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In his over 40-year career as a leading oncologist based in Winnipeg, Lorne Brandes developed a reputation not only as a caring doctor for thousands of patients, he was also a brilliant researcher and an acclaimed teacher at the University of Manitoba medical faculty. Now he has just published a memoir chronicling his years in cancer research during which he took a drug discovery from the laboratory into cancer patients.

In describing Dr. Brandes’s career, his publisher’s website states: “Over the years, he treated most types of cancer, but subsequently limited his practice to breast and prostate cancer. Until his retirement in September, 2015, he greatly enjoyed teaching the art and science of oncology to the many students and post-graduate physicians who rotated through his clinics.”
Now, after having retired from practice last fall, Dr. Brandes’ memoir is receiving wide acclaim, both for the scholarly manner in which he details the over 20-year portion of his career that was devoted to testing a drug known as DPPE, and for the human element he injects into telling that story.
I must admit that reading “Survival: A Medical Memoir” was not always easy for me, as there is quite a bit of science involved in the story of how the cancer-fighting antihistamine drug,  DPPE, was first discovered and subsequently taken through the myriad of steps necessary to bring any new drug to market. In telling the story of how he first came to realize the potential benefits of DPPE, Dr. Brandes not only delves into the science behind the drug, he explores the very human side of the process of attempting to take it from the laboratory to the pharmacy.

The book was first brought to my attention by Abe Anhang, who suggested it as something we might want to review in The Jewish Post & News. Abe wrote: “Truth be told, this is a book that was written on two levels – one for the researchers and doctors who will read this book to confirm how difficult it is to shepherd a drug through the approval stages, and one for the layperson more interested in the human drama and the challenge that researchers face in the search for drugs that counter disease!
 “The book emphasizes all the personal relationships one has to rely on; the dependence on the whims and judgement calls of government regulators who go by the book; and drug company executives who are primarily interested in bringing to market a product as quickly as possible, that can be sold at a profit. All are constantly on the lookout for the miracle drug, and with DPPE, it looked like they had one until the very late stage of the human clinical trials!
 “This book is witness to a span of 20 years of effort! One has to marvel at the attention to detail Dr. Brandes had to recall, and then write it down in readable English! One might argue that its greatest strength (its detail) would appeal mostly to other researchers encountering similar problems. While too much detail may be seen as weakness by readers who are only interested in the drama, one can omit that detail and still understand the point that Dr. Brandes is making!
 “As one reads this book the question that cries out for response is: if a professional researcher with an impeccable international reputation and training cannot make it happen, how does a drug ever make it through the process, and was this story just one of many, or was it illustrative of many? If one of many, how does ANY drug ever make it through to public distribution? Is it possible that a miracle cancer drug has already been discovered, but for some administrative reason (either at the research level, the government regulatory level or the drug company level) has faltered due to failure in the process, (in other words, human frailty at work)?”

In her Foreword to the book, Dr. Agnes Klein, Health Canada’s Director of the Centre for Evaluation of Radiopharmaceuticals and Biotherapeutics, and someone who was actively involved in approving DPPE for the first human trials, writes about Dr. Brandes: “To say that I saw him, from the start, as a ‘unique character’ is an understatement. He was passionate and persistent about his findings on DPPE, his basic and clinical research, as well as his practice of oncology. This passion likely came from his calling, but also from the Jewish dictum: ‘Tikun Olam’ (saving the world)…The story that he writes is a good read after all the years that have passed. It is a story that was worthwhile writing to have researchers understand that many endeavours do not end successfully. This is true, especially, in the realm of drug development…. I believe the book deserves to be published to remind researchers, physicians, other health care professionals and even a regulator like me, that the road to a successful drug is paved with pitfalls, despite all good intentions, and that while many active substances never ‘make it’, much new knowledge can be acquired along the way.”
What I think readers - even readers for whom the science in the book may be intimidating (count me among those individuals) – will find especially interesting is the fascinating description of how Dr. Brandes worked with a host of other brilliant researchers, many of whose names will no doubt be familiar to Winnipeggers. From Lyonel Israels to Brent Schachter to Frank LaBella – the list goes on and on – describing in full detail how scientific research is brought to fruition. In addition, there is a dizzying array of other characters who appear throughout the book, from other scientists to pharmaceutical company executives, drug regulators and even medical reporters.

Sadly, he also recounts the names of several individuals with whom he worked who have passed on. As a matter of fact, in reading this book, one can’t help but note the irony of how many other brilliant doctors and researchers who made their life’s work a search for better ways to combat cancer, themselves succumbed to this disease.

One other aspect that Jewish readers, especially, may find endearing in “Survivor: A Medical Memoir”, is Dr. Brandes’s self-deprecating wit and, I think it would be fair to say, his awareness of how much his being Jewish played a role in his career. In one chapter in particular, he describes how, prior to a very important meeting with drug company executives, he was warned to tone down his penchant for speaking his mind. His reply, that he would “think Yiddish but act British”, is as apt a description of the quandary that many Jews have faced, not only in academe, but in business as well.

The final takeaway that I’m sure anyone reading this book will be left with is an unmitigated admiration for scientific researchers who, while they may be recognized for their efforts by their peers, plumb away in laboratories for years, constantly worrying about applying for grants, about having papers accepted for publication, and of having their work undermined for no fair reason. While, to a certain extent, drug companies in this book come off looking as nothing more than avaricious opportunists willing to capitalize on years of research conducted in universities and funded by various levels of government – either directly or though government funded agencies such as CancerCare Manitoba – it is doctors and scientists such as Lorne Brandes and his colleagues who often provide the original research that paves the way for huge drug companies to bring miracle drugs to market. To have the patience to persist in the kind of agonizingly complex research that may come tantalizingly close to being translated into a “billion dollar drug”, as DPPE was once touted, yet ultimately to have that research come to naught – well, that requires a special kind of inner discipline.

There is a special pride that we can all take in knowing that leading edge research is being conducted right here in Winnipeg - and that, as much as Winnipeg is too often maligned for so many reasons, there are brilliant researchers who have chosen to come and stay here, as  Lorne Brandes did, and who have achieved worldwide recognition for their achievements. Reading this book will give you an insight into just how remarkable – and difficult – it is to be at the cutting edge of scientific research, something that is being achieved in our very own city.

“Survival: A Medical Memoir” can be ordered online through or in hardcover or paperback, or downloaded in Kindle, iTunes, and Kobo formats. Although not on store shelves, it may also be ordered through McNally Robinson and Chapters/Indigo.

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