The Zinder Committee Report on the NCI Virus Cancer Program

Because widespread complaints continued about the National Cancer Institute's Virus Cancer Program, in March of 1973 a committee was appointed by the National Cancer Advisory Board to investigate. The committee was composed of scientists who were not directly involved in cancer virus research, and chaired by Norton Zinder of Rockefeller University. The board refused to accept the first draft of the committee's report because it was so critical.

(From: "Cancer: Select Committee Calls Virus Program a Closed Shop," by Barbara J. Culliton; Science 1973 Dec 14;182(4117):1110-1112): "The report begins by stating that the committee fully accepts the probability that viruses cause at least some human cancers and that it believes studies in virology can lead to a basic understanding of a tumor cell. It concludes that the VCP is, therefore, a perfectly sensible kind of program to have and states quite explicitly that it should be continued. Just the same, the report, in the committee's own judgment, has a decidedly 'negative tone.'"

"Should this single funding instrument [the VCP] as it currently operates [italics] have so large a fraction of the resources that support cancer virology at its disposal? It is the view of this ad hoc committee that the answer to this question is 'no.'" And, "Its main bone of contention is that the Virus Cancer Program is a closed shop. Too few scientists participate. Too few people, all on friendly terms with each other, are in charge of handing out large sums of money to each other. It's too exclusive, too incestuous."

Culliton, 1973 / UCSF-Legacy

The Zinder Committee report was finally accepted by the cancer board in March of 1974. From "Virus Cancer Program: Review Panel Stands By Criticism," by Barbara J. Culliton, Science 1974 Apr 12;184(4133):143-145: "First, the committee said, the VCP is too expensive. (It costs around $50 million to $60 million a year and consumes slightly more than 10 percent of the total NCI budget.) Second, the program must be opened up to the scientific community. At present, it is run by a handful of persons who have undue control over large amounts of money, which goes only to a limited number of laboratories. Furthermore, the individuals who award contracts are in a position to award them to each other, which somehow does not seem quite right. The committee calls for new management practices and a good stiff measure of peer review by outside scientists."

Also, "the committee suggested that the VCP terminate all of its existing contracts within the next three years -- as they expire -- and start over again with a clean slate. The cancer institute, for reasons Zinder says he still does not understand, claims it would be illegal to do that."

"The committee reviewed the science as well as the organization of the Virus Cancer Program. Many of those in administrative control of the VCP are men whose careers are intimately linked to the idea that there is a relationship between certain RNA viruses and human cancer. Much of the research the program supports is aimed at substantiating this idea. VCP support of research on DNA viruses is comparatively small. The committee recommends ' integrated program with a built-in series of checks and balances to prevent the special notions of particular individuals from carrying the day. For example, should the first definitive [human] cancer virus turn out to be a papova virus [one of many suspect DNA viruses], the VCP would be in a strange position. It scarcely supports any work in this area and only recently has gotten seriously involved with the DNA viruses such as herpes,' Zinder said in an opening statement to the board."

"Commenting on the quality of research in general, Zinder declared, 'Our own analysis is that about 50 percent of the program is supportable at some level.' What he and his committee would like to see is an opening up of the program so that more virologists could be supported. Along these lines, it reviewed all of the grant applications in virology that have been submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (excluding the VCP) and to the American Cancer Society. Its conclusion is that all of those grant applications that are 'meritorious' but unfunded could be supported for $5 million to $6 million. Were that to happen, a lot of criticism would be stilled. Board member James Watson, of Harvard University and Cold Spring Harbor, who has been one of the VCP's more vociferous opponents, agrees that such an expansion would help. 'Bad feelings about the VCP exist because there are a lot of virologists who share the same goals. The ones in the VCP were very rich. The others, who are just as good, were very poor.'" The committee blamed the control by Robert J. Huebner, George Todaro, and Robert Manaker in particular for this.

Members of the Ad Hoc Advisory Subcommittee for the Special Virus Cancer Program. NCI Press Release, April 17, 1973.

SVCP Ad Hoc Subcommittee, 1973 / UCSF-Legacy

The National Cancer Advisory Board

Members of the National Cancer Advisory Board which finally receved the Zinder Committee report included Elmer H. Bobst, Mrs. Mary Lasker, Laurance S. Rockefeller, et al. Their report to the President was not burdened with detail. (Report of the National Cancer Advisory Board, Sep. 5, 1974.)

NCAB Report, 1974 / UCSF-Legacy


"Dr. John B. Moloney, present head of the virus-cancer program, said its five original working groups of scientist-administrators had been dissolved and were being replaced by two new ones. In these, scientists from outside the National Cancer Institute will be represented heavily and the working rules will be such as to prevent conflict of interest, Dr. Mahoney said." (National Cancer Institute Reorganizing 10-Year-Old Viral Research Program. By Howard M. Schmeck Jr. The New York Times, June 19, 1974.)

New York Times, 1974 / UCSF-Legacy

However, there followed a big push to suppress cancer virus work, accompanied by media propaganda claiming that scientists no longer believed that viruses cause cancer.

The Big Push to Suppress Virus Cancer Work

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cast 01-11-04