‘Survival’ takes a ‘painful’ look at research failure

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Lorne Brandes, MD’68, doesn’t mind sharing the ugly stuff.

“It had to be that way. I was trying to chronicle in the most honest – some might say most painful – way possible as to how things did or did not develop for me,” said the recently retired University of Manitoba oncologist. “I guess there are scientists out there who have nothing but success in their entire careers. I can only tell you how it was for me.”

In his book, Survival: A Medical Memoir, Brandes chronicles his decade-long journey toward an, ultimately, failed attempt to develop a revolutionary cancer drug. He admits his is not a unique story – as most science ends in failure – but it is a story rarely told. Ego often gets in the way of tales like these, Brandes said.

“But not everyone is a Watson and Crick,” Brandes laughed.

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During the 1980s, Brandes was researching the breast cancer drug tamoxifen and looking for a substance to bind to ‘antiestrogen binding sites’ within cells. To that end, he synthesized an antihistamine called DPPE (also known as tesmilifene), which appeared to curb unwanted uterine growth, prevent tumour formation and increase chemotherapy drugs’ effectiveness. What followed this discovery were years of fizzled funding, short-circuited trials, bureaucratic frustration, renewed hope and, ultimately, disappointment.

Survival: A Medical Memoir is a ‘warts-and-all’ look at what goes on inside the lab, around the conference table and behind closed doors of medical research.

“This is a story that ends in failure. As I was writing this, I kept saying, ‘Who is going to be interested in reading a book about a drug that failed?’” he said. “Fortunately, people smarter than I pushed it forward. They said people will want to read it; they will want to read it because it is a cautionary, true tale about what I had experienced.

“In some ways, it doesn’t matter how the story turned out. It is the journey along the way that makes it worth telling.”

Although his book ends in failure, Brandes’ career has been a long and successful one. Upon graduating from the University of Windsor, he opted for Western above three other medical schools in the province. On campus, he met and married his wife Jill Colman, BA’66, Ed’67.

Following his internship and first year of residency at Western, Brandes spent 1970-71 with chemotherapy pioneers, Drs. David Galton and Eve Wiltshaw, at the Royal Marsden Hospital (London, United Kingdom). He completed his training in hematology/oncology at the University of Manitoba under Dr. Lyonel Israels, one of Canada’s foremost hematologists and medical researchers. Brandes joined the Faculty of Medicine at Manitoba in 1975, where he became a tenured professor in the Department of Medicine and the Section of Hematology/Oncology at CancerCare Manitoba.

In addition to his oncology practice, he has conducted laboratory research – including the powerful story chronicled in Survival: A Medical Memoir. He retired in September, 2015.

Brandes started writing the book early on in his research, perhaps with an eye toward providing a record of his discovery. But once it became clear there would be no happy ending, he shelved the project. “I regarded myself at that point – perhaps rightly or wrongly – as a failed scientist. That was it for the book,” he said.

For eight years, the book sat as a lone Word document on his laptop. “I didn’t even back it up. Would you believe that?” When he semi-retired a few years ago, his wife talked him into revisiting the manuscript.

“I spent three or four nights reading it again. As I did so, I thought, ‘Geez, this is an interesting story, this is a good story.’ Enough time had passed, enough people had said the book needed to be finished that I decided it was time,” he said. “And I quickly backed it up at that point, by the way.”

Now out of the lab, Brandes discovered a far more venomous arena – book publishing. Efforts to convince university and popular presses to publish the book ran into a series of roadblocks – his memoir was too niche, perhaps too scientific for a broad audience.

“If you are a John Grisham or J.K. Rowling, you are taken care of. I knew I was not that,” he laughed. “I knew I had a niche book – a book I would really like people to read and learn something from. I have always been a teacher at heart.”

He ended up self-publishing the book through FriesenPress.

With his book released earlier this year, Brandes has been hustling to promote it – landing it in all major online retailers, as well as targeting university book stores and libraries across North America. In just six months – phone call by phone call, email by email – he has placed the book within 60 universities and, just last week, the New York Public Library collection.

“I published the book; I am going to promote the book,” he said. “But I figure, any guy who did what I did all those years isn’t going to be put off by trying to promote a book by himself.”