Page last updated at 16:05 GMT, Wednesday, 22 June 2011 17:05 UK

The faith healers who claim they can cure cancer

Watch Newsnight's investigation in full

by Anna Adams and Meirion Jones
BBC Newsnight

A group of faith healers who claim they have miracle cures for cancer and HIV have been condemned as "irresponsible, even criminal" by a professor of complementary medicine, following a BBC Newsnight investigation.

The group of healers, collectively known as ThetaHealing, claim that their technique - which focuses on thought and prayer - can teach people to use their natural intuition and "brain wave cycle" to "create instantaneous physical and emotional healing."

ThetaHealing have about 600 practitioners in the UK who charge up to £100 per session.

But the healers' claims have been called "criminal" and "not supported by any kind of evidence" by Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, whose unit not only carry out their own studies but also assess those done by other researchers.

Newsnight recorded Warrington-based ThetaHealing practitioner Jenny Johnstone - who charges £30 for a telephone call or £400 for a course - making a number of claims about the technique, including:

"There was a baby I worked on over the telephone and from one day to the next the cancer in his stomach had just disappeared."

Professor Ernst says such claims are "irresponsible, even criminal".

He believes that the ThetaHealing group try to distinguish themselves from the other 20,000 faith healers in the UK by applying a "veneer of science", but says "it's still nonsense".

'Instant healing'

Repeated clinical trials appear to show that although such faith healing might make people feel better, it does not cure disease. Professor Ernst conducted one such trial which pitched faith healers against actors pretending to be faith healers and found the actors performed better than the healers.

Newsnight tried to speak to Vianna Stibal outside the LSE

One former client of ThetaHealing - who did not wish to be identified - told the BBC that he was "angry and embarrassed" that he had wasted £1,200 on their healing and missed two years of proper medical treatment.

"There was never any suggestion I should go back to my doctor, which is what I needed to do," he told us.

On ThetaHealing's website it says that Vianna Stibal, the American founder of the group, "facilitated her own instant healing from cancer in 1995".

It also says that Ms Stibal conducts seminars around the world to teach people about ThetaHealing, and that she has trained teachers and practitioners who are now working in 14 countries.

Earlier this month, Ms Stibal visited the UK to address a meeting at the London School of Economics (LSE).

At the meeting Ms Stibal responded to a question from an audience member who asked if it was possible for ThetaHealing to make an amputated leg grow back:

"I believe it's possible to grow it back… a lady grew back her ovary... you can grow back a leg. I've seen people grow back," she told attendees.

Some of the 100 people who attended the event told a BBC researcher that they were reassured about the legitimacy of the group by the fact that the meeting was being held at the LSE.

The LSE told Newsnight that ThetaHealing's meeting was a "normal commercial booking".

Further remarks made by Vianna Stibal at the London meeting, whereby she claimed that ThetaHealing could effectively reduce HIV to undetectable levels, have also alarmed Aids charity the Terrence Higgins Trust.

"The fact is we've seen charlatans of this kind all the way through the HIV epidemic," Lisa Power of the Trust told Newsnight. "Those charlatans are more dangerous than ever now that we have effective treatment."

Ms Power worries that some patients could put their lives at risk by delaying taking effective anti-retroviral drugs in favour of pursuing faith healing.

Both Vianna Stibal and Jenny Johnstone refused to answer questions from Newsnight. Ms Johnstone still insists she has healed a baby's stomach cancer, but said there was no point in her trying to prove it because the BBC would not believe her anyway.

Watch Newsnight's investigation in full on Wednesday 22 June 2011 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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