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An Irreplaceable Man

Courtesy Robert B. Livingston, via Flickr.

Alexander Cockburn, the most incisive political journalist of our time died on Friday, July 19. The cause was cancer.

We were friends for many years. Shellacked on a file cabinet in the garage is a photo of Alex in the summer of 1990 taking a photo of a gravestone in Trinidad, CA. We were on our way to or from the Redwood Summer protest in Samoa. The stone said:


Born April 5, 1855, Died May 22, 1913

Murdered by Capitalism

Alex had heard about Schnaubelt’s gravestone and wanted to pay homage. He later wrote (in The Golden Age is in Us), “E.B. had set up a lumber mill as a workers’ co-op but then the big companies cheated him out of the land where the mill stood, though he still owned the plant. One night Schnaubelt, living nearby, thought he heard someone messing with his machinery. He went to investigate and a watchman hired by the companies shot him dead. His widow put up the stone and moved away.”

Alex himself may have been murdered by Capitalism (in which case Capitalism could claim self-defense). We’re all being massively bombarded by radiation and exposed to carcinogens in the air, the water, the food, the receipt at the gas station… and it’s all in the pursuit of profit. America’s “War on Cancer” does not mean identifying and eliminating the causes of cancer but “the search for the cure.” Our corporate masters are unwilling to stop the plague by closing their nuclear power plants and eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in their production processes. That would cut into profits. They want to fight the war on cancer inside our bodies. That generates profits.

Consider the July 18 front-page article in the New York Times, “Genetic Aberrations Seen as Path to Stop Colon Cancer ,” by Gina Kolata, a search-for-the-cure cheerleader. (Gina Kolata’s sister Judi Bari was an eliminate-the-causes ringleader. It was Bari who had organized the action in Samoa that led us to Schnaubelt’s grave. Ms. Kolata’s rah-rah piece on “The Path to Stop Colon Cancer” appeared the day before Alex died.)

Kolata was enthusing over a paper published in Nature by Raju Kucherlapati of Harvard Medical School and co-authored by “nearly every… leading scientist in colon cancer genomics.” The paper describes a new approach to treatment: identifying the mutant genes driving a given tumor and finding drugs that can stop them. Kolata calls Kucherlapati’s colon cancer study “the first part of a sweeping effort that is expected to produce a flood of discoveries for a wide range of cancer.” She quotes him saying, “We have an opportunity to completely change the landscape.”

Another Harvard co-author calls the paper “transformative.”

Kolata writes: “For Dr. Kucherlapati, some of the most intriguing discoveries point to new treatment possibilities. For example, about 5 percent of the colon cancer tumors studied had extra copies of a gene, ERBB2, as do many berate cancer tumors. A drug, Herceptin, which greatly helps breast cancer patients with too many ERBB2 genes, might also help cancer patients with the same aberration. Scientists say they would like to put colon cancer patients with the mutation in clinical trials testing the effects of Herceptin.”

It had previousy been determined that 15% of colon cancers have a mutation in a gene called BRAF, which, Kolata notes, “is often mutated in melanoma.” So researchers tried to treat colon cancer with a drug that’s sometimes effective in treating melanoma — and it didn’t work. “But,” Kolata goes on hopefully, “ these colon cancer patients often have an additional genetic aberration that can be attacked with a different drug, one that blocks the function of a cell protein EGFR.” So Kucherlapati et al propose treating this subset of patients with both a melanoma drug and the EGFR drug.

Kolata: “The possibility of helping selected colon cancer patients with drugs that are already on the market ‘is actually thrilling,’ Dr. Kucherlapati said.”

Kolata acknowledges that the scientists don’t how many genetic pathways enable various tumors to develop and how many new drugs will have to be developed to attack them all. She quotes Dr. S. Gail Eckhardt, head of medical oncology at the University of Colorado saying that the study (of which she was one of >200 co-authors) “confirms where some of the drug development should be going.”‘

Pharma Pharma rah rah rah. War on Cancer rah rah rah. Genennnntech! Pharma Pharma rah rah rah. War on Cancer rah rah rah. Genennnntech!

In the 1990s Cockburn and I had written a piece about Big PhRMA’s marketing of SSRI antidepressants. In one of our last conversations I told him I planned to include it in The O’Shaughnessy’s Reader. He understood its relevance to the medical marijuana movement — of course — and said “Go for it,” although he himself was never into marijuana and he believed smoking it had precipitated his beloved nephew’s break with reality. He was open-minded, tolerant, and liberal in the old John Stuart Mill sense. And he was a socialist — of course — and hoped that the pot-loving masses would someday throw off their single-issue chains.

Cockburn not only educated and entertained us, he set high standards and motivated us by example. The range of his interests, the depth of his education and the graceful way he drew on it, his sense of humor, the sharpness of his invective, his general cheerfulness and specific dislikes, his respect for craftsmanship in all areas, his delight in scandal, his contempt for jive, his insight into the ruling class, his worldwide network of friends and sources — Alexander Cockburn is irreplacable and his death is impossible. Is this what phantom limb pain feels like?

One Comment

  1. wineguy July 25, 2012

    Htich and AC are tipping a jar of good Irish Whiskey somewhere in another dimension or maybe even Purgatory…’Tugamaho!’ gentleman

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