Laetrile is a compound that has been used as a treatment for people with cancer worldwide. It is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition. The term “laetrile” comes from 2 words (laevorotatory and mandelonitrile) and is used to describe a purified form of the chemical amygdalin. Amygdalin is a plant compound that contains sugar and produces cyanide. Cyanide is believed to be the active cancer-killing ingredient in laetrile. Amygdalin is found in the pits of many fruits and in raw nuts. It is also found in other plants such as lima beans, clover, and sorghum.
The names laetrile, Laetrile, and amygdalin are often used in place of one another, but they are not the same product. The chemical make-up of Laetrile patented in the United States is different from the laetrile/amygdalin produced in Mexico. The patented Laetrile is a partly synthetic (man-made) form of amygdalin, while the laetrile/amygdalin made in Mexico comes from crushed apricot pits. The studies discussed in this fact sheet used either Mexican laetrile/amygdalin or Laetrile. The generic term “laetrile” will be used throughout this summary except in cases when the patented version of Laetrile is known to have been used in a study.
Amygdalin was first isolated in 1830 and was used as an anticancer agent in Russia as early as 1845. Its first recorded use in the United States as a treatment for cancer was in the 1920s. The early pill form of amygdalin was found to be too toxic, and work with the compound was stopped. In the 1950s, a reportedly nontoxic, partly synthetic form of amygdalin was made and patented in the United States as Laetrile. Laetrile gained popularity in the 1970s as a single anticancer agent and as part of a metabolic therapy program that included a special diet, high-dose vitamin supplements, and pancreatic enzymes (a group of proteins that aid in the digestion of food). By 1978, more than 70,000 people in the United States had reportedly been treated with Laetrile.
Cyanide is thought to be the main anticancer ingredient in laetrile. Two other breakdown products of amygdalin, prunasin (which is similar in structure to Laetrile) and benzaldehyde, may also be cancer cell blockers. See the PDQ health professional summary on
Laetrile is given by mouth (orally) as a pill. It can also be given by injection into a vein (intravenously) or muscle. Laetrile is commonly given intravenously over a period of time and then orally as maintenance therapy (treatment given to help extend the benefit of previous therapy).
Preclinical studies have been done with laetrile either alone or combined with other substances. These studies tested the benefits of laetrile against cancer, the side effects of laetrile treatment, where and how laetrile breaks down in the body, and how laetrile and its breakdown products leave the body. Laboratory and animal studies have shown little evidence that laetrile is effective against cancer.
No controlled clinical trials (trials that compare groups of patients who receive the new treatment to groups who do not) of laetrile have been reported.
Although many anecdotal reports (incomplete descriptions of the medical/treatment history of one or more patients) and case reports (detailed reports of the diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up of individual patients) are available, they provide little evidence to support laetrile as a treatment for cancer.
The following has been reported from case series about the use of laetrile in patients with cancer:
Findings from only 2 clinical trials with laetrile have been published. These trials, sponsored by NCI, were done in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and did not include a control group for comparison.
The following has been reported from these 2 clinical trials about the use of laetrile in patients with cancer:
The side effects of laetrile treatment are like the symptoms of cyanide poisoning. These symptoms include:
The side effects of laetrile appear to depend on the way it is given. More severe side effects develop when laetrile is given by mouth than when it is given by injection. These side effects may be increased by:
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved laetrile as a treatment for cancer in the United States. The drug is made and used as a cancer treatment in Mexico.
Laetrile compounds from Mexico, which is the primary supplier of laetrile, may vary in purity and contents. Products containing bacteria and other substances and products labeled incorrectly have been found.