Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the 90-year-old scientific director of the National Foundation for Cancer Research, says he is not bothered by the fact that his foundation-funded cancer research has not gained much recognition among traditional scientists, and that some of his writings have been rejected by the more noted scientific journals.
In fact, he recalled in an interview, after a recent article he wrote was rejected by a leading journal, "We said bravo, had a festival and went out to dinner, because we seemed to be onto something new . . .
"All my papers are rejected because the people who sit on these boards are from an earlier age," he said. "I am from the present age."
Szent-Gyorgyi, winner of a 1937 Nobel Prize for discovering Vitamin C, has proposed a theory that cancer begins at the submolecular level, rather than at the molecular level, which is the basis for most federally funded research. Cancer is caused by a disturbance in the balance between positive and negative electrons, Szent-Gyorgyi postulates.
"It's not a theory, really," he said. "It's more of a philosophy."
He also believes that cancer cells are oxygen-deficient, and could be restored to normal functions if given a compound derived from Vitamin-C.
For his submolecular research, Szent-Gyorgyi received grants totaling $1.9 million from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health between 1956 and 1969. But NIH started turning down his funding requests in 1973.
"I really didn't know how to go on," Szent-Gyorgyi recalled in an interview.
Then came a $25 check from Bethesda businessman Franklin C. Salisbury, the first grant from a cancer foundation that has since collected many millions.
" Salisbury said, 'I want to build something,' " Szent-Gyorgyi recalled.
Szent-Gyorgyi was well launched by 1975, when the NIH turned down another of his proposals "on the basis of its scientific merit," according to an NIH statement.
Today, Szent-Gyorgyi continues to work out of a cluttered laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., on the third floor of a red brick building overlooking the windswept waters of the Martha's Vineyard sound.
The foundation refused to disclose the amount of any individual grant to Szent-Gyorgyi or to any of the other more than 50 recipients it lists in its literature.
But foundation spokesmen said that most scientists now receiving cancer foundation money do not subscribe to the bioelectronic theory, though Szent-Gyorgyi's name is still on foundation letterheads.
Dr. Robert W. Veltri, a foundation-funded scientist at the Biological Corporation of America in West Chester, Pa., said, "That's much of the difficulty the foundation has had in gaining acceptance. Too much reliance is on the bioelectronic theory of cancer."
Much of the more recent research supported by the foundation centers on "free radicals," or single, unpaired electrons sometimes found in cancer tissues (electrons normally travel in pairs, one positive and one negative).
NFCR also funds a group of scientists studying cell biology--the behavior of cells and what makes them divide. Another group applies complex mathematical computations to molecular activity. Still others are testing various compounds and antitumor agents on mouse models.
The foundation has publicized in its own literature and in a film two anticancer compounds, Nafocare-B and an Austrian compound, which it says may be major breakthroughs. Neither has been written about in any of the major scientific journals.
Dr. Veltri is testing Nafocare-B. A combination of acetyl acrolein and Vitamin C, it has been proven effective in fighting the growth of cancer cells in mice, he says.
Veltri said he was not ready to unveil his work to others, waiting instead to be absolutely sure of its success.
The other compound the foundation says is a major advance is the work of two scientists receiving foundation money in Graz, Austria.
According to a promotional film for the foundation, the compound stops cancer cells from multiplying. It has been proven effective in animals, the film says, and when applied to patients with skin cancer. It is still too toxic to be taken internally, the scientists say.
Foundation-funded researchers say the politics of cancer research funding prevents them from getting financial support from traditional sources, such as the National Cancer Institute at NIH.