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Hype unleashes flood of pleas for cancer drugs

Published Sep. 13, 2005

For the life of him, Jack White can't think of any news as good as what he heard this past weekend. The 59-year-old Temple Terrace resident was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February, but doctors said the cancerous seed was probably planted some 20 years ago.

"I don't like living like that, with a death trap over my head," he said Tuesday. "So this certainly would be a ray of hope for me."

That hope comes from this week's reports of two anti-cancer drugs that worked in mice. All the TV and newspaper coverage that sprang from a front-page New York Times story about the researcher's work has had patients burning up medical hot lines and besieging their doctors with pleas for help. (The story appeared on 1A in Sunday's St. Petersburg Times.)

The problem, cancer specialists say, is that there is nothing they can offer since the drugs are not available yet and the first clinical trials in humans are a year or so away. All of which translates into legions of frustrated doctors and patients.

"We basically have been inundated with phone calls over the past two days with people asking for treatment," said Dr. Edward Grendys, gynecological oncologist for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

"We're trying to explain to people that this is not at all a treatment drug yet," Grendys said. "I explain they need to take all this with a grain of salt."

Doctors say it will take a year before enough of the new drugs, angiostatin and endostatin, found in minuscule quantities in the blood, are manufactured for clinical trials. And testing the drugs for safety and effectiveness in humans could take another year. So far, the drugs when used jointly have shrunk all types of tumors in mice to the point where they are microscopically undetectable.

"What patients have to remember is we're people, not mice," said Joann Schellenbach, of the American Cancer Society in New York City.

Even Dr. Judah Folkman, who discovered the drugs, is circumspect about the curative powers in humans.

But dying patients say they don't have time to waste. This year, cancer is expected to claim the lives of about 564,800 Americans.

"I had a patient call me yesterday, asking how to reach the doctor in Boston" to see if he couldn't get hold of some of the new drugs, said Dr. Robert Miller, medical director of St. Anthony's Cancer Center in St. Petersburg. "He said he would feel guilty if he couldn't do everything to get his wife an experimental drug."

At the Boston Children's Hospital, where Folkman is conducting research, the switchboard was flooded with hundreds of calls from all over the world.

Cancer doctors have known for months that Folkman has gotten fantastic results on mice tumors by injecting them with the drugs, which act on normal blood vessels that feed the growths. But not until the mainstream media jumped on the story last week did the news filter down to the public at large.

Now, Miller said, the blind desperation of some patients is giving him flashbacks to 1979, when one patient took her last dollars and flew to East Germany in search of black market Interferon pills said to squelch the tumors that were killing her.

"It turned out it wasn't the great break-through," Miller said.

In the mid-1980s, the great hope and subsequent disappointment for cancer victims was Taxol, extracted from tree bark. "Patients were just calling and demanding it, saying "It's the only thing that's going to save my life.' "

Judy Bouye, an oncology nurse at the Pasco-Hernando Oncology Association in Brooksville, said the new drugs have been the buzz of the office. She estimates in the last few days she has gotten about 25 inquires about it.

Even she says the enthusiasm is somewhat infectious.

"It seems too good to be true," Bouye said, adding, "It would be absolutely wonderful. I wouldn't mind being out of a job."

There is another issue that doctors and hospital officials raised this week: That the new drug therapies have been under review for years, and been known to researchers and the public for months, so all that really was new this week was the New York Times story.

"This is not news right now," Rosenthal said. "We've known these results for a while. . . . The question is, why did this story come out now?"

And while the New York Times handled the story responsibly, he added, other outlets have promoted the hope without sufficient reflection on the limited knowledge of how humans will react to the new drugs.

The New York Times ran its front page story on the research Sunday, even though the paper had run a similar piece _ a profile of Folkman _ reporting the results in January.

In New York, several publishing houses confirmed Tuesday that they had received copies of a book proposal about the alleged cancer cure from John Brockman, an agent representing Gina Kolata, who wrote Sunday's story. The proposal was sent via e-mail and it arrived Monday, outlining a book that Kolata would hopefully deliver for publication in late 1999.

The brief proposal "reflected what she wrote (in the New York Times)," said Stephen Morrow, an editor with the Free Press.

Late Tuesday, after the New York Times had been questioned about the story, Brockman abruptly withdrew the cancer-book proposal and offered no explanation to publishers, Morrow said.

Neither Brockman nor Kolata could be reached for comment.

New York Times spokeswoman Lisa Carparelli, however, said, "This was Ms. Kolata's own decision, to withdraw the book proposal. She made the decision after a discussion with her editors . . . after the difficulties became clear, of staying with the story after she acquired a financial stake in it."

_ Times staff writer Rob Farley and researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.