- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2000

Recently the National Cancer Institute announced the release of one of its most exhaustive and costly studies saying that silicone breast implants don't cause cancer. But odds are, you probably haven't heard this news. And the strange thing is that government officials at NCI don't want you to.

Over the last decade implants have been the cause of thousands of lawsuits from women claiming the product causes innumerable illnesses, including cancer. But had it not been for a disgruntled employee in the NCI press office, even science writers who closely monitor government research probably wouldn't have heard that the product has been given a clean bill of health.

NCI press representative Brian Vastag says he was "forbidden" by his superiors from touting the impending release of this study the way he normally does with other public health research. The way Mr. Vastag was told to deal with this latest study is bizarre, especially considering the scope of the work, the fact that it has cost more than $4 million, that NCI researchers have been working on it since George Bush was president, and that it deals with the important issue of breast cancer.

So Mr. Vastag, who had already announced he was leaving NCI, defied his bosses and e-mailed names in his media Rolodex. "It drives me crazy when tax-funded public health research doesn't make it to the public," he said. Indeed, it would seem as though part of the responsibility of government servants is to publicize a study to prevent further anguish and misdiagnosis by women who believe they're suffering because of implants. Such information would surely be useful in helping to find the true source of their illnesses.

But actually, NCI's attempt to stifle the findings is just the latest development in a project that has been curious from the very beginning. In 1992, an NCI epidemiologist named Louise Brinton began studying implants, determined to make her research about the product the most comprehensive. It would also have the imprimatur of the federal government on it, important since critics of the many studies from private institutions exonerating implants often assert that grant money from manufacturers corrupted those findings.

Ms. Brinton took an especially unusual approach, collaborating with anti-implant activists, including plaintiffs' lawyers and their paid expert witnesses. She even agreed to be a consultant for San Francisco trial attorney LeRoy Hersh, one of the first to win an implant case that went to trial. He wrote to her about the health of at least one of his clients, asking Ms. Brinton about a possible "relationship" between implants and cancer. In one document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Hersh said Ms. Brinton's study represented a "chance to come up with a conclusion which we haven't heretofore had."

Contact between a scientist and those with a vested interest in the outcome of the research doesn't mean a study will be slanted. But the extensive nature of Ms. Brinton's associations with plaintiffs' lawyers which include making presentations before almost two dozen of them where she asked for their advice is highly curious and ethically questionable, especially since Ms. Brinton is a government official. Those on the other side who say implants are safe were never accorded the same treatment by Ms. Brinton.

Ms. Brinton's brazen method is surely turning heads in the scientific community. One document printed on Department of Health and Human Services letterhead that Ms. Brinton circulated to women who were suing manufacturers is generating special attention because it has language that appears more like it was crafted to rally the troops than to produce solid science: "The study provides an opportunity for women who may be suffering as a result of implants to be heard. Now is your chance."

Most in the scientific community who are familiar with Ms. Brinton's technique thought her NCI study would say implants are overwhelmingly unsafe. But even with the deck stacked against implants, as it appears Ms. Brinton has done from the outset, this phase of her study clears the product, at least as far as the risk of breast cancer is concerned. When I first tried to interview Louise Brinton last fall, she refused. She isn't talking about this latest episode, either.

Perhaps the problem is that the results of this study seem to go against the grain of what's politically correct not only in Washington but also in the new standards set for science. Women who want to enlarge their breasts for sex appeal have often been the source of derision from feminists who consider themselves more enlightened. And implant lawsuits have also been especially lucrative for the plaintiffs' bar, attorneys who are key Democratic fund-raisers. Any evidence from the government clearing implants just might not be the most welcome news to either group.

So has official government science been co-opted by some vast left-wing conspiracy? Certainly not. But there is clear evidence that the timing of certain announcements such as the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the abortion pill RU-486 almost a month before a presidential election in which abortion is a divisive issue and the way some products, such as tobacco have been targeted for regulation seem to be manipulated for the best possible political effect. In May, when the part of Ms. Brinton's study dealing with the way implants rupture was published and it showed a higher-than-usual rate, FDA officials went above and beyond the way they normally publicize a study and instead used a left-leaning Washington public relations firm, Fenton Communications, to help trumpet the news to reporters, generating major headlines in newspapers and on TV news.

No such ballyhoo was planned this time. And that does a disservice to all of the American people, but especially the hundreds of thousands of women with breast implants who deserve to know.

John Meroney is associate editor of The American Enterprise magazine.

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