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We Need Media Responsibility
By Reed Irvine and Notra Trulock
July 25, 2002


The media have carefully avoided their responsibility in the ImClone scandal. This is much more than insider trading. It is about hype and raising false hopes. Back in July of 2001, Business Week ran a cover story about "The Birth of a Cancer Drug" that was said to be "a blockbuster." The drug was then known as "IMC-225," which "halts the spread of cancer." This was Erbitux, the ImClone drug that had its application for approval rejected by the Food and Drug Administration last December.

Business Week called ImClone a "biotech highflier." It said, "After more than 20 years and $100 million, IMC-225 is awaiting FDA approval." In an editorial on "The Dawn of a New Era," the magazine said that Erbitux "seems effective against cancers of the colon, pancreas, head and neck and lungs." It suggested that victory might be within sight in the war on cancer.

Erbitux might still be eventually approved, but the FDA’s rejection means that the positive press about the drug was misleading, especially to cancer sufferers. In May of 2001, the Associated Press ran a story about Erbitux that called it "incredibly exciting" and a "breakthrough." CNN’s medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen ran a story saying that Erbitux "may shrink tumors" and "extend lives." She based this review on clinical trials paid for by ImClone.

The pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers was so excited by the drug that it agreed to pay $2 billion for a 20 percent stake in ImClone. When that happened, Forbes magazine said investors were "excited" about the company. The publication noted that Bristol-Myers "already has the best oncology sales force in the U.S." and would have the muscle to market the drug successfully.

ImClone CEO Sam Waksal had said that Erbitux "is going to be one of the biggest drugs in the history of oncology." He had predicted quick FDA approval. The FDA rejected the application because of questions about whether, in the clinical trials, the drug was actually responsible for shrinking tumors. By then, however, Waksal had already hit the jackpot. When Bristol-Myers invested in the company, Erbitux looked like a major breakthrough, Waksal took $36 million out of the company. His brother, another ImClone executive, cashed out $54 million.

Now that the FDA has rejected it, and officials of ImClone are under investigation, the media are taking a more critical look. The Washington Post has revealed a conflict of interest involving the drug’s discoverer, Dr. John Mendelsohn. The Post found that the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston enrolled 195 people in tests of the drug without informing them that its president, Mendelsohn, had a financial interest in the drug that stood to earn him millions. He also served as a director and member of the audit committee of Enron. The Post noted that ImClone had been "riding high most of last year on the basis of upbeat proclamations from the company…" Those proclamations were promoted by the major media.

Reed Irvine can be reached at ri@aim.org