The "Special Virus Cancer Program" Masquerade

The Special Virus Cancer Program was created at the National Cancer Institute after a flurry of publicity about viruses as a cause of cancer in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Viruses and Cancer, 1962: What They Knew

Although Congress and the public were duped by PR, an exposť in the journal Science revealed that "the SVP is held in rather low esteem among the scientific community, particularly by those best qualified to assess the program's contribution" (Special Virus Cancer Program: Travails of a Biological Moon Shot," by Nicholas Wade. Science 1971 Dec 24;174:1306-1311). A footnote explains that "Apart from officials of the SVCP, almost all scientists interviewed for this article asked that their names not be mentioned, many citing the risk of being denied funds, since, as one scientist said, 'the NCI has a history of vindictiveness.' Almost without exception the scientists quoted are both eminent and active in virology or related fields."

The article continues, "'The SVCP has been extremely ineffective and maybe has even had a negative effect,' says one distinguished cancer researcher. 'I hear nothing but complaints about the SVCP. Its main trouble is that it doesn't have much of an intellectual base; it has Huebner's enormous energies, one very good person - George Todaro - but most of the contractees are pretty mediocre' -- runs the verdict of a well-established biologist. An eminent West Coast virologist complains, 'The SVCP is a masquerade; they make continuous proclamations of progress to justify the vast amounts of money being spent. But the nature of the program is that it excludes people who are highly critical. It has created a kind of stampede in which everyone rushes lemming-like in the same direction, and critical discussion, points of obvious contradiction, are ignored.'"

"The program was launched in 1964, largely on the strength of the association then coming to light between an African cancer known as Burkitt's lymphoma and the herpes-type virus named after Epstein and Barr. But the methodology and intellectual approach of the program, which until 1969 was called the Special Virus Leukemia Program, was inherited from the NCI's chemotherapy program. With the unwritten motto 'Nothing too stupid to test,' the chemotherapy program has handed out some $330 million since 1955 in the search for a magic bullet against cancer, yet has managed to miss discovering many of the more useful anticancer agents in current use."

The cancer chemotherapy program was the special pet of Mary Lasker and Dr. Sidney Farber. This is no doubt the reason that "Nevertheless, NCI officials decided to model other aspects of cancer research on the chemotherapy program, and since the contract mechanism was an essential feature of the planned approach -- how else can a planner be sure of finding others to follow his ideas? -- contracts were built into the ground plan of the cancer virus program."

"...Formally, the SVCP is the extramural research program of the NCI's Office of Viral Oncology, but the same people, though in different capacities, operate both program and office, and the two are, for practical purposes, inseparable. The NCI scientific director for viral oncology and chairman of the SVCP is John B. Moloney. Under Maloney serve three branch chiefs, Robert Manaker, Robert J. Huebner, and George Todaro. The names of the three branches, which, by and large, differ from one another as much as do their respective functions, are the viral biology branch (Manaker), the viral carcinogenesis branch (Huebner), and the viral leukemia and lymphoma branch (Todaro). The three branches conduct some in-house research, which is distinct in theory but not in practice from the extramural research supported by the SVCP. In fact, a fair fraction of SVCP funds are used to support industrial laboratories that serve simply as extensions of the branch chiefs' in-house research facilities. These sums seem to amount to about $5.5 million for Huebner's laboratories, $1.8 million for Todaro's, and none for Manaker's."

The three also controlled large sums of money for specific research objectives (Manaker $10.1 million, and Huebner $9.6 million), in addition to in-house research budgets totalling $4 million. "The total amounts controlled by each branch chief fluctuate quite widely from month to month as contracts are let, axed, or swapped, but a current estimate by Frank J. Rauscher, scientific director for etiology and Moloney's predecessor as head of the SVCP, is that Manaker controls $9 million, Huebner $7.5 million, and Todaro $6 million. Probably few individuals in the history of biological research have had such unfettered control over so much money... Although all contracts awarded by the SVCP are reviewed by the segment working groups, on which outside scientists are represented, these committees are said to function as rubber stamps for decisions already made by SVCP administrators."

"Almost universal is the criticism that, for lack of outside advice and the checks and balances that govern other research programs, the principle officers of the SVCP have too much power. 'I feel enormous uneasiness about the power the branch chiefs wield,' says a virologist under contract to the SVCP. 'It's just plain wrong. If some check cannot be put on them, then we are going to see an incredible fiasco should their judgment prove wrong.' Huebner, Todaro, and Manaker each control sums of money that equal or exceed the $6 million disposed of by the entire NIH virology study section in fiscal 1971... The SVCP's exclusive reliance on contracts is considered one of its more unpopular features in the academic world. One virologist explains, 'Most of the people making the top decisions at the SVCP are not top scientists. They are allocating enormous amounts of money on the basis of relatively little knowledge. But to make scientific decisions of this nature is a complicated and chancy business. The reason why the peer review system grew up is that no one individual can make these decisions intelligently."

"Academic scientists point out that most of the important discoveries in cancer virology made in recent years have come from scientists working on grants, not SVCP contracts. 'If you delete most of the work financed under contract to the SVCP, we would almost as far along the road as we are now,' is the verdict of one well-known virologist. 'There have been lots of advances lately, but I don't know if I could assign any of them to this particular program,' says a scientist intimately acquainted with the program's affairs. Another intimate of the SVCP concludes that nothing done on contract could not have been done on research grants at one-sixth to one-tenth the cost."

Contractors served as members of the panels which approved their own contracts. "The membership of Huebner's working panel, as approved by Moloney, Rauscher, and [NCI director] Baker, is as follows: Maurice Green, St. Louis University, holder of a $750,000 contract from Huebner's segment; Leonard Hayflick, Stanford University, holder of a $175,000 contract from Huebner's segment; Karl Hellstrom, University of Washington, holder of an $83,000 contract from Huebner's segment; Edwin Lennette, California Department of Public Health, holder of a $33,000 contract from Huebner's segment; Hans Meier, Jackson Laboratories, holder of a $299,000 contract from Huebner's segment; Joseph Melnick, Baylor University, holder of an $800,000 contract from Manaker's segment; and two NCI staff members. The panel's one independent voice is Wallace P. Rowe of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases."

"The disadvantages of Huebner's dual role as scientist and administrator is that he is put in the position of awarding or denying research support in a field in which he has an active personal interest. He and Todaro are felt by many scientists involved in SVCP to be more concerned with the success of their own research interests than with the welfare of the program as a whole. 'Huebner is very active at trying to get the best part of every pie. I have heard him pooh-pooh things simply because they weren't part of his program,' says one SVCP contractor. Many virologists are alarmed at the 'unidirectional' approach of the SVCP, or at least the Huebner-Todaro part of it, which seems designed almost exclusively to provide support for the oncogene theory, a set of ideas that have been vigorously espoused by Huebner."

For the last year and a half, the Huebner-Todaro parts of the SVCP heavily backed research on reverse transcriptase, which was discovered by Howard Temin and David Baltimore while not on SVCP funding. "Rauscher proudly claims that the SVCP made available $4.5 million of virus for researchers studying the enzyme. 'It was because of this that all this terrible work appeared in the last year,' says a scientist prominent in the reverse transcriptase field. Several virologists believe that under a grant program the reverse transcriptase would have unfolded at a slower but sounder pace. There seems to be greater consensus that Huebner's fantastically expensive work on viral gs antigens -- to make 1 gram of antigen, which is enough to raise antibodies in ten guinea pigs, costs about $1 million -- would stand little chance of being funded under a grant program and is a plus for the contract mechanism."

Special Virus Cancer Program - Science 1971 / UCSF (pdf, 6 pp)
The Oncogene Theory / NCI

Inherited "switched-off" RNA tumor virus oncogenes as determinants of cancer. Point of View, by R.J. Huebner. Bulletin of the U.I.C.C. Dec. 1969.

UICC Bulletin, 1969 / UCSF (pdf, 2 pp)

'C Particle' - A Unified Theory of Cancer. By Lee Edson. New York Times Magazine, March 7, 1971.

NY Times Magazine, 1971 / UCSF (pdf, 5 pp)


The NCI's Special Virus Cancer Program supported the discovery of over 100 viruses which cause cancer in anaimals, but the three purported human cancer viruses disappeared into oblivion. The article asserts that "SVCP contractors (including Huebner before he joined the program), helped to largely rule out DNA viruses, such as the 31 adenoviruses (which are oncogenic in animals), as causes of cancer in man." It is not clear what body of existing evidence supported such a definitive claim, especially considering that human papillomavirus, which is now known to cause human cervical and other cancers, is a DNA virus. And, the Zinder Committee noted in 1974 that "It scarrcely supports any work in this area and only recently has gotten seriously involved with the DNA viruses such as herpes."

The Zinder Committee Report on the NCI Special Virus Cancer Program

The work published under Huebner's name from 1965 through 1971 was overwhelmingly performed in mice, rats, hamsters, cats, dogs, and other beasts, with viruses irrelevant to human infections (much like the work of Temin). Huebner's big contractor, Maurice Green, published numerous studies relating to mechnisms of carcinogenesis of DNA viruses, including adenoviruses, but these lacked epidemiological evidence concerning humans. The work published under Hayflick's name dealt primarily with mycoplasmas, with a rare foray into their possible role in leukemia. Under Lennette's name were studies on a multitude of viruses of public health interest, but very little relating to carcinogenesis. Hellstrom investigated cellular immunity to tumors. Meier's work was largely on leukemia.

The major SVCP-funded effort for this group to date directly relating to human cancer appears to have been "Serologic surveys of human cancer patients for antibodies to adenovirus T antigens" (Am J Epidemiol 1970 May;91(5):500-509. RV Gilden, J Kern, YK Li, F Rapp, JL Melnick, JL Riggs, EH Lennette, B Zbar, HJ Rapp, HC Turner, RJ Huebner). They found that "the prevalence of antibodies against the adenovirus tumor antigens in the sera from cancer patients does not differ from the prevalence of antibodies in a control group." However, the 126 patients had 30 different kinds of cancer, some of which are now known to be caused by HPV, EBV, and Helicobacter pylori. There were only 19 breast cancer patients, the largest group with a still presumably non-infectious etiology, and 12 colon cancer patients, and only 8 lung cancers (of all types). Also, these so-called "tumor antigens" are not specific for tumors: "[I]t is also present in the sera of humans acutely infected by the virus." In animal experiments, T antigen is not always detectable even when there is an adenovirus-induced tumor. So the appropriiateness of this form of testing is doubtful.

This study is similar to other studies funded by the National Cancer Institute which were published a couple of years earlier (Reactivity of human sera with adenovirus type-12 hamster tumor antigens in the complement-fixation test. GL Van Hoosier Jr, JJ Trentin. J Nat Cancer Inst 1968 Feb;40(2):249-253; Attempts to find human adenovirus type-12 tumor antigens in human tumors. KJ McCormick, GL Van Hoosier, JJ Trentin. J Nat Cancer Inst 1968 Feb;40(2):255-261); and by the American Cancer society and National Institutes of Health (Search for adenovirus etiology of human oral and pharyngeal tumors. SRS Rangan, AL Mukherjee, FB Bang. Int J Cancer 1968 Nov 15;3(6):819-828), to which the same criticisms apply.

Frank J. Rauscher was later appointed NCI director, which he resigned to become the vice president of research for the American Cancer Society for a larger salary. Gio B. Gori, widely denounced as a "tobacco industry stooge," was Rauscher's planning director during this period. In fact, Gori was very much a crony of the late Ernst L. Wynder, of the impeccably health fascist American Health Foundation.

Leonard Hayflick was on the American Cancer Society's Advisory Committee on Virology and Cell Biology in 1976 (pp. 30-33). He was a correspondent of Florence Mahoney from 1973 to 1981.

Florence Mahoney papers collection / NIH
ACS Annual Report, 1976 / UCSF (pdf, 36 pp)

The Special Virus Cancer Program was ended in the late 1970s, at behest of insiders who were with the NCI, in the Special Virus Cancer Program, or contracted to the Special Virus Cancer Program.

The Big Push to Suppress Virus Work

The SVCP and the CTR

The Robert J. Heubner in this article is the same one who told the tobacco industry that he believed cancer is caused by viruses, and that if certain key researchers were given sufficient financial support (ca. $2 million), the cancer virus link would be proven in two years.

Adenovirus Type 12-Rat Embryo Transformation System. Aaron E. Freeman, Paul H. Black, Ronald Wolford, and Robert J. Huebner. J Virol 1967 Apr;1(2):362–367. "Adenovirus type 12 (Huie) inoculated into cultures of primary whole rat embryo produced foci of morphologically altered cells. The number and identification of these transformed areas was dependent upon the calcium concentration of the medium; more foci appeared in 0.1 mm than in 1.8 mm calcium. Cell lines derived from these inoculated cultures did not yield infectious virus, and also were similar to cell lines derived from adenovirus type 12-induced tumors with respect to morphology, presence of virus-specific tumor antigen, and oncogenicity. Dose-response curves revealed that transformation of rat embryo cells by adenovirus type 12 followed one-hit kinetics, and that approximately 7 ◊ 105 infectious virus particles were required for one transformation event. Our results indicate that the transformation system described for adenovirus type 12 is reproducible, and that previous difficulties experienced in developing such a system may well be explained by the higher calcium concentration of the tissue culture media used."

Freeman / J Virol 1967 full article (pdf, 6pp)

Huebner served on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Council for Tobacco Research from 1968 to 1981, and a number of studies were funded by both the SVCP and the CTR. Those studies reflected Heubner's interest in RNA viruses, particularly those that infect animals other than humans, such as:

Chemical induction of subcutaneous tumors in BALB/c and Swiss mice infected with wild type C RNA viruses derived from BALB/c tissues. RA Salerno, GM Ramm, CE Whitmore. Cancer Res 1973 Jan;:69-77.

Salerno / Cancer Res 1973 full article / UCSF (pdf, 9 pp)

Correlation of inducibility of aryl hydrocarbon hydroxylase with susceptibility to 3-methylcholanthrene-induced lung cancers. RE Kouri, LH Billups, TH Rude, CE Whitmire, B Sass, CJ Henry. Cancer Letter 1980 Jun;9(4):277-284. Although it had nothing to do with cancer viruses, this was funded by the Special Virus Cancer Program of the National Cancer Institute as well as by the CTR. Co-author Carol J. Henry, then with Microbiological Associates, was receiving large amounts of funding from the CTR for a mouse inhalation study whose termination was later claimed by anti-smoking activists to be proof of CTR suppression of research. After leaving MA, Henry became Chief of Toxicology of ICF Incorporated, which in 1988 handled the illegal pass-through contracts to anti-smoking activists to write the key chapters of the EPA's ETS report. In 1993, she was at the California EPA as Director of Proposition 65 Implementation, and in 1998 testified for the anti-smokers in an ETS personal injury suit.

Kouri - Cancer Lett 1980 full article / UCSF (pdf, 8 pp)

Activation and isolation of hamster-specific C-Type RNA viruses from tumors induced by cell cultures transformed by chemical carcinogens. Aaron E. Freeman, GJ Kelloff, RV Gilden, WT Lane, AP Swain, RJ Huebner. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1971 Oct;68(10):2386–2390. This was funded by the NIH and the CTR.

Freeman - PNAS 1971 full article / PubMed Central

Robert J. Huebner, M.D.: A Virologist's Odyssey. By Edward A. Beernan M.D., F.A.C.P. Office of NIH History, 2005.

Beernan, 2005 / National Institutes of Health (pdf, 670 pp)

Search: Huebner RJ / PubMed

Gio Batta Gori

Gori was Assistant to the President for Technical Affairs, Director of Quality Control, and Director of Production at Microbiological Associates from 1962 to 1965. He was Head of the Virology, Immunology, and Toxicology Sections at Melpar Inc., Falls Church, Va., from 1965-67; and Director of the Biological Research Laboratory at Litton Systems, Inc., Bethesda, Md., from 1967-68. He was Director of the Smoking and Health Program of National Cancer Institute from 1968 to 1980 [whose interest was only in chemical carcinogenesis, and in which Ernst Wynder's American Health Foundation monopolized the subject -cast] Gori was Project Director and/or Chief Author of six reports for the Moloney Leukemia Virus Progam by Melpar during 1965-66.

Dr. Gio Batta Gori CV, post-1990 / UCSF (pdf, 23 pp)

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cast 07-23-06