A scientist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Boise has made a discovery that could save the lives of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Dr. Richard Olson has discovered why the common anti-cancer drug Adriamycin can cause heart failure and death at doses high enough to eradicate tumors."People have been looking for 20 years for the answer to why it causes heart failure," he said.

Olson is chief of cardiovascular pharmacology at the VA hospital. He also is a research associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

He found that after patients receive injections of Adriamycin, their bodies change the drug into another substance. That substance, which Olson named Adriamycinol, is up to 1,000 times more toxic to the heart than Adriamycin. With each dose of Adriamycin, the byproduct builds up in patients' hearts.

His findings will appear in a spring issue of "Proceedings, National Academy of Sciences."

Olson has spent a long time testing the chemical on rabbit-heart tissues. But the road between the laboratory and the patient is lengthy. In five or six years, Olson said, he may be ready for human tests of substances that block the highly toxic byproduct of Adriamycin.

Research on the cancer drug is being conducted with help from scientists at Harvard Medical School and Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.