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Under the microscope: report of a cancer cure Reaction: A news article generates hope for the ill, a lucrative book proposal, an ethics debate, soaring stock prices and some second-guessing.


At 3 o'clock Sunday afternoon, New York literary agent John Brockman sat down at his Connecticut farmhouse and read a front-page story in the New York Times about two drugs some scientists believe might someday cure cancer.

Brockman smelled a big book -- and the story was written by one of his clients, Times science writer Gina Kolata.

"I called Gina and said, 'This is the book of a lifetime. If you can get me two pages by tonight, I can get you $2 million,' " Brockman recalled yesterday. Kolata sent the book proposal a few hours later, and Brockman forwarded it Sunday night by e-mail to several publishers. By the next day, he had several offers from publishers.

But on Tuesday, Kolata called Brockman and told him to withdraw her proposal. Reporters had called, pursuing the ethical question of whether Kolata's book proposal gave her a motive to hype the cancer research story. She had discussed the matter with her editors and decided to kill the book.

Even as publishers clamored for the cancer story, the Times account set off a frenzy on the stock market and stirred considerable discussion in journalistic and medical circles about whether the story overstated the drugs' promise. Word that Kolata was seeking a book contract raised suspicions that the prospect of sudden wealth had overwhelmed journalistic ethics.

"The first obligation of a newspaper reporter is to the readers of the newspaper, not to a publisher who offers a fat book contract," said Bob Giles, a former newspaper editor and director of the Media Studies Center in New York.

Giles said Kolata did the right thing in dropping the book proposal. But he said the case raises difficult issues, because news reporters often make reliable authors.

"I'd rather have a newspaper journalist who can write with authority writing a science book than someone who's interested in the entertainment value," he said.

In an ironic coda, another newspaper science reporter, Robert Cooke of Newsday, agreed Wednesday to share a reported $1 million advance with Dr. M. Judah Folkman for a book about his cancer research. Cooke has covered Folkman's work for many years and wrote in November about the promising mouse research Kolata described Sunday.

A statement from the publisher, Random House, said Cooke will have exclusive access to Folkman, a cancer researcher at Harvard University and Children's Hospital in Boston, during human trials of the drugs starting as early as next year.

Cooke, 63, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment yesterday. But publishing sources said that his proposal had been circulating for some time and that its value was unquestionably increased by Kolata's article in the Times.

'Beyond reproach'

"The reporter puts in a lot of time and effort, and then watches another reporter walk off with a book deal," said Brockman, Kolata's agent. He angrily dismissed any suggestion that Kolata would have hyped her news story with a book deal in mind.

"I see the biggest deal I've handled in 25 years going down the drain. I see Gina walking away from $2 million, probably $3 million by the time it's all over," Brockman said. "I couldn't believe it. This is a reporter who's beyond reproach."

After Kolata's story appeared, the price of a share in the Rockville start-up company that holds the rights to the drugs angiostatin and endostatin shot up. EntreMed Inc. stock climbed from $12 a share Friday to $51 Monday before closing just above $33 yesterday.

Even as millions of shares in the tiny company changed hands, newspapers around the country quoted scientists who cautioned that the drugs' success in eliminating tumors in mice would not necessarily be duplicated when human trials begin months from now.

Possible misquote

Yesterday, the Times printed a letter from Nobel laureate James D. Watson, claiming that Kolata misquoted him as saying of Folkman, the scientist overseeing work on the new anti-cancer strategy: "Judah is going to cure cancer in two years."

"My recollection of the conversation, however, is quite different," Watson wrote. He said he had merely told Kolata "at a dinner party six weeks ago" that scientists would know in about two years whether the drugs were effective in humans.

But Watson ended his letter by offering high praise for Folkman's work: "This is the most exciting cancer research of my lifetime, and it gives us hope that a world without cancer may yet be attainable."

Kolata, 50, a reporter for the Times since 1987 and for Science magazine for 13 years before that, declined to comment yesterday. Lisa Carparelli, a Times spokeswoman, said, "We stand by the accuracy of the story. We don't want to be in the position of quarreling with a prominent scientist who's also a source. We're glad Dr. Watson had an opportunity to elaborate on his views."

While stressing that Kolata chose to withdraw the book proposal, Carparelli added, "The editors of the Times are very much opposed to reporters undertaking a book on a set of developments he or she is currently covering for the newspaper." The newspaper's policy requires the reporter to wait at least until the news cools off before pursuing a book deal, she said.

Carparelli also defended the prominent placement of the story, saying that while the drugs' promise had been widely reported, "We were covering a markedly new level of optimism on the part of leading researchers in the field about these drugs."

Prominence found odd

Several biotechnology industry analysts said this week that they found the prominence of the Times story odd, given the fact that it reported results of tests on mice, not humans, that had been well-publicized months before.

"There was really no new information presented," said Kurt Funderburg, a biotechnology analyst at Ferris Baker Watts in Baltimore.

Steve Delco, a biotech analyst with Miller Tabak Hirsch & Co., agreed, saying: "You would think a paper like the New York Times would be a bit cautious about presenting false hope, especially to cancer patients."

Donald Drake, a veteran medical reporter and now medical editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said the effort to sell a book in the wake of the frenzy generated by a single article "looks bad."

But Drake defended the story. "If I had the data that she showed in the New York Times, I'm sure I would have written it with the same amount of enthusiasm, assuming my other checks didn't yield information that would make me skeptical," he said.

'Clone: The Road to Dolly'

If Kolata's reporting fueled interest in a cancer book, her reporting about cloning might have piqued public interest in her own book on that topic. On Dec. 2, she wrote a front-page piece for the Times saying that many scientists who opposed cloning humans had changed their minds in the months since Dolly, the famous cloned sheep, was duplicated.

A short time later, Kolata's book, "Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead," was published by William Morrow.

Like the cancer story, Kolata's cloning article raised some eyebrows. In the National Journal, William Powers charged that Kolata had no evidence for her assertion of a growing acceptance of human cloning.

The debate over covering cancer cures doesn't just concern journalists. Each year, 1.3 million people are diagnosed with some form of the disease and many grow desperate to try new, promising treatments.

Stephen B. Baylin, a cancer researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, doesn't normally take calls from the public. But he talked to a few patients after he was quoted about Folkman's work.

"That's hard, explaining it to them," he said. "They ask, 'Why are you talking about something we can't have?' "

Baylin said he fervently hopes that Folkman's drugs cure cancer. But he added: "As a single cure-all, you've got to bet against it because history doesn't usually play out that way."

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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