Alexander Masters

Diary - 27 September 2012

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In Scandinavia, gene therapists have invented a virus that may treat the cancer that killed multi-billionaire Steve Jobs — but are going to have to throw it out, because of lack of cash. I am in Uppsala, Sweden, sitting among pipettes and centrifuges, helping the professor in charge to set up a rescue fund for this kindly microbe. My friend and co-writer, the biographer Dido Davies, has been diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer or ‘Steve Jobs Disease’, and Professor Essand’s virus makes neuroendocrine tumours melt away — at least, in lab mice. It is not clear if this will happen in humans; the only way to find out is to run clinical trials. But there is not enough money in Prof Essand’s lab to do this. Unless we can find a way to bring in the cash, he may have to incinerate the therapy without even testing it. Steve Jobs had been one of the richest people in the world and this ‘oncolytic’ virus might have helped him. ‘How much money do you need?’ I’d asked Prof Essand when I found out about his work. ‘A million pounds?’ he’d said. ‘Two million, to test a really good version.’ Two million pounds: less than Apple earns in seven minutes.

Önska lycka till den vacker bruden, Katarina, och den stilige brudgrumen, Adam! Beside the lab freezer containing kindly microbe, Prof Essand and I devise a wedding speech, in Swedish. My girlfriend’s brother is marrying a Swede in Stockholm, and wedding receptions here are like Quaker meetings spiced up with vodka and dancing: anyone who feels so moved can speak, and I will feel so moved. It is a welcome break from thinking about anti-cancer viruses. Adam’s other sister is the soprano Anna Dennis. Together, she and her boyfriend, the counter-tenor William Towers, sing Pur ti miro, the final duet from Monteverdi’s Poppea. I am so moved by the glory of the singing that I can barely speak. I am almost crying. ‘So, you are interested in new cancer treatments?’ whispers a Swede standing to my right, bringing me back to earth with a bump. He points at my lapel. I’ve forgotten to take off the badge the Uppsala University fundraising office has designed. Against a background of a virus exploding from a tumour cell, it says ‘I ª #oncolyticvirusfund’.

Flora and I have rented a new house in the South Downs. We can’t afford to buy even a two-bed dump in foulest Gants Hill, and the result is that we live in nice places. We give up all thoughts of taking responsibility for burst boilers and leaking roofs, and go deep into Sussex to sit in somebody else’s four-bed farmhouse, in front of somebody else’s log fire and spend our weekends pottering through somebody else’s woodland and fields of sheep. An issue of regular concern to the parish council down here is what goes on in the village toilet. It is under the Long Man, a 160-foot hill carving that many people suspect was put there by the prudish Victorians, because he’s got no phallus. He’s the Long Eunuch. The pagan acts that take place in this lavatory under his sexless gaze are never mentioned by name in the delicate locutions of the parish magazine.

Blue Tit … Blue Tit, those two are Great Tits …’ Two friends from Manhattan had come to visit. To educate Gerry and Ben in the gentle ways of the British countryside, I was naming the birds squabbling around the feeder outside our kitchen window. ‘It is considered childish to giggle,’ I added sternly. ‘“Tit” comes from the old English word for “small”.’ A pale brown bird with a pink head like a cyclist’s helmet thwacked against the peanut holder and sent the tits scattering. ‘Nut-hatch,’ I said, to more chuckles. But at that moment the star arrived, its lurid red head darting and thrusting, banging at the feed mesh: ‘Woodpecker!’ Ben pointed at a dun-coloured bird in the courtyard, plucking at the woodlice. At last, a bird he recognised. ‘And there’s the conclusion of it all: thrush.’

My new office is the balcony of the Wetherspoon’s pub in Victoria train station, opposite the Krispy Kreme Donut stall. This is where I meet my two Kingston University creative writing students — one is a barmaid and the other an airline trolley dolly. Both are remarkably promising novelists. It’s also where I meet the campaign team I’ve just set up with the Dominic Nutt, a journalist and international aid worker who also has neuroendocrine cancer, and the NET Patient Foundation. Two million pounds to find out if this new anti-cancer virus for Steve Jobs Disease is beneficial to humans: we’re going to try to raise the money ourselves. If it does work, it could benefit not just the thousands of people with NETs, but other cancer patients too, because the therapy can be modified to attack other types of tumour. This is a big time of year in the world of NETs: 5 October is the first anniversary of the death of Steve Jobs. It is also Dido’s birthday.