Magazine

Lab Report


HUMAN TRIALS

Scientists, Investors, and Patients

in the Quest for a Cure

By Susan Quinn

Perseus -- 295pp -- $26

Debilitating autoimmune diseases, in which the body's immune system attacks healthy tissue, afflict millions of people around the world. A cure for such disorders--which include multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis--has been as elusive as those for cancer or AIDS. In recent years, there have been promising developments that someday may lead to a breakthrough. But most scientists have learned not to expect miracles. In Human Trials: Scientists, Investors, and Patients in the Quest for a Cure, writer Susan Quinn documents one ill-fated search: the story of Howard Weiner, a determined and talented Harvard Medical School professor and the biotech startup he helped found, AutoImmune Inc. The narrative is well written and packed with valuable information--but its stab at analysis falters.

Quinn, the author of Marie Curie: A Life, conducted extensive interviews with patients and scientists during the course of the trials, observed top-level meetings at AutoImmune, and had access to Weiner's extensive personal journals. She writes poignantly of the difficulties of all those involved in drug tests. And she conveys very well the often-harrowing experiences of patients who participated.

Most drug tests, it should be pointed out, do not succeed. And indeed, that turned out to be the case at AutoImmune, where medical success proved harder to come by than the considerable financing needed to fund its lengthy and expensive experiments.

Weiner believed that patients with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis could fight their diseases by taking drugs concocted from the very proteins that their errant immune systems were targeting for attack. On the basis of that premise, AutoImmune developed two drugs: Myloral for MS and Colloral for RA. But in the end, neither drug was any more effective than placebos. Failures such as this are devastating for all concerned. A major problem, as Quinn points out, is the lack of aftercare for patients. "What's going to happen now?" asks Karyn Kraft, an MS patient whose condition at first seemed to improve with Myloral. After she learned of the overall results of the trial, she--and others like her--took a turn for the worse.

The startup also suffered. It was forced to let its nearly 100 scientists go, and by 2000, when Quinn leaves off, CEO Robert C. Bishop is managing what's left of the company's patent portfolio from his home in Pasadena, Calif. Money continues to flow on some patents.

Human Trials fails to provide a real understanding of the issues. Quinn does not really reflect on what she has observed until the final two chapters--and even then, the reader is left wondering what it all means. It's as though the writer, caught up in the excitement at AutoImmune, was unprepared for the failure of the experiments. But that's a minor gripe. Human Trials is a rare work that should be required reading for doctors and investors--and for patients who must decide whether or not to participate in a clinical trial. By Irene M. Kunii


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