Money Floods in to Fight a Killer

''I don't know junk bonds from junk mail,'' says Dr. Jonathan W. Simons. But the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine oncologist does know all about the power of Michael Milken's money when it comes to battling prostate cancer. Back in the early 1990s, when prostate cancer was seen as ''just one of the diseases of old men that was incurable,'' Simons recalls, he was able to wipe out cancer in rats with a new gene-therapy vaccine approach. But Simons' search for funding came up dry. Total annual prostate cancer spending at the National Institutes of Health was a measly $10 million.

Once Simons got Milken behind his work, though, doors opened quickly. Not only did Milken's Association for the Cure of Cancer of the Prostate (CaP CURE) step in with crucial grants, Milken also jawboned biotech execs into taking on the project. Now, one clinical trial has shown promising results. And with support from biotech company Cell Genesys, larger trials are beginning. ''This is not a cure yet, but it's damned interesting,'' says Simons.

CLINICAL TRIALS. With baby boomers increasingly concerned about prostate cancer, what was once a research backwater is now humming with promise. Total annual federal funding for prostate cancer research has soared to $250 million, with about an additional $20 million coming from CaP CURE. About 80 drugs and therapies are in clinical trials, up from just 3 in 1993. Scientists are convinced they're close to unraveling the biological details of a disease that kills 40,000 Americans each year. And Milken ''has done more to advance the cause'' than anyone, says urologic surgeon William J. Catalona of Washington University in St. Louis.

Milken and CaP CURE have been functioning like venture capitalists, supporting high-risk, unconventional ideas in the hopes some will pay off big. Back in 1995, for instance, Dr. Joel B. Nelson at Johns Hopkins was experimenting with drugs that block a natural substance called endothelin-1, which causes blood vessels to narrow. Not only might the drugs reduce the terrible pain of prostate cancer, Nelson thought, but they also might slow the cancer itself.

But he needed funds, and CaP CURE was the only source willing to take the risk. ''The idea was completely new and untested,'' Nelson explains. ''Without them, it would be dead in the water.'' Nelson gathered enough evidence to attract major support from Abbott Laboratories. Now, Abbott's drug is showing dramatic results in clinical trials.

Another research effort may help explain why Milken, who was given only 12 to 18 months to live back in 1993, beat the odds. With CaP CURE funding, Dr. Charles E. Myers of the University of Virginia has been probing the role of dietary fat. He has found that cancer cells convert a fat called arachidonic acid into a substance they need for survival. Block that pathway, and in the test tube ''every available prostate cancer cell line is dead in two hours,'' he says.

Myers has since won additional grants from the Defense Dept. His results also show that a vegan diet--no meat, no eggs, no dairy products--which slashes levels of arachidonic acid in the blood, may be an effective treatment. Milken himself switched to a low-fat vegan diet back when the idea was still controversial.

Milken's crusade hasn't been without controversy. Some researchers complain that CaP CURE is too focused on the late-stage metastatic disease that Milken has. Others say it shifts gears each time a new hot area of research emerges. And Milken, of course, isn't the only reason prostate cancer research has taken off. Others afflicted with prostate cancer, such as Intel Corp. Chairman Andy Grove, who sits on the board of CaP CURE, and former Senator Bob Dole, have helped raise awareness. ''Milken deserves some credit, but not the majority,'' says prostate-cancer specialist Dr. Otis Brawley at the National Cancer Institute. ''The science all of a sudden became ripe for the picking.''

CaP CURE isn't asking for a piece of any profits that might result from a breakthrough. For Milken, a cure itself would be payoff aplenty.

By John Carey in Washington

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PHOTO: Milken at a CaP CURE Meeting, 1993

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Money Floods in to Fight a Killer

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