The Big IF in Cancer

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Despite all the recent achievements, the growing excitement and the favorable early test results, the verdict is not yet in on interferon. Even IF's most fervent advocates warn against prematurely raising the hopes of cancer victims and their families. They appraise IF's prospects in the subjunctive, peppering their comments with "if" and "would" and "could." Were interferon finally to prove an effective cancer drug, there would still be a long way to go. At least a few?and possibly quite a few?years will pass before it becomes widely available. "In terms of research," says Dr. Ernest Borden, a cancer specialist at the University of Wisconsin, "we're only about 2% of the way along toward widespread clinical application." And should interferon become plentiful, it would probably be used as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for existing treatment. Warns Dr. James Holland, of Manhattan's Mount Sinai School of Medicine: "There are no breakthroughs in cancer treatment." Then he adds: "Come back in a year and ask me about interferon then. I bet I'll have some really exciting things to tell you."

Indeed, the interferon bandwagon seems to be gathering momentum. According to last week's Boston Globe story, the new M.I.T. production technique could bring the cost of fibroblast IF down from about $50 to only $2.50 per million units. Says the A.C.S.'s Rauscher: "Right now it's costing something like $150 a day to treat patients, and a full course of treatment can go as high as $30,000 or more. This is very good news indeed." So it is. For even if interferon should only partly live up to its initial, most tentative promise, it would augment the sparse arsenal so far developed to combat the world's most terrifying and psychologically daunting disease.

*A coded molecule that works with the DNA master molecule in transcribing the genetic message and is also a basic constituent of many viruses.

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