The Brilliant Lab Chief: As beloved as Judah Folkman is in the world of molecular biology, his lab is no different than others. He handles the High Concept scientific approach and brings in the dough, but others-usually postdocs and fellows-provide the elbow grease that turns pipe dreams into peer-reviewed papers. If endostatin ever becomes a major drug, Michael O’Reilly, a research fellow in Folkman’s lab who isolated the molecule, deserves a lot of credit. In his talks, Folkman amply and wittily acknowledges the contribution of O’Reilly and others. But these collaborative subtleties generally don’t find their way into the news stories.
There Are Always Other Ways to Skin a Cat: EntreMed Inc., the biotech company holding the rights to angiostatin and endostatin, made the usual bottle-rocket run on Wall Street on the basis of the initial press coverage without having made, much less tested, the drugs under study. Meanwhile, many other companies have anti-angiogenesis factors in clinical trials.
Among these other companies are Agouron Pharmaceuticals, Imclone Systems, Sugen and Magainin Pharmaceuticals. They all have promising agents in trials, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the stories about Folkman’s work.
The Lazarus Bullet: Many agents that begin as “magic bullets” subsequently lose much of their luster-as endostatin may do. But some of those old, discredited magic potions subsequently rise from the dead. Since the endostatin story exploded in early May, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended several of them. At the end of May, an FDA advisory panel recommended approval of a monoclonal antibody that counteracts the effects of tumor necrosis factor in Crohn’s disease. Several days later, a form of interferon received approval for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C in combination with a second antiviral drug. Neither of those treatments represent cures; they represent incremental improvements in care.
But that, in the end, may be the real story of magic bullets. They’re hardly magic, but given enough time and experimentation, they often do work as bullets. And in the war against an enemy as tough as cancer (not to mention many other diseases), perhaps the most important thing is to have a little ammunition that works, rather than the perfect ordnance which, like magic, is illusory.