One of my favourite times of the year is the Auckland Writers Festival, which sadly has just finished. I always fizz for weeks afterwards, neurons bathed in new and invigorating ideas. I’m always encouraged, too, by the number of lawyers and judges who can be seen in the audience there. Surely it is a good sign that our profession is filled with people who actively seek out new ideas and knowledge? People for whom the profound act of empathy involved in reading (especially fiction) is a regular activity? I find it encouraging, anyway.
From an IP perspective, perhaps the speaker who was most interesting was Charles Graeber, author of The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race To Cure Cancer. It’s not often that you go to a talk about cancer that is hopeful, and uplifting, and astonishing. It was fascinating to hear him describe how for years, immunotherapy languished as the poor and often-scorned backwater of cancer research. As Graeber describes it, at swanky medical conferences, only a few hardcore immunotherapy researchers would meet in some forlorn corner of the conference centre, largely dismissed as quacks by their better-funded and more mainstream colleagues.
But now, apparently, the tables have turned. The science is sound, the techniques are working, and some cancers can actually be described as “cured” as a result. Graeber said, in response to an audience question about possible pushback from the pharmaceutical industry, that there are now only two types of pharmaceutical companies involved in cancer research: those that are doing immunotherapy work, and those that want to do immunotherapy work.
At a personal level, I found this story to be a little humbling. Some of my all-time biggest bugbears are quacks and peddlers of snake oil. More to come on that topic, I promise! But what if some of those quacks are right, and the science hasn’t caught up yet? It is difficult to allow space for new ideas to develop while still protecting the vulnerable and the desperate from crazies and baddies.
Weirdly, Graeber’s book was sparked by an entirely separate IP story: the Kim Dotcom saga, which Graeber has also written about. Graeber was flying back to the northern hemisphere after being holed up in the notorious Dotcom mansion in New Zealand when he met a PhD student on the plane, and, in a departure from his usual aeroplane etiquette, struck up a conversation. The PhD student shared with him some remarkable research results…and the rest is history. Or at least the beginning of a new chapter of history.
Graeber is a brilliant writer, the story is amazing, the science is even better (the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to two cancer immunotherapy researchers) – what’s not to like?[PS If this is your cup of tea, you might also want to see this article in the Autumn issue of Ingenio about the cancer research being carried out at the University of Auckland.]