was administered intravenously with or without dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO). Laboratory analyses of "Tumorex" samples identified it as chemically identical to the amino acid L-arginine [1].

In the late 1960s, it was discovered that an enzyme, L-asparaginase, in the serum of guinea pigs was able to act as an antitumor agent against certain kinds of lymphomas [2]. This discovery stimulated a flurry of studies which examined the possible relationships between specific amino acids and the growth of cancer. However, although arginine was subsequently found to inhibit the growth of several tumors in laboratory rodents, no practical use has been demonstrated against human cancer. Moreover, laboratory experiments during the early 1980s at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center showed that the amount of arginine in the "Tumorex" samples had no significant antitumor activity at clinically relevant concentrations. The researchers also expressed concern that arginine supplementation could promote the growth of tumors [1].

Tumorex's chief proponent, James G. ("Jimmy") Keller, operated cancer clinics in the United States and Mexico. A former water-softener salesman, he claimed to have been cured of malignant melanoma with various "alternative" treatments. According to his "phenomenal story," Keller was diagnosed with malignant melaoma in 1968, underwent surgery, had a recurrence with "lumps all over his body," was cured by herbal treatments and laetrile, and later began treating patients from his home [3]. In 1980, he opened a clinic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with help from Barbara Masse, DC, ND.

In March 1983, government authorities obtained an injunction closing the Louisiana clinic, but Keller and Masse opened the Universal Health Center in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Their staff included an unlicensed Mexican physician and two "therapists." The treatments offered included DMSO, live cell therapy, gerovital, interferon, chelation, and colon irrigation. A clinic brochure claimed effectiveness against rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease, Parkinsonism, and several other serious conditions. Keller also rented condominiums to patients who paid $3,000 for two weeks of treatment. The operation reportedly grossed over $100,000 per month [4].

In December 1983, the Universal Health Center was shut down by Mexican officials. Eleven affiliated persons were indicted on medical fraud and drug charges and, in 1984, a fugitive warrant was issued for Keller's arrest. Government action was triggered by a lengthy investigation by the Brownsville Herald that involved more than 100 interviews. Among other things, the newspaper reported:

Among those indicted was Keller's brother, a medical device salesman who had set up the Matamoros clinic by installing alleged diagnostic and therapeutic equipment that were little more than dials, switches, and colored lights. The equipment supposedly indicated the kind of cancer and the treatment needed [4]. The clinic staff also diagnosed disease by studying full-length photographs of patients and by swinging a pendulum over various foods in the presence of the patient. The patient was then advised to eat the foods over which the pendulum stopped swinging [4].

In 1984, Keller set up St. Jude International Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. Patients for this clinic were recruited with help from Karl Loren, who hosted a radio talk show in Los Angeles, with 30 hours of weekly air time. Loren also established an information office for the clinic and in 1990, began publishing a monthly newsletter called "The Healer." [6]

In 1985, the Arizona State Board of Osteopathic Examiners revoked the license of Robert B. Wickman after determining that he had fraudulently represented to a board investigator that treatment with Tumorex and DMSO was effective against cancer. The Board also concluded that he had maintained a referring and fee dividing relationship with an illegal practitioner of medicine [7].

National Council Against Health Fraud vice President James A. Lowell, Ph.D., who visited several times, said that it reminded him of facilities used for "back-room" abortions as portrayed in motion pictures. Lowell reported:

St. Jude is housed in a run-down building perched high on a hillside and is identified only by a sign that says "Clinic of Juarez." A long, dark hallway with a plastic runner on the floor leads from the entrance of the building to the "clinic." Visitors are greeted by a small waiting room with broken-down couches full of stains and holes. When the windows are open, chickens can be heard cackling in the back yard. To the left of the waiting room is the treatment room, where Keller injects the secret nostrums that he prepares in a storeroom under the stairs. On three separate occasions, I have seen the floor and even the street outside littered with used syringes and dirty cotton balls. To the right of the waiting area is a room holding four beds crammed together in which patients can lie down to receive intravenous treatment. Next to it is the bathroom, which has no running water. To flush the toilets, patients must pour water into the toilet tank from bottles in the bath tub [8].

In 1991, Keller was apprehended by Mexican officials and turned over to the FBI to stand trial on the 1983 wire-fraud charges. Two years later a jury in McAllen, Texas, convicted him of 11 counts of using interstate communications to defraud patients. At the trial, family members of former patients testified that Keller had said his "digitron" device could detect what part of the body had cancer and could cure the cancer when a photograph of the patient was placed into part of the device. Witnesses also testified that Keller used the device to conclude that the cancer was cured [9]. Stanford University professor William Tiller testified that Keller's device—a "radionics" device—could transmit "subtle energies" from a person with a hair strand, a drop of blood, or even a photograph, and would send and receive "healing energies to that particular object." [10] Joel Wallach also testified on Keller's behalf. Keller received a two-year prison sentence plus three years of probation. In 1998, he was arrested and returned to prison gain for treating cancer patients in violation of his probation. He was released from prison in November 1999, at which time he was 70 years old.


  1. Monaco GP, Green S, and others. An Evaluative Database on Unproven and Untested Cancer Remedies. Emprise, 1990.
  2. Broome JD. Nature 191:1114-1115, 1961.
  3. Keller J. The phenomenal story of Jimmy Keller's miracle. Undated flyer from St. Jude International Clinic.
  4. Thompson R. The sad allure of cancer quackery. FDA Consumer 19(4):36-38, 1985.
  5. Bell TE and Garza-Trejo. Matamoros cancer clinic preys on the desperate. Brownsville Herald, Dec 14, 1983. Between then and March 17, 1985, the Herald published at least 20 additional articles about Keller's clinic and subsequent legal difficulties.
  6. Background and origin of Jimmy Keller. The Healer, Vol 1, No. 1, 1990.
  7. Barrett S. Some notes on Dr. Robert Wickman. Quackwatch, Dec 6, 2009.
  8. Lowell, JA. Mexican cancer clinics. In Barrett S, Cassileth BR. Dubious Cancer Treatment. Tampa, FL: American Cancer Society, Florida Division, 1991.
  9. Garcia P. Testimony given in cancer clinic trial. Valley Morning Star, Arlington Texas, Aug 21, 1991.
  10. Garcia P. Professors say Keller could cure cancer via photos. Brownsville Herald, Aug 27, 1991.

This article was revised on December 6, 2009.

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