The terminal cancer patients come from as far away as Canada and Illinois to sit in the basement and sunroom of Dr. Hellfried Sartori's brick rambler house in Rockville. After they have paid $2,000 in advance for the 20 to 30 treatments, needles are inserted into their veins and industrial-strength DMSO, a controversial chemical solvent believed by many to relieve arthritis pain, drips into their blood for three hours.
Officials of the Food and Drug Administration say they have no scientific evidence that DMSO has any effect on cancer. But patients come to Sartori because he promises a cure for the disease.
"To my knowledge, I'm the only successful cure for cancer," says the 42-year-old Austrian doctor whose hand-printed patient records, complete with "before" and "after" photographs, offer little in the way of scientific proof.
Because DMSO has been approved by the FDA for use in treatment of one specific type of bladder condition, Sartori can legally give it to his patients for any reason. But Maryland authorities, concerned about his DMSO treatments and other unorthodox practices, are trying to revoke his medical license.
"They feel he is not competent to practice medicine," said Burton Sandler, the doctor's attorney. Officials of the Maryland Commission on Medical Discipline refused to comment on the case until final action is taken.
Sartori's case illustrates the continuing problems government regulators have with drugs approved for a specific use being applied in radically different ways. It also underscores the widespread availability and public appeal of the controversial drug.
Currently, the FDA has approved some 30 experiments with DMSO for a variety of ailments, none involving cancer, according to Bill Brigg, an agency spokesman. But the National Cancer Institute has a record of two unfinished studies involving DMSO and regular cancer drugs in the treatment of cancer, both under way at the Baltimore Cancer Research Center.
The experiments involve medical-grade DMSO, a 50 percent solution of the chemical. Most of the DMSO now used by the public is an undiluted form of the chemical, originally sold for industrial use as a chemical solvent but repackaged by distributors nationwide and marketed under labels that make no medical claims.
The FDA acknowledges that a thriving "black market" exists nationwide in the industrial grade of the solvent. In the last year, the agency raided warehouses in Menomonie, Wis., and Buffalo, N.Y., and seized supplies of DMSO because of concern over the possibility of contaminants in the industrial strength drug.
DMSO is widely available locally. It was sold at a booth at the Montgomery County fair; it is offered in 75 health food and drugstores through one Oxon Hill distributor, is advertised on a roadside sign at the Grasonville Radio Shack outlet, and can even be found in the halls of the U.S. Congress.
Rep. Larry Hopkins (R-Ky.), who has introduced a bill to force the government to conclude within one year whether DMSO is worthwhile as an arthritis remedy, has several bottles of the solvent in his office and tells constituents where to obtain the chemical. "I don't want to consider myself a distributor of DMSO either legally or through the black market," he said. "I just want the FDA to get off their hind ends and determine whether it's a good drug or not."
Wayne Pines, spokesman for the FDA, notes, "A decision should be made sometime in 1982 whether to approve DMSO for other uses."
Sartori, however, isn't waiting for federal government approval. He is using the drug not only at his Rockville home but in a second clinic he opened last year in the District.
Although Sartori keeps a small bottle of medical-grade DMSO on hand, he says he uses the industrial-strength chemical because it's cheaper and more effective. "This is what I really use," he said, pointing to a large jug of industrial solvent labeled: "This chemical should not be used as a drug for humans or animals."
"This is what I keep on the shelf if someone gives me grief," he said of the medical grade.
His home is filled with the overwhelming, garlicky odor of the solvent. The bedrooms are used as examination rooms and his living room is cramped with two receptionists, a piano, an organ and his stocks of literature on nutritional therapies. Patients carrying their intravenous bottles to be attached on brass hooks over Sartori's plaid couches pass a kitchen filled with health foods.
Sartori himself lives in the basement, which is also partitioned into vitamin storage and lab facilities.
"I am practicing alternative, successful medicine," said Sartori, a 1963 graduate of the medical school at the University of Graz, in Austria, who passed the U.S. national medical certification test in 1976 and obtained a North Carolina license that same year. He was licensed by Maryland in 1979.
Sartori said he is being harassed by state authorities because he cures patients. Maryland authorities "won't permit any progress in medicine," he complains.
As part of the state probe, which has lasted more than a year, Sartori said doctors at the University of Maryland evaluated his medical knowledge. "They told me I'm on the lunatic fringe of the medical profession," he said.
In recent months, according to Sandler, the Maryland medical disciplinary board asked Sartori to sign a consent decree that would have stripped him of all medical privileges in the state. "To sign would reduce him to a level of a nutritionist," Sandler said.
Sartori refused, prompting the state to schedule formal hearings in February on the possible revocation of his license.
Sartori's patients, many of whom are desperate for hope, have faith in him even if officials do not.
Former diesel mechanic Eddie Free, 40, of Thurmont, Md., has been fighting lymphatic cancer for two years, a condition that ballooned his weight by 80 pounds. He refused to take chemotherapy from Johns Hopkins Hospital, and for the last five months he's been driving to Sartori's home to sit on a couch and receive intravenous doses of DMSO.
"It reduced my fluid by 75 pounds," declared Free, who said he is also taking a "heavy dose" of vitamins purchased from Sartori's storerooms. "We had success in two weeks."
Another cancer patient, Rose Marie Schumann, 55, of Queens, N.Y., was driven by her husband, a subway inspector, and son, to the suburban Rockville house. "We need to keep trying something," said her son, Ed, 19.
One patient who was not pleased is Frances Asbury, 59, of Gaithersburg, who went to Sartori because she suffers from arthritis. She said she was not told she was receiving DMSO until halfway through her treatment.
"He said it's vitamins and stuff for your arthritis," said Asbury, who met Sartori when he visited her daughter's fruit stand. "I finally got a pamphlet from a nurse but because I didn't have my reading glasses, I didn't know until I got home what it was. You're not supposed to have it if you've got kidney problems and I do. That really turned me off."
Sartori disputed her account, saying, "Everyone who gets an unproven procedure gets an informed consent form first." "I don't want to consider myself a distributor of DMSO either legally or through the black market. I just want the FDA to get off their hind ends and determine whether it's a good drug or not."
The doctor's contact with another ailing Marylander resulted in one of the several complaints against him to state authorities. Warren Johnson, a retired University of Maryland professor who suffers from cancer and schleraderma, a circulatory ailment, said Sartori solicited him as a patient after reading about him in a newspaper article.
"We were interrupted with a telephone operator saying there was a medical emergency," Johnson said of Sartori's phone call. Johnson, who never went to Sartori for treatment, said when his regular doctor heard of therapy Sartori offered -- injections of freeze-dried cells of sheep fetus-- the doctor filed a complaint with the Montgomery County Medical Society.
Sartori, who claims his cell therapy will successfully treat aging, mongoloidism, multiple sclerosis and other ills, said of the incident, "He Johnson wasn't willing to try."
But many other area residents apparently are. Sartori says his two clinics are filled with 10 patients "at all times" and he's seeking a second doctor to help him.
Sartori is convinced he'll win his fight against Maryland's medical regulators and his methods, including the use of DMSO for cancer, will be vindicated. "Because I'm different they say I'm incompetent," he said. "All I'm doing is helping patients."