The Genetech Inc. story may be the greatest medical hype since swine flu. This is the gene-splicing company whose stock, when put on the market only recently, suddenly jumped to more than a half-billion dollars. Quite an accomplishment for a tiny company whose profits were only $80,000 the first six months of the year.
Aside from the stock market's normal, healthy greed, the reason for the frenzy to buy Genentech shares arises from what some members of the medical professions have been stirring up. Genetech, a company which specializes in still exotic, biological high tech, had been pre-sold by medical researchers who ballyhoo untested, highly experimental drugs and therapeutic hardware. They have created an atmosphere that encourages investors to believe any firm playing around with this year's hot new hunch in medicine is a bettable winner at the cash register.
If it later turns out that such companies are financial terminal cases, beyond the help of any business physicians, well, that's tough for the buyer. Wall Street is a bazaar where the fakirs make their living by making their customers believe foolish stories. So be it.
The conduct of medical researchers who lend themselves to the illusions created by financial artificers is not to be so lightly shrugged off. One wonders if some of the Ph.D.s and M.D.s who seem to call a press conference every afternoon when they leave the laboratory have a direct, personal and monied interest in today's lifesaving new invention.
Let's trust they don't, but why this almost daily procession of announcements of major medical breakthroughs? A generation ago this kind of self-advertising would have been considered unethical conduct for medical researchers. Now it no longer is, as the handling of the interferon sensation testifies.
Interferon, you may remember, burst upon our television screens a few months ago. It is a biological development that was going to cure cancer and do any number of other things that would prolong life. To have listened to all the enthusiastic gush was to believe that we'd all be around long enough to take Buck Rogers for a walk in a space perambulator.
In truth no one knows if interferon can cure warts. It is very new: it has been used on so few patients that no conclusions as to its efficacy can be made. They don't even know what size doses to use yet.
That didn't discourage any number of persons in white smocks from making their debuts before the cameras to conjure up rose-hued dreams of therapeutic miracles. Not that they didn't say that things were still rather iffy and experimental, but that part got said rather quickly.
Thousands of people must have been led to believe a cancer cure had been found. Such a discovery is a matter of only academic interest unless you have the disease or a loved one does. Then the truth is heartbreaking. This careless and unthinking public presentation of the possibilities of interferon must have broken the hope and hearts of a lot of people who didn't need to have their sadness and pain compounded by men and women of science who should know better.
What are the motives of researchers going public with premature announcements about untested or incompletely tested medicines and medical machines? Some must be prompted by dreams of glory, of Nobel prizes. For others building a fire of public expectation may be part of the strategy of the grantsmanship game. You'll get more money out of the government after you've got a lot of people screaming that lives are more important than money and this or that researcher is being starved by the bureaucrats. Any grant-giving body that withheld money to pursue studies on interferon would very quickly be accused of having joined the wrong side on the war against cancer.
The mass media can take some of the blame. Is there a television or radio station, a newspaper or a magazine without a resident physician whose main job appears to be huckstering "breakthroughs," "discoveries" and "advances" in man's fight against you-fill-in-the-name? A couple of years later most of this progress has been discredited, disproved and discarded, but Dr. Blaterine Blutch, your radio physician, is busy touting the public on to some new disappointment.
They get away with it because they can write M.D. after their names. But you know what the wise say -- even if a duck yodels it still sounds like a quack.