For cancer patients, hope springs from the laboratory to television

May 12, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Hope escaped from the lab the other day.

It happens from time to time. A kernel of hope will live in vials and petri dishes for years. There it will be nurtured, doubted, prodded, studied. Mice will be sacrificed. Scientists will spend their days and nights working on it.

Then, suddenly, a door is set ajar, and hope makes a run for it. It escapes into the public air and expands in that heady atmosphere until it seems ready to burst.

This time, the latch was popped by a front-page New York Times article that used the words "cure" and "cancer" in the same heady breath.

This time, hope came from evidence that a new therapy has cured cancer in mice. It came from the testimonial of the irrepressible James Watson of DNA fame who said, "Judah is going to cure cancer in two years."

"Judah" is Judah Folkman, known here in his hometown as much for being a mensch -- the Yiddish word for a good human being -- as for being a scientist. For 30 years, against skepticism and even self-doubt, he worked on a simple theory: Instead of killing a tumor, can you starve it to death? Can you stop the blood flow that feeds cancer?

His laboratory's striking success with angiogenesis inhibitors -- drugs that stop the blood flow to tumors -- had been reported for months. It was written about in Nature and in newspapers such as my own Boston Globe. It was talked about wherever oncologists meet to discuss and dissect progress.

But this time hope ran hand in hand with hype. The words "cure" and "cancer" spread in the fertile petri dish of the media culture. People heard the cure but not the caveats.

On Wall Street, investors who speculate on medical breakthroughs the way the Dutch once speculated on tulips turned from last week's hot stock, Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, to this week's hot stock, EntreMed. The price of the biotech company licensed to develop these drugs went from $12 a share to a high of $83.

And among those who have much more than their 401(k) at stake, the market in hope ran to even more dizzying heights. At the National Cancer Institute, in oncologists' offices and on the Internet, those who have heard "there's nothing we can do" began looking for a second opinion. Cancer patients calculated how long they could hold on till "the cure." A year, two.

As predictably as bear market follows bull, the brakes were applied to this rush. James Watson complained that he didn't say there'd be a cure in two years -- or perhaps didn't mean to. Oncologists reminded us that it would be years until the tests were done and the results were in. Judah Folkman warned against the belief that the new therapy "will emerge as stand-alone drugs of unprecedented power."

But the story of this escapee says much about what happens when hope breaks out as it does these days with the frequency and suddenness of a news report.

We live now on the cusp of cures. Cures for AIDS, for diabetes, for cancer. We don't know at any given moment when the latest promise will be the next success -- another Salk vaccine -- or the next disappointment -- another Interferon 2. One week, tamoxifen is touted as preventing breast cancer; the next week, angiostatin and endostatin are seen as cures.

Science is practiced in public. The understandable urgency of a patient conflicts with the necessary patience of a researcher. So the story of this "cure for cancer" is the clearest example yet of our two cultures: hope and science.

Today, hope springs and science treads deliberately, checking its footsteps. Hope goes for the light and science, as Mr. Folkman said, goes down "countless blind alleys to find one that goes through."

Hope talks of breakthroughs and science is as deliberate as the researcher in Mr. Folkman's lab who had to collect 50 gallons of mouse urine drop by drop.

What do we know from this latest report? Two things: that it's a long, long way from mouse to man and that we may be on the right path.

Today, somewhere, a man dying of cancer has read that there is a book in the works about Mr. Folkman's therapy. The book is titled: "Conquering Cancer."

Let it be so. But for now, hope must head back to the lab.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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