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Hype unleashes flood of pleas for cancer drugs

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.

"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."

White's hope comes from reports that two chemicals discovered by a Boston researcher can cure cancer in mice.

A wave of TV and newspaper coverage that sprang from a front-page New York Times story about the researcher's work has 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 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 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.

Researchers note that as many as nine other drugs acting on the same basic principle _ and that also cure cancer in mice _ are already in clinical trials in humans. So far, the results haven't overly impressed physicians.

"This is not penicillin," said Dr. Lee Rosen of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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

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."

The desperate reactions from patients have raised questions about how the media report word of preliminary medical advances. Nearly every week, researchers report that they have found new compounds that kill HIV in the test tube or that eradicate tumors in mice.

Recent medical history is rife with stories of cancer "cures," such as interferon, interleukin and taxol, that produced exciting results in animals and later proved disappointing in humans.

Miller, the St. Petersburg doctor, said, the current desperation of some patients reminds him of 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.

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 about the research of Dr. Judah Folkman and his associates.

"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 Los Angeles Times raised questions about the story, as well. It reported that the New York Times published 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.