Friday, July 24, 2009

By Stuart Chaifetz

In the spirit of the Summer movie season, and its long history of producing sequels and trilogies, I would like to offer a third and final take on stories of research ‘breakthroughs’ being front page news, while failures are either never reported, or are dumped into the business section (grab a keg of soda and a garbage bag full of popcorn that cost more than the computer I am writing on if you really want to get that movie theater experience while reading this).

In the course of my research on this issue, I found one exception to the rule that is stated above: For the first and perhaps last time, in May of 1998, scrutiny was poured over a front page story that over-promoted a supposed cure for cancer.

The story  “Cancer Drugs Face Long Road From Mice to Men”  - published in the Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1998, was a direct response to this story -  “HOPE IN THE LAB: A special report.; A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs That Eradicate Tumors in Mice,”  which was printed on the front page of the NY Times three days earlier.

There were two things that appear to have set off the counter-reaction to the NY Times story; a massive rush of people wanting to get the ‘cure,’ which didn’t exist, and the fact that the reporter who wrote the story created a possible conflict of interest by trying to get a book deal on it the next day.  The Times itself was forced to cover the scandal:

“...Peter Osnos, the publisher of Public Affairs Press, said: ''When a reporter writes a story that 24 hours later turns into a book proposal for which they're going to be paid a ton of money, that calls into a question the story they've written to begin with.”

The LA Times story covering the controversy was something short of miraculous, for, once the glamor was lifted from the original article, a hard and honest look was finally taken regarding how cures in animals do not translate to cures in humans:

"The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse," said Dr. Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute. "We have cured mice of cancer for decades--and it simply didn't work in humans."

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.
Dr. LaMar McGinnis, an oncologist and medical consultant to the American Cancer Society, agreed. "We thought interferon was 'chicken soup' in the early '80s," he said. "I remember how excited everyone was; it seemed to work miracles in animals, but it didn't work in humans."”
"People do not understand how very far off this [clinical trials] is; these proteins are very difficult to make . . . and we are working very hard to make the human versions," Klausner said. "The mouse versions don't work in humans."”

These statements are devastating to the pro-animal research lobby, but the question is this; eleven years after the NY Times debacle, has the media learn its lesson? In my opinion, no. 

Unfortunately, we still see screaming headlines telling us a cure for this disease or that one is just around the corner. And while that drives interest and support for research higher, these hopeful rays of light flash, fade, then dissolve into the darkness and reality that is the failure of animal research.

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