“We aren’t making any progress in prevention that I know of. We are in treatment. We’re winning there.”

Emil (Jay) Freireich, head of the Dept. of Developmental Therapeutics at M.D. Anderson, challenged the popular concept that prevention is the key to substantially reducing the number of cancer deaths. Freireich chaired the session on future developments at the National Conference on Care of the Child with Cancer in Boston this week. His attack on advocates of stepped up prevention research was made at a press conference prior to the session.

“Senator McGovern goes on national television and says all we have to do to stop cancer is to eat the right food,” Freireich said. “That’s stupid . People will rush out to the health food stores now, buy tons of sunflower seeds and all that good stuff, and it won’t help them a bit.

“I would like to say one thing to Senator McGovern. There is one major proven human carcinogen. Cigarettes are the overwhelming cause of lung cancer. Why doesn’t he do something about that? More than half of all cancer is caused by cigarettes, so the President says that cigarettes are getting better every day, and so does Gio Gori.”

(Sen. McGovern, chairman of the Committee on Nutrition, has criticized NCI for spending too much money on treatment research and not enough on nutrition.)

“To prevent cancer caused by cigarettes, you have to do the prevention for 20 years,” Freireich continued. “What about the rest of those poor bastards who’ve been smoking all the time? You have to do something for them.

“What McGovern is talking about is reduction in money for treatment research. He’s not asking for additional money for prevention or nutrition. He’s voting for a reduction in treatment research.

“The nice thing about treatment research and the reason why it should be the first priority is that it deals with the problem.”

Freireich disputed the contention by prevention advocates that prevention has been responsible for all the major victories against disease . “Look what antibiotics have done,” he said. “That is treatment, and it has eliminated deaths from infectious disease. Prevention has been effective in a few major diseases–polio, smallpox, malaria, although malaria is a public health problem, not a medical problem. Treatment is the proven way to deal with the health problem. It’s the way we eliminated deaths from infectious disease, and it is the way we’re going to deal with cancer.”

Freireich said that the cancer research community “is in the midst of a backlash. People are unhappy that we haven’t cured cancer. The dramatic progress in treating childhood tumors indicates that we can have an impact on other areas.

“Cancer is our worst health problem, but it is still rare, relative to the entire population. Prevention is at an enormous disadvantage of having to be applied to everyone. There are damn few screens that work.”

Referring to the NCI budget, in which NCI requested $1 billion . the President requested $130 million less, Freireich said, “The government tells us there are priorities higher than health. I’ve always wondered what they are. Money is the guts of cancer research. We can’t operate at a profit.”

Donald Pinkel, Midwest Children’s Cancer Center, at the same press conference called for establishment of regional cancer centers specializing in pediatric oncology. Some of the 20 existing comprehensive cancer centers do serve their regions in that capacity, he said, “but some are not strong in pediatrics.”