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Diary

Alexander Masters’s diary: The idea that could unlock dozens of new cancer drugs

Plus: Being hypnotised into liking maths, and the wonder of my daughter’s third word

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Two million pounds can buy you consideration for a place on a medical trial! Every year untold numbers of potential cancer therapies are abandoned. There is simply not enough money to test all the promising drugs and interventions. To my astonishment, I’ve had an idea about how to curb this appalling waste. I am not a medic, I am a biographer and illustrator, and until two years ago I had no idea what a medical trial was; but my proposal (published in the Wellcome Trust’s new e-magazine Mosaic) has been backed by leading ethicists, doctors, researchers and medical lawyers. The suggestion is this: any rich patient who pays for a human trial of a potential medication should (if they meet the entry criteria for the study) be offered a place on the trial just like any other patient. I call it the dating agency model. It is not a way to give a rich person access to cutting-edge research that the poor can’t afford, because all such early-stage trials have to involve around 20 other patients. The only way the donor can make the trial work is to pay for 19 others to take part. The rich donor is shackled to benevolence. Paul Workman, head of Britain’s Institute for Cancer Research, estimates 95 per cent of possible new treatments for cancer have not been developed because the current funding system is ‘broken’.

Rumours of chicanery ahead of the general election in the marginal seats of rural Sussex. To help the Conservatives win Eastbourne in 2015, the Treasury wants to build a belching new dual carriageway between Lewes and Polegate that will smash through the glorious views over the Low Weald from the South Downs National Park. The road would cost £400 million, blast away one of the greatest rural landscapes in England, destroy the habitats of seven species of bat, and send 25,000 cars a day across a Saxon field pattern undisturbed for a thousand years. There has been no attempt to improve the A27 or any investigation of railway alternatives. Affected communities say they have been excluded from the furtive meetings held in hotels in Worthing and Eastbourne. ‘They’re not the Conservative party, they’re the exterminative party,’ said a farmer to me in despair. And the journey time all this would save? Four minutes.


‘Six, your eyes are very heavy; five, you want to spend all your spare time studying mathematics; four…’ For my last book, a biography of the delightful and eccentric mathematical genius Simon Norton, I went to a hypnotist to see if she could brainwash me into being better at sums. ‘…three, all you want to do is investigate mathematical patterns; two, you cannot open your eyes…’ ‘Yes I can,’ I said, and opened them. It was rubbish, all hypnotism did was make me giggle… or so I thought. In the past two years, I’ve noticed a change. I’ve started to buy calculus textbooks. I lie in bed wondering about directional derivatives. I’ve become irritated with the scientific irrelevance of novels. Yesterday, I counted the 5 in by 3 in pink index cards I’ve been furtively writing out to help me memorise elementary formulae and proofs. I discovered that I have 8,000.

‘EH!’ My daughter, Ida, has said her first word. It means, ‘Now you must say “EH!” back to me, and I will roar with laughter.’ Her second word is ‘Eeeee!’ This means dog, cat, pigeon or hen, but never pheasant. I discovered the source of her third word this morning when carrying her on a familiar walk through one of the ancient woods that the exterminative Conservatives of Eastbourne want to rip open. ‘Itsikah,’ said Ida quietly, looking around the glade. ‘Itsikah, itsikah!’ She waited. For a moment there was silence; then, from high up in an oak, came an answering cry: ‘Itsikah!’ It was a bird. I’m not sure which. ‘EH!’ shrieked Ida in delight.

Off to North America, to discuss how my Dating Agency idea could fund a trial into a potential treatment for an aggressive type of cancer. The work is still at a pre-clinical stage. There is no question yet of recruiting patients. But if a donor were to offer $2 million to push research ahead, and the trial wins ethical and regulatory approval, it is just possible that the new therapeutic could be ready for experimental use in humans in a year. This funding proposal isn’t limited to cancer research, of course. Over lunch today, I was talking to a leading immunotherapist who mentioned, by the bye, that he’d once developed a possible treatment for cancer that used an attenuated component of the Ebola virus to make it more effective. This had the interesting side effect of turning the drug into a potential vaccine against Ebola. ‘And what’s happened to it?’ I asked, astonished. The scientist shrugged. ‘It’s been back there in the freezer since 2008, along with the rest of the things we can’t afford to test in humans.’

Alexander Masters is the author of Stuart: A Life Backwards and Simon: The Genius in my Basement.


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