Under the microscope: report of a cancer cure Reaction: A news article generates hope for the ill, a lucrative book proposal, an ethics debate, soaring stock prices and some second-guessing.

May 08, 1998|By Scott Shane and Douglas M. Birch | Scott Shane and Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Mark Guidera contributed to this article.

At 3 o'clock Sunday afternoon, New York literary agent John Brockman sat down at his Connecticut farmhouse and read a front-page story in the New York Times about two drugs some scientists believe might someday cure cancer.

Brockman smelled a big book -- and the story was written by one of his clients, Times science writer Gina Kolata.

"I called Gina and said, 'This is the book of a lifetime. If you can get me two pages by tonight, I can get you $2 million,' " Brockman recalled yesterday. Kolata sent the book proposal a few hours later, and Brockman forwarded it Sunday night by e-mail to several publishers. By the next day, he had several offers from publishers.

But on Tuesday, Kolata called Brockman and told him to withdraw her proposal. Reporters had called, pursuing the ethical question of whether Kolata's book proposal gave her a motive to hype the cancer research story. She had discussed the matter with her editors and decided to kill the book.

Even as publishers clamored for the cancer story, the Times account set off a frenzy on the stock market and stirred considerable discussion in journalistic and medical circles about whether the story overstated the drugs' promise. Word that Kolata was seeking a book contract raised suspicions that the prospect of sudden wealth had overwhelmed journalistic ethics.

"The first obligation of a newspaper reporter is to the readers of the newspaper, not to a publisher who offers a fat book contract," said Bob Giles, a former newspaper editor and director of the Media Studies Center in New York.

Giles said Kolata did the right thing in dropping the book proposal. But he said the case raises difficult issues, because news reporters often make reliable authors.

"I'd rather have a newspaper journalist who can write with authority writing a science book than someone who's interested in the entertainment value," he said.

In an ironic coda, another newspaper science reporter, Robert Cooke of Newsday, agreed Wednesday to share a reported $1 million advance with Dr. M. Judah Folkman for a book about his cancer research. Cooke has covered Folkman's work for many years and wrote in November about the promising mouse research Kolata described Sunday.

A statement from the publisher, Random House, said Cooke will have exclusive access to Folkman, a cancer researcher at Harvard University and Children's Hospital in Boston, during human trials of the drugs starting as early as next year.

Cooke, 63, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment yesterday. But publishing sources said that his proposal had been circulating for some time and that its value was unquestionably increased by Kolata's article in the Times.

'Beyond reproach'

"The reporter puts in a lot of time and effort, and then watches another reporter walk off with a book deal," said Brockman, Kolata's agent. He angrily dismissed any suggestion that Kolata would have hyped her news story with a book deal in mind.

"I see the biggest deal I've handled in 25 years going down the drain. I see Gina walking away from $2 million, probably $3 million by the time it's all over," Brockman said. "I couldn't believe it. This is a reporter who's beyond reproach."

After Kolata's story appeared, the price of a share in the Rockville start-up company that holds the rights to the drugs angiostatin and endostatin shot up. EntreMed Inc. stock climbed from $12 a share Friday to $51 Monday before closing just above $33 yesterday.

Even as millions of shares in the tiny company changed hands, newspapers around the country quoted scientists who cautioned that the drugs' success in eliminating tumors in mice would not necessarily be duplicated when human trials begin months from now.

Possible misquote

Yesterday, the Times printed a letter from Nobel laureate James D. Watson, claiming that Kolata misquoted him as saying of Folkman, the scientist overseeing work on the new anti-cancer strategy: "Judah is going to cure cancer in two years."

"My recollection of the conversation, however, is quite different," Watson wrote. He said he had merely told Kolata "at a dinner party six weeks ago" that scientists would know in about two years whether the drugs were effective in humans.

But Watson ended his letter by offering high praise for Folkman's work: "This is the most exciting cancer research of my lifetime, and it gives us hope that a world without cancer may yet be attainable."

Kolata, 50, a reporter for the Times since 1987 and for Science magazine for 13 years before that, declined to comment yesterday. Lisa Carparelli, a Times spokeswoman, said, "We stand by the accuracy of the story. We don't want to be in the position of quarreling with a prominent scientist who's also a source. We're glad Dr. Watson had an opportunity to elaborate on his views."

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