A review panel of medical experts has found serious flaws in research conducted by a number of private laboratories which are part of the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) massive chemical testing program.
According to minutes of meetings of the Clearinghouse on Environmental Carcinogens, which was set up last year by NCI, the panel's "data evaluation-risk assessment subgroup" labeled research data in more than 30 chemical projects it has reviewed so far with terms such as "deficient," "inadequate," "questionable" and ""less than ideal."
A spokeswoman for the cancer institute yesterday acknowledged that the controversial chemical bioassay program -- designed to determine how carcinogenic various chemicals are -- has produced a number of flawed research projects.But she said the projects were in some cases 10 years old and were set up in a period when research protocols were less stringent than today's requirements.
"We do not have to throw them out," said the spokesman. "There will be plenty of valid scientific results we will be able to use."
Several members of the panel, however, were sharply critical yesterday of the research that has been produced out of the cancer institute's multimillion-dollar chemical bioassay program.
"It's been a colossal waste of money," said Dr. E. Cuyler Hammond, of the American Cancer Society. Hammond, who is on the panel, listed a wide variety of faulty research practices which he said the group has encountered so far.
"These experiments have had just about everything that could go wrong in them," Hammond said. "We don't know all the details, because a lot of the details of the procedures were never written up."
Dr. Luoise Strong, a panel member who is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston, said the problems the review group has encountered in research data so far are "clearly serious."
She said the most serious consistent problems are the inadequate number of control animals in experiments and the survival rates of the animals used in the tests.
"It's a waste of a tremendous amount of money," said Dr. Sidney Walfe, a panel member, who is director of the public interest Health Research Group and who said he feared that the extended time that the public will be exposed to a number of these chemicals could be "extremely lethal."
The chemical evaluation project --the largest of its kind ever undertaken -- was set up by NCI in the late 1960s. Since then it has grown to include private laboratory tests on 320 chemicals.
Critics of the bioassay project have claimed that the cancer institute has dragged its feet on releasing data on potential carcinogens because of outside political and economic pressures. So far only a relative handful of the tests have reached the review stage, the NCI spokesman said the 112 of the chemical tests are "backlogged" awaiting review.
Among those which have been reviewed so far about three quarters have received negative comments on the research from members of the clearinghouse panel.
At a meeting of the group in November, for example, nine of the 13 tests up for review were subject to favorable comment from panel members. Strong, who was among the reviewers, said the research results raise questions over the cancer agency's ability to run the bloassay project.
In a related event yesterday, Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. said he had ordered a full HEW investigation into the NCI program. On Monday, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) released a federal report critical of NCI for awarding millions of dollars in chemical test contracts to a midwestern research lab whose director is a member of the cancer institute's policy advisory board.