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By Sue Rochman

From Mice to Men

The scientific method can help you decide if the latest cancer news is really news

By Sue Rochman


If you read the New York Times on Sunday, May 3, 1998, you were probably not alone in thinking: They’ve done it! They’ve cured cancer!


According to Gina Kolata, one of the Times’ science reporters, researchers were about to begin human testing of two drugs that could make any kind of cancer disappear in mice. The director of the National Cancer Institute was quoted as saying the drugs, angiostatin and endostatin, were “the single most exciting thing on the horizon” for cancer treatment. And Nobel laureate and geneticist James D. Watson claimed the drugs’ discoverer, Judah Folkman, was “going to cure cancer in two years.”

Of course, there were caveats. Some researchers were wary. Others, including Folkman himself, underscored that “going from mice to people is a big jump, with lots of failures.” But it all seemed to make so much sense. The two drugs were able to stop tumors from making new blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis. And with their lifeblood literally sucked away, it was thought, tumors would be rendered null and void, unable to grow or spread to other parts of the body.

It’s certainly hard to fault the cancer patients who called their doctors on Monday morning to say, “You’ve got to get me this drug!”

Now, nearly a decade later, no one questions that the initial insight that tumors need blood vessels to survive “was a large step forward,” says Sara Courtneidge, a cancer researcher who directs the Tumor Microenvironment Program at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif. “It is true that there are now angiogenesis inhibitors on the market. And they are useful and exciting.” But the drugs now in use are not the ones Kolata described in her 1998 article, she says. “And they are not a magic bullet.”

The public wants a cure for cancer—now. But what cancer researchers actually can deliver are incremental steps forward, as well as inevitable missteps and wrong turns, as they learn the best path to follow. Between the public and the researchers are the journal editors, public relations professionals and news media who communicate cancer research to the public. And, as in the childhood game of telephone, what scientists say is not always what the media report or what the public hears.

“Scientists tend to be cautious and want to be sure no one goes too far with their conclusions,” says Michael Weigold, a professor in the University of Florida’s journalism program who has studied how science is communicated. “They view progress as something that occurs incrementally.” In contrast, he says, the media not only “tend to see things in isolation but want a story that has a great hook that will get the reader’s attention.”

As a result, there is often a disparity between what scientists find and what the media report. It’s a problem, internist Lisa Schwartz, the co-director of the VA Outcomes Group in White River Junction, Vt., has seen time and time again. In fact, it’s what shaped her career. “I’d hear an incredibly enthusiastic news story,” says Schwartz, who, like the other physician researchers who comprise the VA Outcomes Group, studies excesses in medical care and distortion in medical communication and advertising. “And then I’d go find the actual journal article and realize that either the drug doesn’t work that well or that the study design was flawed.”

So where does that leave the public? How can nonscientists evaluate if what they’re reading is good science? And how does a cancer patient assess how promising a new drug really is, and when it might become available?



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