Originally created 05/26/98

'Cancer Wars' author stresses prevention over cure



Sometimes real life overtakes even the best of documentarians.

PBS' Cancer Wars (10 tonight on WEBA-TV, Channel 14) is a four-part production focusing on the tools that oncologists and other physicians use to treat cancer patients.

But it doesn't mention angiostatin and endostatin, drugs found to eradicate tumors in mice without side effects. Excitement over the news catapulted the stock price of EntreMed, the Maryland biotech company that makes and markets them.

That's OK with Robert Proctor, a history of science professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of the book of the same title. He agrees with British producer Jenny Barraclough and executive producers Richard Thomas and George Carey that such enthusiasm could be premature, since the drugs haven't been tested on humans.

Anyway, he would rather concentrate on prevention.

What interests Dr. Proctor is research that has been overlooked or ignored. In 1995, when he was at the University of Jena, in Germany, researching his book Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis, Dr. Proctor located documentation of research conducted by Nazi scientists. They had concluded that the major cause of lung cancer was smoking tobacco. Their work persuaded Adolf Hitler, already a vegetarian, to quit smoking. Under his regime, use of tobacco was banned on trams and trains and other public places, and policemen on duty and pregnant women were forbidden to smoke. Germans were encouraged to exercise and eat whole-grain bread, fresh fruits and vegetables and to drink mineral water rather than beer.

"The Nazis had the most aggressive antismoking campaign in the world," said Dr. Proctor, a nonsmoker who has testified against the U.S. tobacco industry. "It's been ignored. You could say there's a community of disinterest. It was in no one's interest to point out the research. Nobody outside Germany paid a lot of attention to Nazi scientists. And when the Germans lost, many of the anti-tobacco activists committed suicide because they (feared they) would be brought up for trial as war criminals."

Dr. Proctor's work is part of the first hour of Cancer Wars, a program that he said "is more concerned with therapies than the issues I developed. There's a tendency to make things upbeat."

He, however, isn't particularly optimistic about the battle against cancer. Current research concentrates on finding cancer cures, he said, not on preventing cancer, even though he believes that many causes of cancer are avoidable.

To Dr. Proctor, politics is the obstacle.

"We know how to prevent half of all cancers," he said. "What has not been done is that political steps have not been taken. For every carcinogen, such as tobacco, asbestos, saccharine, petrochemicals, there are strong lobbies. They're very good -- the tobacco industry (lobby) is brilliant. And we need a lot more comparative, cross-cultural research. Very little of that has been done. The point is that the war on cancer is not being won."