The Big IF in Cancer

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The designation is appropriate, because doctors still precede their cautiously hopeful statements with serial "ifs." If longer-range tests show good results. If interferon can be manufactured in the massive quantities needed for effective treatment. If it proves not to have unexpected side effects. Should these and other ifs become fact, IF will be an ideal cancer drug, for it is a natural substance, produced in infinitesimal amounts by the body. Unlike existing treatments, interferon seems not to damage healthy cells or produce horrendous side effects. Its only apparent shortcomings seem temporary and confined to slight fever, fatigue, and a small decrease in the bone marrow's production of blood cells.

Even now, at ten medical centers across the U.S., the largest test ever of interferon is under way. Bought with an initial $2 million provided by the American Cancer Society (the most generous research grant in the organization's history), tiny quantities of the drug are being administered to some 70 patients with four different types of cancer ?most of them advanced?that were no longer responding to conventional treatment. As more interferon becomes available, at least an additional 75 victims will be treated.

Last week the first data from the test were revealed. The details were fragmentary, but the results looked promising. Of 16 patients with breast cancer that had metastasized (spread to other parts of the body), seven cases showed noticeable improvement, five of them enough to be classified as partial remissions. Tumors shrank substantially in three of eleven patients with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. Though it is too early in the treatment of patients with lymphoma (a cancer of the lymph system) or melanoma (skin cancer) to assess the effect of the drug, the attending doctors see encouraging signs. Discussing the early results, Frank Rauscher, head of research at the A.C.S., was emphatic. Said he: "The answer is yes. There is definitely activity against cancer. Abundantly, clearly, yes."

It is also abundantly clear that the big A.C.S. grant in August 1978 brought interferon instant respectability, accelerated worldwide IF research, and set off a flurry of activity in the executive suites and laboratories of the nation's drug companies. Impressed by the fact that the cancer organization thought enough of IF's prospects to invest so much of its scarce money in the test, industry decided to gamble on the drug's success. Pharmaceutical companies have now poured as much as $150 million into interferon research and production facilities. Their incentive was heightened last summer when the National Cancer Institute announced that it would buy as much as $9 million worth of interferon for further studies and invited bids from potential new manufacturers. The A.C.S. has since added $3.8 million to the IF pot.

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