WASHINGTON - The scientific process has given birth to many medical miracles over the years. But sometimes it can be a cruel parent.
As a result of a New York Times story Sunday trumpeting news that two chemicals discovered by a Boston researcher cured cancer in mice, oncologists around the United States have been overwhelmed by patients seeking this new therapy.
But the doctors have told them it won't be available for years, if ever.
Researchers note that about 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 have not overly impressed physicians. "This is not penicillin," said Dr. Lee Rosen of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA.
The desperate reactions from patients have raised questions about how the media report word of preliminary medical advances. Those questions were deepened in the current case by confirmation from several publishing houses that the New York Times reporter whose story kicked off the current fever had circulated a book proposal about the alleged cancer cure - only to withdraw it yesterday.
Meanwhile, physicians say, the people who suffer are cancer patients. "They are desperate to find something that is an easy way out of a difficult situation," said Dr. Philip DiScaia, deputy director of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Irvine.
Dr. Allen Lichter of the University of Michigan, president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, agreed. "I haven't had a single patient who hasn't asked me about this," he said. "It's certainly on everyone's mind. But I have to tell them, honestly, that I don't know if it will work in humans."
Journalists face such questions routinely. Nearly every week, researchers report new compounds that kill HIV in the test tube or that eradicate tumors in mice. Most often, these stories are downplayed by the media, who recognize that the path from test tubes or mice to humans is long and strewn with potholes.
"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.
The new "miracle" cure involves a phenomenon called angiogenesis. More than 30 years ago, a physician named F. Judah Folkman discovered that tumors secrete chemicals that stimulate the growth of blood vessels into the mass of tumor cells, or angiogenesis. Without nourishment from these blood vessels, the tumors are unable to grow beyond microscopic clumps of cells.
Folkman reasoned that drugs that blocked the production of these angiogenesis factors might prevent tumors from growing larger. But it took him more than 25 years to convince the rest of the cancer community.
Recently, the idea has gained popularity among cancer researchers. Current counts suggest that more than 100 academic laboratories and 40 biotechnology companies are developing such drugs.
Some of these are already being tested in humans. One is the tranquilizer thalidomide, notorious for causing severe limb defects in children whose mothers used it during pregnancy. The breast-cancer drug Tamoxifen is also thought to act, in part, by restricting blood-vessel growth.
British doctors said today they expect to begin human trials of a new cancer drug that works the same way. Dr. David Secher, director of drug development for the Cancer Research Campaign, said the charity hopes to test Combretastatin A4 on humans in November.
Combretastatin works by selectively damaging blood vessels that supply the cells with the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive and grow, starving the cancer.
In New York, several publishing houses confirmed yesterday that they had received copies of a book proposal about the alleged cancer cure from John Brockman, an agent for Gina Kolata, who wrote Sunday's front-page story.
Late yesterday, after The New York Times had been questioned about the story, Brockman withdrew the book proposal, Morrow said.
Neither Brockman nor Kolata could be reached for comment.
Times spokeswoman Lisa Carparelli said, "This was Ms. Kolata's own decision, to withdraw the book proposal. She made the decision after a discussion with her editors."