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NY Times Hyped "Cancer Cure" Story

by Jack Breibart

A breathless, inaccurate story
(AR) SAN FRANCISCO -- On May 3, the New York Times ran a page one story by its science writer, Gina Kolata, extolling two new cancer drugs "that can eradicate any type of cancer, with no obvious side effects and no drug resistance -- in mice."

Kolata sprinkled her story with cautionary notes. "If you have cancer and you are a mouse, we can take good care of you," Kolata quoted Dr. Judah Folkman, warning that tests on humans may be years away. Folkman, of Harvard's Children's Hospital in Boston, is the researcher whose 30 years of work led to the discovery of angiostatin and endostatin.

But the overall tone of the story was breathless. "Some cancer researchers say the drugs are the most exciting treatment that they have ever seen," she wrote. Unlike most cancer treatment which poison the tumors and have debilitating side effects, the new drugs -- used in combination -- cut off the supply of blood to the tumors and starve the tumors and have had no side effects in mice.

"Judah is going to cure cancer in two years," Dr. James D. Watson, a Nobel laureate who directs the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a cancer research center on Long Island, told Kolata. "Dr. Watson said Dr. Folkman would be remembered along with scientists like Charles Darwin as someone who permanently altered civilization," Kolata wrote.

The Times' story was picked up by media outlets around the country.

The next day, the news hit Wall St. with a bang. The stock of Rockville, Md.-based EntreMed, one of the companies developing the two drugs, closed at $51.81, up from $12 on the previous week. Other firms doing similar research jumped. More importantly, cancer specialists around the country were innundated with questions from patients desperate for a cure.

A folder filled with over hyped science stories from The Times
What the story illustrates is the power of the New York Times and what happens when you hyperventilate a story.

The story is not new. The same information has appeared in other publications, although in more toned-down writing.

"The Times article made more people aware of the firm's research, not because of new scientific findings," said Nelson Campbell, chief financial officer of EntreMed told the Boston Globe.

"I am putting nothing on higher priority than getting this into clinical trials," Dr. Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute, told Kolata.

A powerful quote. So good in fact that it was basically the same one which appeared in a story about the drugs by Robert Cooke almost six months ago in Newsday, a Long Island newspaper.

Folkman gave a speech at the National Institute of Health in November and said the new approach to fighting cancer -- called anti-angiogenesis -- had been effective against every type of cancer in mice.

"We have not seen a tumor we cannot regress," Folkman said.

After the speech, Klausner told Cooke: The approach "has to be one of our highest priorities for testing. We are working to be sure the NCI does everything it can to move anti-angiogenesis therapy into clinic."

David Pearlman, of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the most highly-regarded science writers in the country -- and one of the most cautious -- said he was "furious" when he read Kolata's story.

"Another case of the Times overblowing a science story," he said. "Kolata found someone to give a good quote -- like the Watson quote -- and the Times fell for it again."

Pearlman, who often lectures at colleges, says he keeps a file on what he considers over-hyped science stories and uses them as illustrations of bad science writing. The file has numerous Times stories.

The National Cancer Institute felt it necessary to issue a statement to calm the euphoria created by the Times story.

"It is very important to emphasize that while the possibilities raised by these studies in mice are encouraging, it is not know whether endostatin or agiostatin will be effective in people with cancer."

The NCI also pointed out that "it is not possible to produce the large quantities of endostatin or angiostatin necessary for human trials," which most likely will not begin until 1999.

Kolata didn't mention it but Cooke wrote in February that Folkman was treating a canine patient, Kelly, a 13-year-old pekingese, with his new therapy at Angell Memorial Hospital outside Boston. Kelly had a tumor the size of a tangerine growing from her soft palate into her mouth and sinuses. A woman who answered the phone at the hospital said that she hadn't seen the team of doctors from Boston around recently.

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Albion Monitor May 18, 1998 (

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