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Harvard Cancer Research Questioned

November 13, 1998

BOSTON (AP) _ The National Cancer Institute says it has been unable to reproduce a Harvard researcher’s widely hailed findings that he had eliminated malignant tumors in mice by choking off the tumors’ blood supply.

Dr. Judah Folkman of Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital reported last year that he and his colleagues had achieved complete regression of malignant tumors in mice with two drugs he pioneered, angiostatin and endostatin. He said Thursday the problems others are reporting are only a minor glitch in the process.

Since his report, the cancer institute has been testing endostatin in laboratory mice, trying to replicate Folkman’s results before beginning human tests.

After The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that a number of experts say they haven’t been able to verify Folkman’s findings, the cancer institute issued a statement saying it would continue to study the compounds but had so far been unsuccessful.

``Studies using either the mouse or human forms of endostatin have not produced the marked regression of these tumors in mice that Folkman’s laboratory has reported,″ the institute said.

Human trials were to begin next year, but the institute said it does not know when they can begin.

Folkman, whose team pioneered the concept of attacking cancer by blocking its ability to grow new blood vessels, called the problem an unsurprising ``bump in the road.″

The drugs are extremely complex to make and properly administer, he said in an interview Thursday with The Boston Globe.

``There are often many problems which have to be overcome in transferring a new technique from one lab to another, which mainly involve a learning period,″ Folkman told the Globe.

Folkman said it usually takes two years for other scientists to repeat the experiments and publish the results. Scientists from his laboratory and the National Cancer Institute’s will visit each other’s facilities in the next two months to try to resolve problems, he said.

When the research was published last year, cancer experts warned that while the approach was promising, treatments that look spectacular in lab animals almost never work so well in people.

But a page-one article in May in The New York Times triggered a new round of enthusiasm, and the resulting publicity had a stunning effect on the stock of Entremed Inc., the Rockville, Md., company founded to develop angiostatin and endostatin.

Nobel laureate James D. Watson was quoted in the Times story in May as saying that Folkman ``is going to cure cancer in two years.″ But Watson later said he was misquoted, and cautioned 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.″

This week, EntreMed said it ``stands solidly behind the data″ showing the compounds to be potent against tumors. The company’s stock lost 24 percent of its value Thursday and was traded at 10 times normal volume.

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