Com­mit­ted to a cure

Central Otago Mirror - - FRONT PAGE - By MARY-JO TO­HILL

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.

Photo: MARY-JO TO­HILL

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.

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