Nobel Winner Denies Cancer Comment

By Tim Whitmire, Associated Press Writer
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
May 7, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) -- Nobel laureate James D. Watson is injecting a further note of caution into reports of a breakthrough in treating malignant tumors in mice, denying he told a newspaper that a cure for cancer is imminent.

Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, had been quoted in a front-page story in The New York Times on Sunday as saying Dr. Judah Folkman "is going to cure cancer in two years." In a letter to the Times published Thursday, he denied making that remark, although he did call Folkman's experiments "the most exciting cancer research of my lifetime."

The Times said Thursday it stood by its story and the quote, which were picked up by The Associated Press.

Watson was one of several enthusiastic researchers quoted in the story about experiments by Folkman, a researcher at Boston's Children's Hospital, which have rid mice of malignant tumors. The researchers also cautioned, however, that treatments successful with mice have often failed when applied to humans, and that much work remains to be done.

In his letter, Watson noted that "the history of cancer research is littered with promised treatments that raised people's hopes, only for them to be dashed when the treatments were put to the test in humans."

He said he told Times science writer Gina Kolata at a dinner party six weeks ago that the drugs, endostatin and angiostatin, "should be in National Cancer Institute trials by the end of this year and that we would know, about one year after that, whether they were effective."

Times spokeswoman Lisa Carparelli said, "We're confident of the story we ran and don't wish to be in a position of quarreling with a respected source and authority. We're glad we were able to let Dr. Watson further explain his view."

Watson was unavailable for comment at his laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., but an aide, Wendy Goldstein, said he remains cautiously optimistic about the drugs. He wrote the letter "just looking to set the record straight," she said.

Goldstein said Watson spoke with Kolata at the dinner party while attending a scientific meeting in California.

Kolata's article discussed the successes of early tests of the drugs, which choke off the blood supply a cancer needs to grow -- an approach Folkman first envisioned 25 years ago. Findings of his lab tests appeared in the journal Nature last November.

Among others who have expressed optimism, the director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Richard Klausner, was quoted in the Times story saying the drugs were "the single most exciting thing on the horizon" for treating cancer. And Dr. James Pluda, who will direct the institute's trials of the drugs in patients, said he and others were "electrified" by a lecture on the results in mice.

The story ignited a frenzy of interest.

Daily News columnist Mike McAlary, who has colon cancer, wrote a column Wednesday that captured the excitement under the headline "I Cling to This Hope For Life."

"On Sunday, we opened the newspaper and there was hope on the front page," McAlary wrote. "Maybe we don't have to die. Maybe some will live long enough to be saved."

The company that developed the drugs, Entremed, saw its stock soar in trading on Wall Street earlier this week. And publisher Random House said Thursday it had signed a deal for a book about Folkman's research by Newsday science writer Robert Cooke, tentatively titled "Conquering Cancer."

Such optimism brought warnings and reminders from many researchers that the drugs remain untested on humans.

"Cure is a four-letter word no one uses. You're just scared to say that," said Dr. Noel P. Bouck of Northwestern University.

Dr. Bruce Cheson of the National Cancer Institute said, "It's an exciting laboratory observation. Hopefully, of course, it will prove meaningful for people, but that is some time off now."

Random House senior editor Scott Moyers, who signed the book deal for an undisclosed price, said Cooke has access to Folkman and will have his cooperation.

Kolata, the Times reporter, and her agent, John Brockman, briefly circulated a book proposal to publishing houses early this week, but Kolata withdrew it Tuesday "after discussing with her editors the difficulty of staying with the story after acquiring a financial stake in the story," Carparelli said.

Carparelli said the Times asks reporters not to undertake books on developing stories that the reporter is still covering.

Kolata referred questions to Carparelli; Brockman did not immediately return a message left at his office.

Two of Kolata's recent Times stories have developed into book deals. In January, William Morrow and Co. published "Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead," and Kolata is under contract to publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. for a book on a flu epidemic.

Carparelli said both deals were signed after Kolata was finished covering those stories for the paper.

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