Thursday, January 19, 2017


Linda and Butch
Early on
Good news!  At long last Fred Hutch has solved its computer problems and has put their Tributes section “up”.  Linda’s tribute was first, probably because I have been riding them cruelly for at least a year.  The problem has been that hackers had been inserting all sorts of inane commercial nonsense where it emphatically didn’t belong.  You would think that people who can insert bug DNA into human beings could swat computer hackers like bloated flies, but apparently not.
Anyway, if you want to see Linda’s new tribute page, click on
And if you want to leave a little money behind, that’s okay.

Friday, January 13, 2017


Linda and her Schneider cousins
and some cheap zinfandel
Here is an article that is an appropriate comment on several cancer topics: History of the War on Cancer; the Moonshot; Mammography; and, not least, more evidence that Medicos are not Demigods, but rather normal quarrelsome human beings.  It appeared in Slate, which is somewhat given to splenetic journalism, so don’t confuse it with absolute truth.  Here are some main points, either stated explicitly or implied:
Richard Nixon is responsible for the original War on Cancer (not true)
The original War on Cancer was ill conceived (quite true)
The Moonshot, while better conceived than the War on Cancer, is damagingly over-hyped (also true)
Mammography also is over-hyped; mammography applied to younger women does not reduce mortality (unfortunately true)
We should prevent cancer, not wait until it happens and then attempt to cure it.  (Sure, but how?)
Life is complicated.  (Indisputable)

Anyway, I am safely sheltering in Borrego Springs, until April.  To greet my arrival nature threw a rainstorm at the desert.  There was even a Severe Weather Alert.  So far we have had about 0.1 inches of rain, and it appears to be clearing up.

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Nova Scotia
I am at home (Bellingham) temporarily on a sort of layover between trips to Alaska and Borrego Springs.  I will be settled into my BS digs by 1/12, and shortly thereafter my usual hatch of lugubrious cancer blogs will resume.  Also, if the spirit moves me I will add to my other blog – Frivolities – which most of you have neglected shamefully.

So while I’m here I may as well check what’s new, right?  So I did, and almost wished I hadn’t.  Here, for instance is the latest from the NCI on OVCA screening.  The gist: don’t bother, it doesn’t help.

The group I used to try to help at Fred Hutch focused on discovering an early-warning biomarker for OVCA.  We failed.  I hope somebody succeeds, and soon.  Early stage OVCA is highly curable.
On another matter, Yahoo News was up-beat: cancer death rates overall have dropped 25% in the past few decades – the rate of decrease is fairly steady, at 1.5% per year.  Of course, much of that is merely the plucking of low-hanging fruit; about half is due to reduction in smoking, for instance.  Curious racial differences persist; for example, black men remain 47% more likely to die of cancer than white men.

As for the cancer type central to this blog, the news is not so encouraging.  OVCA is listed as one of the ten most lethal cancers, by the NCI.  Over the past 2.5 decades deaths from OVCA dropped about 11%.  That’s better than nothing, but not enough.  My beautiful wife was one of those deaths.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


Somewhere in Northern Wales

In geology and, I suspect, most sciences there exists something often referred to as “gray literature”.  This consists of scientific papers that have not undergone proper peer review before publication.  Often these papers are published in journals nobody has ever heard of, or even journals known to value cash over truth.  Some “gray” papers contain valuable information and/or innovative insights – but most don’t.  Bottom line:  Don’t rely on the gray stuff if you’re fighting for tenure.

Well, Google Alerts has just led me to a bit of gray stuff in the cancer field.  An article printed in “FoodConsumer” (not exactly a well-regarded source for medical research) seems to be telling us that a protein called GcMaf, if used as an immunotherapy agent  may be a “universal cancer cure”.   I don’t know what the Gc part indicates, but Maf stands for ‘Macrophage activating factor”.  As you certainly know, a macrophage is a part of the natural immune system.  They are big, ugly white blood cells that engulf bacteria, etc., and eat them for lunch.  Some people at the “Socrates Institute for Therapeutic Immunology” have been experimenting with this GcMaf stuff and claim to have cured small groups of metastatic prostate and breast cancers, with no failures and no side effects.  There is speculation that GcMaf may also be effective against other cancers, as well as autism and viral infections.

Well, I looked into it.  There really is a Socrates institute; it consists of five guys in Philadelphia.  They have published at least one paper in a reputable journal (Translational Oncology), but withdrew another under peculiar circumstances.  You can obtain GcMaf from a number of sources, and treat yourself at home.   The FDA wants nothing do with it, of course.  One “source”, aptly named Health Nut News, implies that several “Holistic Doctors” pushing this universal cure have turned up dead, under suspicious circumstances.  And so on, and on.

Folks:  You are too smart to fall for this claptrap.  GcMaf may have potential, but that has yet to be demonstrated.  At the moment the only thing it is likely to cure is the relative poverty of a few snake-oil salesmen.

Yes, we do need the FDA, much as I like to vilify it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Hurricane Ridge, early on

This is a weird one.  The research summarized below was done at Cold Springs Laboratory,  Long Island.  More about that below.  The study is very far from complete – in fact, it might be characterized as a “Gee whiz!  Look at this!” sort of report.  To summarize:

There are these things called “neutrophils” that are part of the immune system.  They are white blood cells that help protect the body from harmful invaders; microbes of various sorts, principally.  They do so by extruding a thing called a “neutrophil extracellular trap (NET)”.  The NET is composed of DNA and enzymes of various (presumably lethal) sorts.  A diagram accompanying the article shows  what looks very much like a fisherman in a little round boat tossing out a net to catch a codfish.

So NETs are good, right?  Well, maybe not always.  The Cold Springs people find that some kinds of metastatic cancer come richly ornamented with NETs.  They speculate that the cancer cells somehow use the NETs to hide from the rest of the immune system.  More seems not to be known.  Much head-scratching is evident.  This is intriguing.  Stay tuned.

Cold Springs is an interesting place, at least to me.  In some of the reading I have done it comes across as a kind of summer camp for molecular biologists.  You know: work hard in the morning, go swimming or play volleyball in the afternoon, have a seminar after dinner, then sit on the porch and knock down a few as the sun sets over New Jersey.  Until recently it was supervised by Jim Watson (yes, that Watson) – until age and a lose tongue conspired against him.

But don’t get me wrong – Cold Springs is an important lab that does important work.  I wish I had played volley ball there.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


The Joyce sisters: Heron Island, 2008

Boy, is this a good one!

Sometimes I almost believe that the NYTimes deserves its reputation as the best new source in America; even better than the Breitbart News, the Bellingham Herald, and my personal favorite, The Onion.  The scouting team of Joanne & Dick Ingwall has just sent me a link to this very useful and informative article, which I hereby pass on to you:

The gist of this little gem is this:  immunotherapy is close to being a real breakthrough in cancer treatment, but has some very serious – in fact, potentially fatal – side issues that require urgent address.  This is illustrated by two cringe-generating case studies, accompanied by some simple science that we all can assimilate.  And as an added treat, there is a diagram illustrating how immunotherapy works. I must have read about immunotherapy six dozen times, but now I think I understand it, thanks to this illustration.

(Confession: As a geologist, I thrived on diagrams – maps, etc.  I might have trouble with the printed word, but I got off on pictures.  Toward the end of my career I began to simply scan new publications for useful pictures.  Then I would check to see if I was cited, and – if so – I would read the thing.  That worked because I had graduate students to explain new scientific wrinkles to me.)

So, why should we be surprised that immunotherapy comes with the potential for collateral damage?  The body has ways of protecting itself from its own immune system.  Immunotherapy subverts that protection, with any luck only with regard to the targeted cancer cells.  However, do it imperfectly and your implacable T-cells will also devour your liver, your pancreas, your kidneys, and a whole lot more besides – not that more would be needed.  A significant number of people have died as a result of the side effects of immunotherapy.  Much effort is being expended to find ways to deal with this problem, but the end is not yet in sight.

Some of you know that I am an Egyptophile – I am fascinated by everything about ancient Egypt.  This blog brings into focus the myth of Sekhmet the lion-headed goddess of destruction (and other stuff).  Once Re, her father, told her to kill off a bunch of humans he didn’t like.  As her work progressed she found it so entertaining that she set out to kill all of mankind – and Re couldn’t turn her off!  In desperation he mixed human blood with beer, causing Sekhmet to get drunk and pass out.  Presumably her subsequent hangover was so bad that she gave up on her cat-and-man game, and we all were spared.

We need Re to show us how to shut off our T-cells.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Linda and friend, off to Europe
Probably 1965

I guess this is worth posting.  It originates with the NCI and is a general description of immunotherapy - what it is, what it does, how you get it, what its side effects are, and so forth – aimed at people who know less about it than you do.  It is boring, but useful, and I can’t think of anything clever to say about it.  Stow it away, & hope you never need it.