When PBS released the documentary Nova Cancer Warrior in 2001, Dr. Judah Folkman believed he had found the ultimate agent of change regarding tumor growth in cancer patients. When looking at tumor growth, Folkman noticed that tumors secreted a molecule to call on blood vessels to feed them. Folkman then realized that if he could find a way block this signal and prevent tumor growth he could potentially find a cure for cancer. After 10 years of incessant research, Folkman discovered an angiogenesis (blood vessel development) inhibitor called Endostatin. With this inhibitor, Folkman understood he could develop a drug that could potentially reduce tumor growth in cancer patients; nevertheless, his results were not well received by the scientific community. Other scientists were skeptical about Folkman’s research and questioned whether angiogenesis was a real process. Disregarding the lack of support from his peers, Folkman went on to test his findings in mice. His inhibitors successfully eliminated the tumors from the mice he tested, landing him his desired recognition. When Folkman attempted to translate his success to humans it was not as successful. Folkman was able to reduce some tumors but cancer eventually resurfaced in all of his patients and nowadays Endostatin is no longer the revolutionary drug it set out to become (Linde).
Dr. Folkman’s revolutionary journey solicited a lot of attention from the press, specifically The New York Times. Decades before the release of the PBS documentary, in 1972, Times writer Jane Brody released the first article about Folkman’s research. In upcoming years, The New York Times continued to track Folkman’s progress with his development of the ‘miracle drug.’ Finding a niche, the newspaper continued to write articles about the rising national hero. With their close coverage of Dr. Folkman’s Endostatin research, the articles encouraged other scientists to study angiogenesis but fueled the surprising shock after Endostatin’s downfall and misrepresented the meaning his research. The eagerness to deliver a miracle planted naive optimism in the newspaper’s audience. Scientists attempted to contrast the misrepresentation coming from the newspaper; nevertheless, their unsuccessful experiments were rarely subjects of publication. While the Times’ close coverage brought Endostatin to the spotlight its disconnect with the scientific community contributed to its abrupt downfall and widespread disappointment.
Folkman’s spotlight in the New York Times began in March of 1972 in Jane E. Brody’s article titled: Test Hint Protein is Vital to Cancer. In the article, Brody briefly discusses Folkman’s initial findings and goes on to say: “the discovery could open an entirely new approach to cancer therapy” (qtd by Cooke 121). Shortly after, in April, Brody released yet another article titled: How Starve a Tumor where she argued that Folkman “may give medicine a way to prevent the ravages of cancer” (Brody). With both articles, Brody successfully initiated Folkman on his path to stardom. During the beginning of Folkman’s trials, Brody already alluded to the miracle aspect of his findings. In 1972, decades before Folkman had received concrete data, readers of the New York Times regarded him as the scientist who would solve the mystery of cancer and achieve the next scientific breakthrough.
The next article about Dr. Folkman’s research didn’t surface until May of 1998. A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs that Eradicate Tumors in Mice by Gina Kolata published on the front page of the New York Times reminded everyone of the miracle-maker: Dr. Folkman. In the article, Kolata states that the new drugs developed by Folkman “can eradicate any type of cancer.” Even when mentioning that the trials were only successful in mice, Kolata explains how the drugs eradicate “even gigantic ones [tumors], equivalent to a two-pound growth in a person” assuring her audience that “the best that other cancer drugs have done is slow the growth of these large tumors.” She even takes a step further and quotes Dr. James D. Watson, Director of the Cold Spring Laboratory: “Judah is going to cure cancer in two years” making outrageous claims that “Folkman would be remembered along with scientists like Charles Darwin as someone who permanently altered civilization” (Kolata). To any avid reader of The New York Times who was previously skeptical of Folkman’s trials, Kolata’s article changed their minds. Even though the outrageous statements describing Folkman’s success were not directly hers, her decision to include them in her article gave way to significant repercussions on her audience. Folkman was no longer an uprising scientist going off on a limb but one of the greatest alive. Kolata’s article had created a phenomenon.
In Dr. Folkman’s War, Robert Cooke describes how “When Folkman arrived at his office on Monday Morning [after the publication of Kolata’s article], he found the tape on his answering machine completely full with messages from frantic patients… all wanting to talk with him personally now.” Kolata had given hope where there was none to cancer patients that had nothing else to grasp to. Cooke also goes on to argue that because of Kolata’s article: “thousands and thousands of people were leaping past the literal news about cures in mice and assuming that the end of cancer was now at hand” (284). Kolata’s deliberate word choice motivated people to skip the fact that these drugs were only tested in mice and led them to assume that he had developed the ultimate cure for cancer, when in fact, Folkman was not even close. Kolata had turned an article that Folkman assumed “would run in the Time’s Tuesday science section and would draw as much reaction as the other stories that had been written in recent years—which is to say, not a lot” (Cooke 287).
Kolata’s article not only captured the attention of naive and 2optimistic readers but also motivated “three branches of the national institutes of health [to release] a program announcement calling for research proposals for studies in blood vessel biology” (Cooke 288). A team of scientist that included Philippe Leboulch set out to replicate Folkman’s findings. In Unfulfilled Promise of Endostatin in a Gene Therapy-Xenotransplant Model of Human Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia published to Molecular Therapy in 2002 the team of scientists was unable to replicate Folkman’s results. The scientists concluded:
Our finding that elevated concentrations of endostatin did not affect the rate at which human B-ALL cells expand in vivo in the NOD/SCID model from an initially small inoculum (105 cells) may be indicative of a broader insensitivity of primary human malignant cells to endostatin therapy (Wolfgang et al).
In other words, this group of scientists concluded that endostatin did not interfere with the growth of tumor in humans in their conducted experiments. Three years after Kolata’s article, Endostatin had begun his downfall.
The study, published in 2002, had been previously turned down by Science. In an interview with Eliot Marshall for Setbacks of Endostatin, Leboulch explains how “their paper was turned out for publication by Science because it lacked a positive control —a substance illustrating effective tumor control to compare to the Endostatin failure” (qtd by Marshall). Was the journal responding to Folkman’s invented heroism by the New York Times? Was Science unwilling to publish a contradicting study so close after Folkman’s launch into the spotlight? Had Kolata’s writing been powerful enough to make Science not want to destroy the hope of optimistic cancer patients?
The Time’s article glorified Folkman in a dangerous manner. When dealing with cancer patients it is nonsensical and cruel to jump to conclusions as quickly as Kolata did. Despite dealing with a desperate audience, Kolata decided to showcase Folkman’s research as the ultimate cure for cancer. Because reporters want stories that make headlines while science is arduous and requires repeated trials that do not always have positive outcomes, merging the gap and creating stories that accurately describe experiments is, to say the least, difficult. Kolata jumped into Folkman’s story prematurely. In the search for her front page story, she made quick judgments that were the foundation for a disappointed and outraged audience later on.
Folkman believed that medical practitioners should never destroy hope. “There are moments when hope is all that remains for a patient to cling to” (Cooke 349). Until what extent can continue to strive for hope? When does hope become naive? Hope becomes naive the moment one blows it out of proportion, which is what Kolata did. She took a story, a distorted it to the point that it was no longer a hopeful opportunity but a certain solution.
Cooke, Robert. Dr. Folkman’s War: Angiogenesis and the Struggle to Defeat Cancer. 1st ed., Random House, 2001.
Brody, Jane. “How to Starve A Tumor.” The New York Times, 2 Apr. 1972. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/04/02/archives/how-to-starve-a-tumor-cancer.html.
Eisterer, Wolfgang, et al. “Unfulfilled Promise of Endostatin in a Gene Therapy-Xenotransplant Model of Human Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia.” Molecular Therapy, vol. 5, no. 4, Apr. 2002, pp. 352–59. www.cell.com, doi:10.1006/mthe.2002.0573.
Kolata, Gina. “A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs That Eradicate Tumors in Mice.” The New York Times, 3 May 1998. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/03/us/hope-lab-special-report-cautious-awe-greets-drugs-that-eradicate-tumors-mice.html.
Linde, Nancy, director. Cancer Warrior. NOVA, 2001.
Marshall, Eliot. “Setbacks for Endostatin.” Science, vol. 295, no. 5563, Mar. 2002, pp. 2198–99. science.sciencemag.org, doi:10.1126/science.295.5563.2198.