The California clinic, formerly known as Livingston-Wheeler, attracts cancer patients from around the country. It promotes a regimen of vaccines, antibiotics, megadoses of vitamins and minerals, digestive enzymes, coffee enemas and a vegetarian diet.
"The conventionally treated patients did not live any longer than the patients under the unproven method," said Barrie R. Cassileth, a psychologist who is adjunct associate professor at Penn and president of a consulting firm.
The median survival for both groups was 15 months.
Cassileth and other Penn researchers reported that their findings "suggest the likely futility of treatment per se" for patients whose disease is so extensive that even the best therapy offers little hope. They said the option of "no treatment" needed more study.
The researchers stressed, however, that their findings did not apply to patients with less advanced cancers for which effective treatments are available.
Dr. Gregory Curt, clinical director of the National Cancer Institute, which funded the study, said yesterday that the research proves that the Livingston program is not worthwhile.
"It lays to rest the question of whether the Livingston-Wheeler clinic's treatment offers positive benefits for any patient," he said.
The clinic's regimen, which has been criticized by health authorities, is based on the belief of its founder, the late Dr. Virginia Livingston, that cancer is caused by a microorganism that grows unchecked when the body's immune system is weak.
Her theory has never been proven, and the American Cancer Society has warned patients not to seek care there.
The study published today involved 156 patients, half at Penn and half at the Livingston clinic. The patients suffered from colorectal cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer or malignant melanoma. Each patient was expected to live only about a year.
As is typical of patients who seek alternative cancer care, most at Livingston had received chemotherapy, surgery or radiation treatment in addition to the clinic's regimen of vaccines, a special diet and enemas.
Cassileth had hypothesized that the quality of life would be better for patients at Livingston, "but that turned out not to be true," she said.
Quality of life was measured by such factors as nausea, appetite, breathing ability and emotional well-being.
Dr. DuPont Guerry, a cancer expert at Penn who is a co-author of the study, said the results show it's not automatic that "if you get alternative care, you at least feel good."
Cassileth said it was possible the Livingston patients were more negative about the quality of their life because they had gone to the clinic expecting to be cured.
Yesterday, officials at the Livingston clinic put a more positive light on the study. "With the exception of quality of life, the Livingston treatment had effects comparable to treatment with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation," they said.
The prepared statement also noted the difficulty of measuring something as subjective as quality of life.
A congressional study has estimated that Americans spend at least $10 billion each year on alternative cancer treatments.
Today's study found that the patients who went to the Livingston clinic tended to be better educated and wealthier than those cared for in the traditional setting.