Of Mice and Journalists:
Sound Public Policy Demands A Cautious
Reaction to Media Hype of Health Issues

By S. Van McCrary, Health Law & Policy Institute

The media circus that erupted recently over a New York Times article about research on drugs that eradicate cancerous tumors in mice presents a cautionary tale for journalists, scientists, and policy makers alike.

The research at issue is that of Dr. Judah Folkman and Dr. Michael O'Reilly, who found in a recently-published study that the protein endostatin could produce prolonged dormancy in three types of tumors in mice without inducing the drug resistance of traditional chemotherapy (Nature, vol. 390, pp. 404-407; Nov. 27, 1997). This study was reported in glowing terms by the Times on Sunday, May 3, 1998, in a story that included a quote from Dr. James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, who reportedly stated "Judah is going to cure cancer in two years." A media feeding-frenzy erupted immediately thereafter and the stock price of Entremed, the company developing endostatin for clinical applications, rose approximately 400 percent in one day. Television and radio coverage of the story was ubiquitous and ecstatic for at least a week, despite the fact that endostatin does not yet exist in a clinically usable form and may not be effective in humans. In reaction, cancer patients deluged hospitals, physicians, and cancer-related organizations with requests for the drug.

A number of qualifying factors have since emerged, however, which have received only a small fraction of the attention directed at the May 3 story. The New York Times had already run an article on this study which was published on November 27, 1997, the day the study was publicly released. The original article, by reporter Nicholas Wade, cautiously avoided overdramatizing the results, and thus created little hype. Between November and May there were no new published developments in the scientific research. As the more complete story has emerged, however, there was one key occurrence--another Times reporter, Gina Kolata, was seated next to Dr. Watson at a dinner party and Watson lauded Dr. Folkman and his work during the conversation. The May 3 article, along with Dr. Watson's comment about "curing cancer," apparently arose from this conversation and was published under Kolata's "by line." Another unsettling development is that reportedly by the end of the day on May 3, Kolata's literary agent was engaged in negotiations for a $2 million book deal for her on Dr. Folkman's research. Two days later, Kolata telephoned her agent and asked him to withdraw her proposal for the book deal.

These developments elicited numerous adverse reactions from the scientific community as well as a letter to the editor of the Times by Dr. Watson in which he denied making the quoted remark. A longtime science editor and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University, Daniel Greenberg, remarked that combining modern journalism with "miracle cures" for life-threatening diseases was a potentially dangerous mix, and that the Times article should have placed the issues in better context. Several prominent biotechnology industry analysts were reported to have said they found the prominence of the May 3 Times story unusual, given the fact the study had been reported months earlier and nothing new had occurred in the research since then.

Perhaps most telling of all was a comment by another science journalist, Shannon Brownlee, who noted that she had been aware of Dr. Folkman's research for years but would not advocate placing the story on the cover of her magazine. In the wake of the Times story, however, she remarked "all of us are compelled to make a big deal over this" (Newsday, May 7, p. A30). This herd mentality among journalists, driven by the perceived authority of the New York Times and the ever-shrinking time allowances of the "news cycle" is potentially dangerous when combined with the desperate physical and emotional condition of many seriously ill persons. Among other things, this incident was reported to have heightened awareness among many persons that the large amounts of book money available from publishers presented a challenge to ethical journalism. Although some persons noted that, in contrast to those who write about current events for entertainment value, many journalists are reliable authors. Nonetheless, this case raises serious issues of setting appropriate boundaries between personal gain from a story and sound reporting.

According to a reflective article in The New Yorker, "Journalism, alas, cannot be tested on mice" (May 18, 1998, p. 6). When confronted with similar issues in the headlines, policy makers and the public should remain vigilantly aware of this cogent observation.