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An Irreplaceable Man

The most incisive political journalist of our time, Alexander Cockburn, died on Friday, July 19.

We were friends for many years. Shellacked on a file cabinet in the garage is a photo of Alex in the summer of 1990 taking a picture of a gravestone in Trinidad, CA.  We were on our way to or from the Redwood Summer protest in Samoa. The stone said

E.B. Schnaubelt
Born April 5, 1855,
Died May 22, 1913
Murdered by Capitalism

Alex had heard about Schnaubelt’s gravestone and wanted to pay homage. He later wrote (in The Golden Age is in Us),  “E.B. had set up a lumber mill as a workers’ co-op but then the big companies cheated him out of the land where the mill stood, though he still owned the plant. One night Schnaubelt, living nearby, thought he heard someone messing with his machinery. He went to investigate and a watchman hired by the companies shot him dead. His widow put up the stone and moved away.”

Alex himself may have been murdered by Capitalism (in which case Capitalism could claim self-defense). We’re all being massively bombarded by radiation and exposed to carcinogens in the air, the water, the food, the receipt at the gas station…and it’s  all in the pursuit of profit. America’s “War on cancer” does not mean identifying and eliminating the causes of cancer but “the search for the cure.”  Our corporate masters don’t want to stop the plague by closing their nuclear power plants and eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in their production processes. That would cut into profits. They want to fight the war on cancer inside our bodies. That generates profits.

The day before Alex died the New York Times ran a front page article, “Genetic Aberrations Seen as Path to Stop Colon Cancer,” by Gina Kolata, a Search-for-the-Cure cheerleader. (Gina Kolata’s sister Judi Bari was an Eliminate-the-Causes Ringleader. It was Bari who had organized the action in Samoa that led us to Schnaubelt’s grave. Judi died of breast cancer years ago.)

Kolata was enthusing over a paper published in Nature by Raju Kucherlapati of Harvard Medical School and co-authored by “nearly every… leading scientist in colon cancer genomics.”  The paper describes a new approach to treatment: identifying the mutant genes driving a given tumor and finding drugs that can stop them. Kolata calls Kucherlapati’s colon cancer study “the first part of a sweeping effort that is expected to produce a flood of discoveries for a wide range of cancer.”  She quotes him saying, “We have an opportunity to completely change the landscape.”

Another Harvard co-author calls the paper “transformative.”

Kolata writes: “For Dr. Kucherlapati, some of the most intriguing discoveries point to new treatment possibilities. For example, about 5 percent of the colon cancer tumors studied had extra copies of a gene, ERBB2, as do many berate cancer tumors. A drug, Herceptin, which greatly helps breast cancer patients with too many ERBB2 genes, might also help cancer patients with the same aberration. Scientists say they would like to put colon cancer patients with the mutation in clinical trials testing the effects of Herceptin.”

It had previously been determined that 15% of colon cancers have a mutation in a gene called BRAF, which, Kolata notes, “is often mutated in melanoma.”  So researchers tried to treat colon cancer with a drug used to treat melanoma. It didn’t work. “But,” Kolata goes on hopefully, ” these colon cancer patients often have an additional genetic aberration that can be attacked with a different drug, one that blocks the function of a cell protein EGFR.” So Kucherlapati et al propose treating this subset of patients with both a melanoma drug and the EGFR drug.

Kolata: “The possibility of helping selected colon cancer patients with drugs that are already on the market ‘is actually thrilling,’ Dr. Kucherlapati said.”

Kolata acknowledges that the scientists don’t how many genetic pathways enable various tumors to develop and how many new drugs will have to be developed to attack the them all.  She quotes Dr. S. Gail Eckhardt, head of medical oncology at the University of Colorado saying that the study (of which she was one of >200 co-authors) “confirms where some of the drug development should be going.”‘

Pharma Pharma rah rah rah. War on Cancer rah rah rah. Genennnntech! Pharma Pharma rah rah rah. War on Cancer rah rah rah. Genennnntech!

Cockburn knew I was compiling an O’Shaughnessy’s Reader.  When I told him I was including a piece we had written in the 1990s about the marketing of Prozac, he understood its relevance —of course— and said “Go for it.”  Although he believed smoking marijuana had precipitated his beloved nephew’s break with reality, and he was never into smoking it himself (even in his dire hour of need), he was open-minded, tolerant, and liberal in the old John Stuart Mill sense. And he was a socialist —of course— and hoped that the pot-loving masses would someday throw off their single-issue chains.

Fred Gardner edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice, which has just gone online at BeyondTHC.com