Monday, June 04, 2007

Enovid controversy

Working in an archive of materials which are, by definition, historical in nature (read "dated"), I tend to forget that the issues recorded were once, perhaps, front-page news. A stark reminder today as I unfolded an original, typed, anonymous letter filed in the News & Publications faculty file for Dr. William S. Fletcher, M.D. (expletives herein replaced with asterisks):
You dogmatic, disparaging, dispassionate educated bunch of a******s some one should put a stick of dynamite up your a******* for releasing a statement, wholly with out cause, only with the intent to reduce the stock in price of G.D.Searle & Co.--Syntex Corp.
Thru this dogmatic statement, you have cost the stockholders millions of dollars. With the market already in a sensitive state of mind, has been bid up high in recent months, as investors see a large market for contraceptive pills, particularly the shares of Searle & Syntex. This is the oldest gag in the world, only a breath of cancer scare was needed in this case to drop the stock so you could benefit by buying in at the dropped price.
I believe the search is in order on the rats in oregon, instead of the search of effects of hormones on rats. If your search had been carried out over aperiod of time, instead of going off half cocked with an assign uproar, After all we have the Government's Approval for this hormone to be placed on the market, If you are right the Government's wrong in approving the product and if any one is interseted in getting it off the market it should be the government.
You dirty b******s cost five of us over $10,000.00 loss.
A retraction of this dispatch had better be retracted.
[Signed] 5 friends.

The letter refers to a statement issued by Fletcher, J. Engleburt Dunphy, M.D., and E. Douglas McSweeney, M.D., to accompany publication of their paper "The effect of various hormones, isotopes and isotope tagged hormones on induced breast cancer in the rat" published in JAMA (1965 Jan 11;191:116-8). One of the brand-name contraceptives implicated in the study was Enovid, the very first oral contraceptive approved by the FDA. The statement (also filed in the folder) reads:
The discovery of synthetic estrogen-progesterone-like drugs which are effective when taken by mouth is one of the major medical advances of our time. Like all potent drugs, they must be treated with respect. Millions of people are taking them for good reason and to discontinue their use arbitrarily would cause untold hardship, if not outright tragedy. It is, therefore, mandatory that all of us be entirely responsible in any reporting of any information on the subject. Such information must be kept in context and in perspective.
The findings reported herein are only one tiny facet of a broad front attack on the enormously complex problem of the biology of cancer. In fact this investigation was conceived and carried out by Dr. McSweeney because of published reports that some breast cancers do respond to treatment with progesterone-estrogen combinations and with the hypothesis that the use of oral contraceptives might be prophylactic treatment for breast cancer. The results were the reverse of those anticipated but are consistent with other observations in the field and indicate that much more work needs to be done on the relationship of hormones to cancer.
However, rats are not people and it must be kept in mind that the reported experiments were carried out in a biological system which is highly sensitive to the effects of hormones on breast cancer.
This being such a measured statement, I have to wonder whether the anonymous letter writer was responding, not to the doctors' statement, but to the crude representation of the study in the popular press. It certainly would not have been the first time that the media had exaggerated or misrepresented scientific studies, and it was, sadly, not the last.

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