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Scientists play down cancer-cure frenzy


In this story:

May 6, 1998
Web posted at: 10:58 p.m. EDT (0258 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Scientists involved in the uproar over experimental cancer drugs tried to downplay the excitement Wednesday, and one claimed he was misquoted as saying cancer would be cured in two years.

Nobel laureate Dr. James Watson made public a letter to The New York Times, which sparked the frenzy with its story Sunday about the drugs angiostatin and endostatin. In the letter, Watson denies making the highly optimistic comments that the story attributed to him.

The Times report that the drugs had starved cancers in mice by cutting the blood supply to the tumors has set off an avalanche of media and public interest.

The article, by health writer Gina Kolata, quoted Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for helping discover the double helix structure of DNA, as saying Dr. Jonah Folkman "is going to cure cancer in two years."

Folkman of Harvard University and Children's Hospital in Boston, developed the two drugs.

But Watson, who directs the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on New York state's Long Island, said he had been misquoted. In a letter to the newspaper, a copy of which was sent to Reuters, he wrote:

"Ms. Kolata reported that I predicted that Judah Folkman would cure cancer in two years. My recollection of the conversation to which she refers, however, is quite different.

"What I told Ms. Kolata at a dinner party six weeks ago was that endostatin should be in ... clinical trials by the end of this year, and that we would know about one year after that whether they were effective."

Watson fears false hope

Watson's spokeswoman Wendy Goldstein said Watson feels very strongly about setting the record straight.

"He did not make such a statement," she said, adding that Watson felt the newspaper's version of what he had said "offered what could very well prove to be false hope to a great many people."

After the article appeared, calls poured in to EntreMed, the company that makes the drugs; to the National Cancer Institute; and to Folkman.

Folkman canceled a planned appearance at a prostate cancer seminar Wednesday when he learned television cameras would be there. And he told the Boston Globe that people misunderstood what role angiostatin and endostatin might play in the battle against cancer.

"However they will be used, they will be added to chemotherapy and radiotherapy and gene therapy and immunotherapy and vaccine therapy," Folkman said.

He also emphasized that the drugs had worked only in mice. "It's got a ways to go in people," he said, "but there is hope to get there."

Dr. Ted Gansler of the American Cancer Society said the impact of the story showed how desperate victims were.

"One problem is this impatience, which of course is understandable in that many, many people are in an urgent situation now," he said.

'A tremendous overstatement'

Other companies and researchers working on cancer drugs complained about the coverage that angiostatin and endostatin got for EntreMed, which has taken a dizzying ride on the stock market since the article was published.

"The fact that (they) were reported as a miracle cure, and we're going to cure cancer in the next couple of years was a tremendous overstatement," said Dr. Lee Rosen, a cancer researcher at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Rosen has progressed to the human testing of another drug similar to angiostatin and endostatin called SU5416, which was developed by Sugen Inc. of Redwood City, California.

Rosen said patients should be wary of cancer cures in mice, which are much easier to treat than humans, but admitted he is "very excited" about SU5416.

Angiostatin, endostatin and SU5416 are among more than 300 new cancer treatments undergoing clinical tests.

According to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, it takes about 15 years to bring an experimental drug out of the lab for use with human patients.

Only one in 1,000 compounds tested makes it into clinical safety trials in humans, and only one in 20 of these are eventually approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Squalamine, peptides and combretastatin

Among the promising therapies being tested are:

  • Magainin Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Pennsylvania has a promising compound, squalamine, in Phase I safety trials in human volunteers. Derived from shark tissue, squalamine is an inhibitor of angiogenesis, as are endostatin and angiostatin. Angiogenesis inhibitors prevent blood from reaching tumors, killing the tumors.

  • Agouron of La Jolla, California, has started Phase II and III safety and efficacy trials of its AG3340 compound, another drug that blocks blood vessel formation and which patients could take as a pill.

  • Boston Life Sciences is testing Troponin I, which is derived from human cells, and Ilex Oncology Inc. has a "tumor-homing peptide" that is linked to the anti-cancer drug doxorubicin in a compound called THP-dox. The company says THP-dox seeks out and destroys developing blood vessels in tumors.

  • Combretastatin. a synthetic derivative of African bush willow developed by Bob Pettit of Arizona State University, is about to be tested in the United States and Britain. In animals, it has killed up to 95 percent of solid tumor cells by starving them of their blood supply. It is licensed to Oxigene, a Swedish medical technology company.

  • The John Wayne Cancer Institute in Los Angeles is preparing to start Phase III clinical trials -- the last stage before seeking FDA approval -- of a vaccine against melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer.

  • Dozens of other laboratories are looking at gene therapy, aimed at replacing the faulty genes that can lead to cancer.

  • Conventional treatment has become better, too. Among recent advances are light-activated drugs that can kill tumors without hurting healthy surrounding tissue, targeted radiation therapy and antibodies that carry drugs straight to a tumor.

Survival rates up

Survival rates have risen. In the 1930s, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, only one in four patients lived for five years after being diagnosed with cancer.

Now, 97 percent of women with breast cancer that has not spread live for five years or more, 80 percent of children with acute lymphocytic leukemia live, and 87 percent of prostate cancer patients survive.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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