WASHINGTON — A study of unorthodox treatments for cancer ranging from acupuncture to faith healing is stirring controversy at the Office of Technology Assessment, an influential agency which advises Congress on cutting-edge technological developments.
Advocates of alternative cancer therapies have charged that the official at OTA who is overseeing the study is likely to be biased because of his previous experience with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, a bastion of conventional cancer treatment.
They also have raised conflict-of-interest allegations over OTA officials' private holdings of stock in biomedical firms involved or interested in marketing products for cancer diagnosis and treatment.
At stake in the battle is a full-scale, 18-month OTA assessment requested by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over health matters.
Unorthodox cancer treatments to be investigated range from Laetrile and other drugs to special diets, herbs, acupuncture, electromagnetic devices, meditation and faith healing.
Also, a group of three senators and 37 House members led by Rep. Guy V. Molinari (R-N.Y.), has asked OTA to examine the "immuno-augmentative" therapy, known as IAT, being pioneered by a cancer clinic in Freeport, the Bahamas. IAT is supposed to boost the body's immune system to fight cancer.
"Despite improvements in treatment for some forms of cancer, progress, as measured in terms of long-term survival, has been slow at best," Dingell said in a letter to OTA Director John H. Gibbons requesting the assessment.
Citing the various unorthodox treatments being tried, Dingell observed that "many of these treatments may be without benefit, some may actually be harmful, and some, probably a small number, may have value. However, there is a general lack of objective information about them, thus making rational decisions about such alternative therapies extremely difficult."
Alternative cancer therapy advocates assailing OTA's handling of the study include the National Health Federation, a group based in Monrovia, Calif.; the Coalition for Alternatives in Nutrition and Healthcare, Richlandtown, Pa.; and the IAT Patients Assn., based in Otho, Iowa.
They have undertaken letter-writing campaigns aimed at members of Congress and OTA directly.
A letter circulated by the National Health Federation, for example, criticized oversight of the study by Dr. Roger Herdman, who was a vice president at Sloan-Kettering before taking over OTA's Health and Life Sciences Division.
"Sloan-Kettering is the enemy of non-traditional cancer therapies," the group said. "It is unthinkable that OTA would place a necessarily biased former vice president of Sloan-Kettering in charge of this study and expect anyone to give it credibility."
The group, which describes itself as a nonprofit, nutritionally oriented organization advocating freedom of choice in health care, also has charged that Herdman's ownership of stock in a biomedical company, Oncogene Science Inc., raises conflict-of-interest questions.
Herdman acknowledged that he owns 30,000 shares of Oncogene Science stock, worth approximately $75,000.
According to Herdman, the company manufactures a line of research chemicals and is applying to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to market a DNA-based substance intended for diagnosis of chronic leukemia.
"It would like to get into the cancer drug business but it doesn't have any at the moment," Herdman said in an interview.
Disclosed His Holdings
However, he said his ownership of the stock had been properly disclosed on annual financial-disclosure forms filed with the secretary of the Senate. Herdman contended that holding of the biomedical stock would "absolutely not" affect his supervision of the unorthodox cancer treatments study.
"I don't think it's a problem," he said. "If it turns out that our board (the congressional Technology Assessment Board, which oversees OTA) really is worried about that, I'll just have to dispose of the stock."
Herdman also insisted that his previous experience with Sloan-Kettering would not bias the study.
Gibbons, OTA's director, called the allegations against Herdman and the unorthodox treatments study "a bum rap."
"We have so many checks and balances in the way we do our review process that we don't have to rely on what secretly may lie in the heart of hearts of our analysts," he said.
Counsel to Review Reports
At the same time, Gibbons said that in response to the criticism he was asking OTA's general counsel to review financial disclosure reports filed by employees. If the counsel spots a possible problem, he will consult about it with the employee involved and Gibbons, the director said.
Also defending Herdman against the critics was Rosemary Stevens, a University of Pennsylvania professor who heads a 19-member advisory panel of outside experts for the unorthodox cancer treatments study.
She termed "absurd and hurtful" the charge that Herdman would be biased because of his earlier experience with Sloan-Kettering.
"We are trying to be as fair and impartial as possible, taking into account a wide spectrum of views," Stevens said. "I think this is a very important and exciting time to explore all avenues and approaches."