Cancer: Another Whisper, Another Wait

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Almost as widespread as the real tragedy of cancer is man's morbid fear of the disease. Cancer quacks grow rich milking the gullible sufferer who is prone to grasp at the vaguest suggestion of a cure. Even the proper reluctance of doctors to submit their patients to dangerous experimentation or useless treatment sometimes generates an unpleasant side effect—a paranoid suspicion that organized medicine is actually trying to prevent the use of effective but unorthodox remedies. As a result, an unofficial underground information system operates throughout the U.S.; a whispering campaign starts with every rumor that a new cancer treatment is in the works. The rumors grow all the stronger when a promising discovery can be attributed to a reputable source. They get an added impact when a drug comes out of the laboratory with an unexpected background of romance.

Lately, the whisperers have had it both ways — ever since word leaked out that New York City research physicians were seeing surprising improvements in patients getting an experimental drug. The stories seemed credible because a reputable microbiologist at Yeshiva University was behind the new find. And the discovery made by Dr. Moses D. Tendler (no M.D. but a Ph.D.) took on an aura of romance because he spends only part of his time in the laboratory, the rest in his study as a Talmudic scholar. When he isolated a crude antibiotic preparation that had some activity against transplanted cancers in animals, he gave it the presumptuous name Refuin (from the Hebrew for "cure"). Hardly had the drug been tried on patients at Montefiore Hospital when calls began to come in from all over the country; doctors were being urged by their patients to request supplies—which are not available.

Last week Research Physician Samuel Korman and Microbiologist Tendler reported in Toronto to the American Association for Cancer Research that the substance has been given to 78 patients suffering from far-advanced cancer. In 34 cases, there was measurable temporary improvement such as shrinkage of the tumor, reduction in fluid retention, or relief of liver obstruction. But such improvement is usually of short duration.

The name Refuin has now been dropped, and Dr. Tendler has sent his antibiotic brew to New Jersey's Hoffmann-La Roche Laboratories, where it is being studied for possible manufacture. There, it is called simply Roche 5-9000. Roche investigators have already learned that it was originally a far-from-pure mixture of half a dozen substances secreted by a microbe of the Streptomyces group, source of many other antibiotics. Most impressive and puzzling is the fact that whereas most anti-cancer drugs, which have to kill cancer cells to be effective, are also poisonous to healthy cells, Dr. Tendler's extract, as now purified, seems to cause no serious side effects. But not until the chemists get the components of Roche 5-9000 sorted out will physicians be able to judge whether any of them is a remedy for anything.