Colombia's New Science Minister Makes Controversial Claim She Has Created a Fungus Extract That Can Treat Cancer

The first science minister of Colombia is facing calls to resign over unproven claims that she has created a fungus extract drink which can treat cancer.

Mabel Gisela Torres was sworn in as minister of the new department of Science, Technology and Innovation on January 11, after being appointed by the president in December last year. At the time, the Colombian government described Torres, from Bahía Solano, in the western Chocó area, as a scientist and entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience.

Torres, an expert in fungi from the Technological University of El Chocó in Quibdó, was relatively unknown in the scientific community when she was chosen for the role, according to the science journal Nature, leading some to express concern that she had published only 21 scientific articles, largely on a type of mushroom used in traditional Chinese medicine.

In a controversy that has been rumbling on since last month, the minister has said she used an extract from a member of the Ganoderma family of mushrooms to create a tea-like drink to treat 40 people with cancer. Torres claimed some of those patients went into remission after consuming the concoction for a few months.

However, scientists asked why she had not taken what are widely considered the appropriate steps for developing treatments, centred around keeping patients safe and fostering the discussion of new ideas.

Torres has not published her findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. A central part of modern science, the process enables experts to examine the methodology and data from a team's experiments, to check they are of a high quality and not based on anecdotal evidence.

In addition, Torres neither offered the treatment as part of a clinical trial, nor did she consult with an ethics committee, prompting fears that she could have put vulnerable patients in danger.

Torres defended her work in an interview with Colombia's El Espectador newspaper, arguing that some traditional treatments have a scientific basis, but the knowledge is not presented in the standard way—a stance which experts worry will embolden quacks.

The minister claimed Ganoderma had previously passed toxicity tests, and had been used in Asia for 2,000 years. The "ethical issue disappeared" after she made these considerations, she said. Torres said she wanted to test the potential treatment as quickly as possible, and claimed one man who took the tea was free of cancer after three months. She has provided no proof to back up these claims.

ElEspectador asked Torres why she gave patients the drink and claimed it can treat cancer despite not carrying out preclinical or clinical studies, or publishing her data. She replied: "I wanted to do an act of rebellion and that is to say: I have the possibility to help people."

Torres compared her treatment to something as safe as giving someone "mango juice at home."

The minister later said in a radio interview, according to a news report by Nature, that she would release her data, but that she had not acted improperly.

Last month, the government confirmed that Torres would stay in office. A few days later, Torres released a statement in which she stated, according to a translation by Nature: "At no time have I simplistically proposed that this species [could] be the cure for cancer.

"I haven't offered a drug, let alone marketed it. I have rigorously observed the established ethical protocols for scientific experimentation in general and those that apply specifically in my disciplinary field."

Mabel Gisela Torres, Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation
Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Mabel Gisela Torres , who has faced calls to resign. Colombia Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation

But scientific associations including the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences have rallied against Torres, with other scientists calling on her to resign.

The Colombian Association of Medical Faculties (ASCOFAME) stated, according to a news report by the scientific journal, Science: "We can only regret that the course of how to do science in our country has been left in the hands of pseudoscience."

Susana Fiorentino of the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá who is an expert in the antitumor properties of Colobmian folk medicine told Science: "The most coherent thing to do is for her to resign."

She criticized Torres for not isolating the chemical compounds in her extract to see how they affect cancer cells, or following the protocol of checking the extract was safe in animal tests before moving on to humans.

Juan Manuel Anaya, an immunologist at Del Rosario University told Science: "We want her to resign," adding her "act of offering a hope for patients with cancer has to be criticized." He called her methods "unethical."

Lina Trujillo, a gynecologist-oncologist at the National Cancer Institute, stressed to El Espectador that there is no scientific evidence that the fungus can treat cancer. She said creating treatments is a "very serious" process.

Trujillo expressed concern that the minister's attitude could make patients more likely to believe myths about cancer treatments online.

Eduardo Díaz, director of the Institute of Bioethics of the Javeriana University, asked in an interview with El Espectador why Torres appeared to have pitted ethical standards followed by scientists against the recognition of ancestral knowledge, when traditional treatments can be studied in a way which complies with ethical standards accepted across "the entire world."

However, Torres' Ph.D adviser Laura Guzmán Dávalos at the University of Guadalajara told Science the minister was a "brilliant student." She said, "I don't think it's a bad idea" that Torres gave patients her tea, arguing that the preparation was intended to be used alongside conventional treatments like chemotherapy.

Newsweek has contacted the department of Science, Technology and Innovation for comment.