Penthouse Retrospective

by Gary Null, Leonard Steinman, Terry Leder, Kalev Pehme Originally Published: July, 1980

Cancer Politics – Part Five | 40 Years Ago This Month

“John Harris conveyed our willingness to test their material on a basis where they wouldn’t lose any of their rights,” remembers Stock. “In fact, we offered them a type of contract, a co-op agreement. …We thought we could conduct tests and let them know if we could confirm their results.” Stock continues, “I learned later from Dr. Robert Kassel, who came on our staff and who was associated with them at St. Vincent’s, that they had not overcome their concern about having us test their materials. Perhaps they were concerned we were going to steal something.”

Work progressed well, nonetheless, and the team of Burton, Frank Friedman, Kassel, Rottino, and Harris eventually published some astounding findings in the November 1962 issue of Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences. The team had found natural substances that were able to cause remissions of better than one in two in leukemic mice, a possible breakthrough.

Two things happened upon the publication of the paper: first, Harris was fired from Sloan-Kettering; second, both the Damon Runyon and U.S. Public Health Service grants were canceled.

According to Burton and Rottino, Harris was fired because, among the article’s authors, he, as a member of Sloan-Kettering, was listed behind two unknowns, Burton and Friedman. Harris (now dead) explained to Alan Anderson, Jr., in an article in New York magazine, that “in those days… S.K. always wanted to come out playing first trumpet, no matter who wrote the tune. When the director sent me down to St. Vincent’s, the idea was for me to smuggle back as much information as I could. I didn’t go for that, and Friedman, Burton, and I published everything that went on. This got the disapproval back at the lab.”

 The termination of the grants also left four Ph.D.’s, two M.D.’s, and a half-dozen technicians without salaries, according to Burton. They reapplied to both the Public Health Service and the Damon Runyon Memorial Fund for resumption of funding. Both funding agencies decided to send a site-visitor to inspect. The important fact to note is that both the Runyon people and the Public Health Service sent the same inspector, Dr. David Karnofsky, chief of chemotherapy at Sloan-Kettering. According to Burton, Karnofsky told the team members: “‘You didn’t do the biopsies ahead of time. We can’t be sure that they really were leukemic. And until you can be sure, you can’t get the money.’ And he laughed.” Before Karnofsky’s second visit, the biopsies were prepared. Still, Karnofsky found a way to reject them. As Burton relates it: “And he looks me in the eye, and he looked Friedman and Kassel in the eye, and he said, ‘Wait a minute, how can we be sure you didn’t introduce staphylococcus, and that’s what cured the mice?’ So we were damned either way. He said, ‘Sorry, you can’t have the money.’”

By the end of 1963, Martin Kaplan left the team; the technicians were let go; Kassel left in January 1964; and Burton and Friedman were left. According to Burton, both he and Friedman attempted to reinterest Sloan-Kettering in the work but were coldly turned down by a high-level committee after a year and a half of nonresponse.

A small postscript: Burton’s bitterness about this period is monumental. “Now I’ll give you the sad thing, and this is what’s called, in Yiddish, chutzpah. le, ‘67, I got a call from Dave Karnofsky voice very agonized. I said, ‘Who’s this?’ He said, ‘Dave.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter, Dave?’ He said, ‘I’ve got lung cancer; it’s in my brain. It doesn’t respond to radiation and chemotherapy. Can you help me?’ I’m afraid I was not very nice. I said, ‘Dave, I didn’t have a biopsy, and if I had a biopsy, you could have had a staphylococcus. Maybe you ought to try somebody who can help you.’”

THE 15-MINUTE CANCER CURE IN MICE During 1964 and 1965 Burton and Friedman, with the help of Dr. Rottino, who scraped together subsistence money, continued to work at St. Vincent’s. Convinced that they were onto something with their immunological approach, they finally perfected the use of two substances that kill tumors in mice.

In the fall of 1965, the science editor for the American Cancer Society, Patrick McGrady, Sr., was being treated at St. Vincent’s for a minor ailment. Knowing Rottino well, McGrady toured the labs and was given a demonstration by Friedman and Burton of how, in about an hour, they could shrink away tumors in special strains of mice. McGrady was stunned: “They injected the mice, and the lumps went down before your eyes-something I never believed possible.” McGrady quickly invited both Friedman and Burton to perform the feat again at the American Cancer Society’s 1966 Science Writers Seminar in Phoenix, Ariz., held just before the ACS began its fund-raising operations for the year.

McGrady, who subsequently left the Society in disagreement with its policies, introduced the researchers to writers and scientists assembled in Phoenix for the seminar, and, with the serum they had isolated, Burton and Friedman injected two mice that had mammary cancers. An hour and a half later, the tumors had virtually disappeared. “All of the reporters ran out,” Burton remembers. “I said to Friedman, ‘Boy, either we got bad breath, or something we did frightened them.’” The next day the conference made headlines throughout the world. On the front page of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the banner headline read:15-MINUTE CANCER CURE FOR MICE: HUMANS NEXT?

Instead of welcoming this publicity, the American Cancer Society representatives began to have second thoughts about the Burton-Friedman demonstration. McGrady notes: “It was very hard for the people to believe what they had seen. It had happened.” While Burton and Friedman were out sightseeing, several doctors approached McGrady and muttered that the whole thing had to be a fake and fraud. They called the experimenters “quacks, charlatans, and what have you,” as Burton notes.

Of all the things that should be above petty egotism, you might think pushing a cure for debilatating disease might qualify. Yet Cancer Politics thrives, sadly even 40 years after this article.

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