Committed to a cure
When Central Otago men John Steele and Les Brenssell embarked on a quest to raise funds for cancer research in 2009 they had no idea how close to home the task would become. Their friend and fellow freemason Alistair Cowan, of Alexandra, a retired Southland lamb-drafter, was diagnosed with prostate cancer 11 years ago, enduring radiation treatment and surgery in the battle to stay alive. Last year, retired farmer Mr Steele, of Naseby, discovered he had prostate cancer. Also from an agricultural background, Mr Brenssell, who had lost a 16-year-old grandson to cancer, found out he had the colorectal form in 2010. He was to learn that OtagoSouthland has one of the highest rates in the world and ironically, the disease almost claimed one of the people working hardest to fund research into fighting cancer. But having to undergo nasty ‘‘weed killer’’ chemotherapy treatments only made the men more determined to succeed in their mission to find alternative cures. Even on his worst days, Mr Steele’s enthusiasm for the project did not wane. ‘‘It’s the most exciting thing I’ve
ever been involved in,’’ he said. Last year, the committee set a three-year target to raise about $330,000. They did it in less than a year. About 90 per cent of the funds were generated within the organisation but people’s generosity had been staggering, he said. ‘‘I never dreamt we’d be getting cheques in the mail.’’ The result was a three-year PhD fellowship fund and new equipment for a groundbreaking immunotherapy research at Otago University. By January, they were able to give the Dunedin School of Medicine’s pathology department $263,000 to pay for two research students, one for doctoral studies on developing a cancer vaccine and the other investigating how to turn T cells or immune cells, into cancer killers. With the money raised more quickly than expected, the fellowship programme was able to be extended from three to five years. The funding also provided the department with a $12,400 cell counter to help with research and a further partnership between The Freemasons Charity and the Freemasons Roskill Foundation produced another $70,000 towards buying a flow cytometer which is routinely used in diagnoses. Pathology researcher Dr Sarah Young believed her department was getting close to perfecting alternative cancer-fighting treatments by developing therapies that stimulated a much stronger immune response to cancer, with clinical trials expected within about three years. All three men had offered themselves as guinea pigs and were finding it ‘‘extremely satisfying’’ to be able to help others affected by cancer.
Cancer fighters: Otago-Southland freemasons , from left,John Steele, of Naseby, Alistair Cowan and Les Brenssell, of Alexandra, committed to raising funds for cancer research.