Archive for June, 2009

Call it Camp Wonder

June 25, 2009

14 year old Brandi Coil tipped her sunglasses back on her dark brown hair.  She sat in the shade as whoops of excitement erupted from the grassy field nearby.  Her arms and legs were covered by bandages but she smiled broadly and talked excitedly.  “You’re just not paying attention to your wounds and stuff and how sore you are.  You’re just having a great time, you just forget about it, everybody does.”

Brandi has Recessive Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa, known as EB, a rare and severe skin disorder that curls her hands and feet, and causes severe, painful blistering of the skin.  She has to keep her skin covered she says, “to keep flies off it, and protect my open sores.” 

We are relaxing at Camp Wonder near Livermore, California, where on this day 21 of the 80 campers have EB, and all have some kind of severe skin disorder.  Camp Wonder is run by the non-profit Children’s Skin Disease Foundation, which has provided air fare, accommodations and activities for campers from around the United States.  “When we’re in public, people just stare, all you get are stares,” said Brandi, “and it”s really uncomfortable.  Here you don’t get stares.”

16-year old Joseph Pedsmer of Long Island, New York, his voice raspy from cheering on his relay team, said “It’s that we share that common bond that makes us work so well together.”  Joseph’s throat, chin and bare arms are red and scarred from a severe form of eczema.  “This is just one week of fifty-two in the year,” Joseph said, “that these kids get to live away from stares and judgement.”

The nine-year old camp was the brainchild of then-16 year old Francesca Tenconi, of Walnut Creek, California.  She had a painful and disfiguring skin disorder called Pemphigus Foliaceous, and spoke to Drs. Jenny Kim and Stefani Takahashi of UCLA Medical School about her idea.  “It’s a great way to get everyone together for a week and give these kids a sense of normalcy,” said Tenconi, who’s now about to enter medical school herself to pursue a career as a pediatric dermatologist.  Her disease was successfully treated and she now is free of the physical scarring, but the emotional pain stayed with her.  “It’s not something even many doctors understand.”

Spending a week with the campers, swimming, playing ball, riding horseback, rope climbing and hiking, as well as taking care of their medical needs, is an instructive introduction to dermatology for medical student 29 year old Bridgit Hartman, a camp volunteer.  “I think it’s easy to forget how much many of these kids are dealing with emotionally, every single day,” said Hartman who also acknowledged, “This has been a hard week.”

“This makes us better doctors, nurses and people, really,” said 45-year old dermatologist Jenny Kim, who’s been here every day of every camp session since the beginning.  “These young people are so strong, so happy and so beautiful in their ways,” said Kim as she led me into the camp’s “Med Shed” to meet 6 year old Zach Troop.  Zach and his mother, Kadee, are from Bountiful, Utah.  It is Zach’s first camp. 

“It’s great!” Zach grinned as his mother wrapped a bandage on open wounds on his left foot.  Zach also has EB.  Bandages fleck his shoulders and knees as well.  His wounds will likely spread and damage more and more of his skin.  There is no cure.  But there is Camp Wonder.

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Study: Uninsured Not A “Crisis”

June 24, 2009

Conservative economist June O’Neill of  City University of New York and the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) says there’s no “crisis” of the uninsured in the United States.  She says the widely used estimate of 47 million uninsured Americans is misleading.  In a new study, she and co-author David O’Neill also of CUNY, say 18 million uninsured Americans aged 18-64 are actually “voluntarily uninsured,”  and could afford to buy healthcare if they chose.

They also say policy proposals dramatically overestimate the cost of providing affordable health insurance, because policymakers don’t understand the rest of the uninsured.  They add solutions should cost far less than the $1.6 trillion Congressional Budget officials estimated for proposals that would address only two-thirds of the problem.

“We urge policymakers not to rush the healthcare debate,” said June O’Neill in a written statement.  “This new information will (help) policymakers target those truly ‘at risk’ and decrease the cost of covering the uninsured.” 

Using data from a number of surveys, O’Neill says “(t)he uninsured… obtain about half the amount of health services received by the insured population.  The lower health status of the involuntarily uninsured could be attributed to their level of education, income, and even lifestyle habits (such as smoking and obesity), more than the mere fact that they do not carry health insurance.”

This kind of information is crucial to the national debate on healthcare.  As a Democratic Congress and the Obama administration hurry to finish a job President Bill Clinton thought he could accomplish, the true scope and depth of the problem of the uninsured can be manipulated.  News reports regularly characterize the problem of the uninsured as “critical” but a careful analysis of the details has been unavailable until now.

Critics will point out that O’Neill was Director of the Congressional Budget Office herself in the mid-1990’s when Congress and the Clinton White House wrangled over health reform, and never could solve America’s healthcare troubles during the days when it would have been, oh, so much less expensive.

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Get High and Stay High

June 22, 2009

Dawn broke crisply at Crazy Creek, as yellow streams of sunlight brightened crests of the ridge across the field where wild turkeys and pigs ducked through the brush.  This is a small private airport near Middletown, CA, about half an hour drive north of the Napa Valley.  A beautifully restored blue and tan TravelAir biplane and several sleek, bright white sailplanes waited by the runway.

I had camped out, to get an early start on what weather charts had promised would be a good day.  I got in an early morning run, a hearty breakfast with good friends and started preparing my ship.  By nine o’clock the first folks with eager grins climbed into the front two seats of the 83-year old biplane for an open-cockpit thrill.  The throaty purr of its Wright Whirlwind radial engine recalled the early days of barnstorming.  Captain Bob, a 60-year old retired airline pilot, deftly guided the singing craft into a clear blue sky.  A dozen of us, pilots and would be aviators alike, stopped what we were doing to watch and dream a little.  We all imagined ourselves smiling in the slipstream, listening to the hum of the biplane’s wires.

This ideal of simpler flight drew a steady stream of adventurous and enthusiastic people to this valley on this brilliant morning.  Some came for a biplane ride, others to soar on the silent wings of gliders, spectacular, sexy and astonishingly efficient aircraft.

Gliders are the earliest form of winged flight, and from Galileo’s crude wooden and fabric approximation of bird wings, engineers and aerodynamic inventors have created amazing carbon and fiberglass works of art, with impossibly narrow and thin wings that stretch more than 60 feet from tip to tip.  Gliders continuously fall through the air, but by seeking rising air, good pilots have flown more than a thousand miles.  From 5000 feet, the best of these can glide more than 60 miles without any other lift.  My glider is not that efficient, nor am I yet capable of attempting anything like such an all day flight.  But when I fly I feel a mastery of the air that’s hard to describe adequately.

I am very eager on this day to  get my ship up into the warming morning sky.  A little before 11 o’clock, one of us pointed to a ridge west of the airport.  Without a word, it was a signal understood by soaring pilots worldwide.  The first of what would be a sky full of puffy cumulus clouds began its wispy existence.  They are markers of rising air known as thermals, sun-heated mushroom-clouds of air lifting themselves skyward.  It is time to fly.

I help another pilot put the wings on his sailplane.  It is a shiny, white fiberglass single-seater he keeps in a trailer.  It’s a German, factory-made glider with 48-foot wings.  It takes about 20 minutes to pull it out of its earthly home and get it ready to go soaring.

My glider is already assembled.  I pull on my parachute, spray on a little sunscreen and put on my funny hat.  Glider pilots all wear funny hats.  The sun is brutal when you sit under a canopy for hours.  I remove the ropes holding my sailplane to the ground,  and a couple of other pilots walk over and ask if I’m ready.  They help me push it out to the runway and point it into the wind.  I slip into the cockpit, as the towplane idles toward me.  One of the pilots pulls out a 200-foot rope from the towplane’s tail, and connects it to a hook in the nose of my glider.  I do a quick check, lock the canopy, give a thunbs up to the man holding my wingtip off the ground, and hear the towplane’s engine wind up.  We start to move.

In about seven seconds, my glider lifts off the ground, and the towpilot pulls me, climbing steadily, toward a 3800 foot high mountain that’s dead ahead.  Before we get there, rising bubbles of air buffet us both.  They are begging me to release from the towplane and use their energy to lift my glider without connection to an engine.  I pull the release handle and feel the sudden freedom of soaring.  I turn immediately into a strong thermal that takes me 3000 feet higher in about five minutes.

This is what eagles feel.  Indeed, many of us share thermals with eagles, hawks and even pelicans, wheeling upward in these invisible bubbles of air.  It is a very sensual experience.  I can feel the air heaving and roiling around me.  It’s a living, bucking beast booting me in my seat and small of my back.  Every burble, bump and boost from the thermal lifts and rocks the glider.  I grin as I rein in its energy and harness its power for my soaring pleasure.  It’s like surfing a really big wave.

Upward, ever upward I climb and turn, feeling the air, working it, turning tighter then wider, always searching  for the strongest lift in the changing shape of the thermal.  I also feel the hot sun on my face and arms, and hear the wind whoosh as the lift strengthens and then quiet as it eases.  There is the constant beep beep beep of my variometer, a sensitive electronic device that measures changes in my total energy, in other words, my height and speed.  It’s now a satisfyingly rapid ditting, and I glance at the instrument showing seven knots (seven hundred feet per minute) climb.

Directly above me hovered a forming cumulus cloud.  I can feel the moist coolness of the air as it reached its dewpoint and began to condense.  From here, 6500 feet over the ridge near Mount Saint Helena, I clearly see San Francisco, the Bay, Point Reyes and the Pacific Ocean, and into the Central Valley and the Sierra foothills.  I leveled out my turn and dove to gain speed, setting my flaps for high-speed flight, aiming for the next growing cloud about three miles away.

In this way, climbing turns followed by high speed dashes, I covered about 50 miles in two hours.  That is pitifully slow by competition sailplane standards, but I was loafing, drinking in the wonder of motorless flight and the stunning view through my canopy that had me literally sitting on top of the world.  Just me and the eagles, powered by the sun.

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El Nino Coming?

June 20, 2009

Marine Mammal Center veterinarian Bill van Bonn unlatched the gate and stepped into a fenced pen with a yearling sea lion.  You could see outlines of his rib bones through his brown fur.  He made a raspy gargling bark.  Four hours earlier the emaciated pup was on the operating table, and van Bonn was removing a necrotic and infected lymph node.  “He’s about half normal weight,” said van Bonn, “pretty typical for the sick sea lions we’re now seeing so many of.”

The new $32 million Center on a bluff overlooking Rodeo Beach north of San Francisco, “is filled to capacity and beyond,” said van Bonn.  He’s a former veterinarian with the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego and wears a stethoscope around his neck as we thread our way betwen pens of barking sea lions.  “We’re not exactly sure why.  We’re not seeing demoic acid poisoning or anything else specific in necropsies (of dead sea lions.)  We know the animals are malnourished, the question is where did the food go?”

A quick look at the animated SST Anomaly from the National Climate Data Center may explain.  US Government climate scientists say the trend is consistent with an El Nino weather pattern.  This means water temperatures are warmer than normal along the California coast;  indeed, buoy data show water temperatures several degrees warmer than usual for this time of year.

“El Nino for this part of the coast is bad news,” said Zeke Grader a San Francisco fisherman who now heads an industry group, The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermans Associations.  He stood along the Crissy Field shoreline with the Golden Gate Bridge behind him.  “The water’s warmer and the fish generally will head north where the water is deeper and cooler.”

“We’re starting to see a number of seabirds starting to strand from malnutrition,” say Mary Jane Schramm of the Gulf of the Farallons National Marine Sanctuary.  Schramm said a guano-covered promontory called Bird Rock just south of Rodeo Beach had been home to nesting Brandt Cormorants.  Not this year.  She also said there are early indications common murres are not nesting in their regular sites on the Farallons.  “So we know there are some problems with the food chain.”

Grader has seen this before.   In 1982 and 1998 strong El Ninos hit fishermen hard, and lashed California with torrential rains.  El Ninos typically mean increased precipitation on the West Coast.  “Generally (El Ninos) mean wet winters,” said Grader, “which is good for (drought-plagued) California, because we need to get that water into the streams for the salmon, and it’s good for the snowpack.”

If you’re reading this on the West Coast, you likely already know about El Nino’s effects- if not, you may want to visit my friend meteorologist Jan Null’s fine El Nino Resources website and learn a little bit about what the future may hold.

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Health Plan, Health Plan, Who’s Got a Health Plan?

June 17, 2009

Californians are dissatisfied with their health care system.  A new KTVU/Field Poll released today shows more than 2/3rds of Californians want health care reform now.  About a third want the whole system scrapped and to start over

“Our government is just not making the right decisions as far as how important the people are,” said Molly Eaton outside a market in San Francisco’s Mission District.

A block away, a helmetless bike messenger named Marcus, who didn’t want his surname used, said he’d lost his health insurance along with his last job, and his new employer didn’t offer it.  “A lot of countries have free health insurance for everybody.  It’s like included in taxes.”

In San Francisco’s financial district Anthony Byers in an expensive looking suit, said “I do think there needs to be a new plan, and hopefully we’re on that path.”

Director of the Field Poll, Mark DiCamillo ran down results from the third annual health care system survey of California voters.  “By a greater than two to one margin Californians want to procced now with health care reform.”  He said the telephone poll of 1209 California voters during May asked about many of the proposals now circulating in Washington, DC.  Poll results showed people want health care choices, but disagree along party lines about whether to pay for care for the uninsured.  “Democrats are willing to pay for such a tax by a two-to-one margin, but Republicans are not willing, by a three to one margin.”

Tax accountant Paul Bradshaw of suburban Novato said he’s willing to help those who are out of work and looking for a job, but “people who don’t want to work and are riding on the coattails of the taxpayers, I don’t want to support them.”

“I think I’d be willing to pay some,” said Wayne Yee of San Ramon, “but probably not a whole lot.”

43 year old San Franciscan Howard Frazier, who’s now on disability from an on-the-job injury, said “if the economy gets a little better, I wouldn’t mind paying a little extra money for the people that ain’t got (health care), people got kids y’know.”

The poll also found 85% want some kind of a public health care plan to compete with private insurance, 81% want coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions, and 69% want employers to be required to offer health insurance to all workers.  70% oppose a requirement that everyone have health insurance or pay a fine.

Nijua Coleman of Oakland, with her ten year old daughter by the hand, said what’s really important is more coverage.  “More benefits for everybody.  Everybody should be able to get health care.”

Whether this “Summer of Health Care” will yield any meaningful reform depends on how big a dose of change Congress can swallow.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnFowlerTV

Follow Me on Twitter

June 17, 2009

See what stories I’m working on and follow me on Twitter at JohnFowlerTV.

I’ll be keeping my tweets short, but you can tune in to KTVU in the San Francisco Bay Area, or here on, for more.

When is a Smoker Not a Smoker?

June 17, 2009

“I’m a non-smoker,” said Susan Longardino, standing on the sidewalk outside the San Francisco nail salon where she had an appointment.  “I have never bought a pack, but when I’m out with friends, after a nice dinner, or go to a club, I’ll generally have a cigarette.”

“No, I don’t smoke,” said newly-hired waiter Stewart Merritt at the entrance to a San Francisco seafood restaurant that caters to tourists.  “Only when I’m intoxicated or I feel some stress.”

Denial?  Maybe.  Merritt and Longardino are among a rapidly growing segment of tobacco users which scientists call “social smokers.”  It is a group (about 30% of California smokers) only recently identified by health professionals.  But since 1971, they have been targeted by a multimillion dollar cigarette marketing campaign, which did exceptionally detailed and intensive study on these smokers.

“They analyzed them, kind of figured out their demographics, their psychological profiles and know how to market to them.  They even designed products to attract social smokers,” says UC San Francisco pulmonologist and Center for Tobacco Research scientist Dr. Rebecca Schane.  Schane has co-authored an article for the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, based on her extensive review of many of the ten million previously secret documents tobacco companies released in the $205 billion Master Settlement Agreement of 46 states’ litigation.

“(Tobacco companies) hired anthropologists, psychologists and behavioral scientists to figure out what made social smokers tick,” says Schane.  “Their research shows (social smokers) are a unique group, and whether they are really addicted (to nicotine) remains to be determined.  They smoke to gain peer acceptance, they want to be liked by the group.”  Schane, an expert on lung disease, says tobacco companies devised marketing strategies to make smoking appear chic, sexy and glamorous.  “There is nothing glamorous,” she says, “about lung cancer.”

Schane and co-author Prof. Stan Glantz of UCSF’s Medical School, are trying to use the tobacco marketing research to find effective ways to get social smokers to stop lighting up.  “(Big Tobacco) identified this group long before public health did,” says Glantz, a veteran of the tobacco wars.  Now it’s time, he says, to use the psychological profiles to help social smokers avoid cigarettes.

“They are not motivated by their own health risks,” explains Schane, “because they don’t identify themselves as smokers.  They feel they can quit any time, and don’t associate the risks of lung or cardiovascular disease with their behavior.”  Just one to four cigarettes a day, Schane points out, ups the risk of lung cancer five times over that of non-smokers.

“They are motivated by peer-group and social interaction,” she says, “so an effective message might include the risks of second-hand smoke on friends and family.  Social smokers are sensitive to those around them.”  She is preparing another article on health risks and potential smoking cessation strategies for social smokers.

She also says physicians and health workers need to be aware that social smokers will deny they smoke unless pressed.

“I don’t smoke.  Smokers are people who smoke every day,” says Josie Venuto, a twenty-something tourist from Miami having lunch on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.  “That’s not me.  I only smoke when I drink.”

“I’m not a smoker either,” says Luc Kanea, a lanky young man from Krakow, Poland.  “I just do this for fun, when I go out with friends, have a beer or go to a bar,” he said as he took a long drag on a Camel cigarette.

They’re blowing smoke, damaging their lungs and making tobacco companies richer.

Sex, Pregnancy and Stress

June 16, 2009

In his fourth floor laboratory at UC Berkeley, Prof. George Bentley knelt before a cabinet that reads “Caution Flammable.”  He pulled out a white plastic container and fished out a formaldehyde-preserved human brain.  It was gray and cut right down the middle revealing the remarkable inner structure that Bentley says is the seat of sex: the hypothalamus, an oval spot near the base of the cerebellum atop the pituitary gland on the brain stem.

“Here,” he says, “this peptide is produced here” he tapped a gloved finger at the dime-sized spot.  The peptide, or hormone, to which he referred, is GNIH, gonadotropin inhibitory hormone.  He and colleagues have discovered the precise, molecular activity of this previously missing piece of the puzzle about why stress causes sexual dysfunction.

“We may not be interested in sex, may have low libido, or we might have problems conceiving.  A lot of infertility is unexplained,” says Bentley.  He is a bird specialist with close-cropped blond hair and a vaguely British accent.

Bentley, UC Berkeley molecular neuroscientist Prof. Daniela Kaufer and graduate student Liz Kirby are eager to talk about their latest research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The paper shows a crucial neurochemical link between stress hormone and this inhibitory hormone, that seems to explain the mechanism behind why animals (and humans) have a difficult time with sex when they’re stressed.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of stress,” says Kaufer, who says she does yoga to reduce her stress.  “If you were about to be eaten, you wouldn’t worry about the next generation at that moment, so reproduction tends to be repressed, or shut down,” she says, explaining there’s a sound evolutionary rationale for this neuropathway.  “The problem is, we’re under stress too much of the time.”

Kirby, a chipper 25 year old researcher who sought out Kaufer’s laboratory to pursue her interest in stress effects, says this new signalling pathway could result in some significant advances for the treatment of infertility.  “To be part of this big, new discovery is very exciting.”

“All of our patients are trying to conceive, and stress seems to be a big factor,” explains Dr. Philip Chenette of Pacific Fertiltiy Center in San Francisco.  Calming piano music, soft couches and peaceful artwork greet the visitor here.  Chenette says stress affects both men and women, perhaps several million American couples who are trying in vain to have children.  “(Women who) stop ovulating and can’t possibly conceive, and men with low sperm counts.”  Chenette has five acupuncturists on duty for stress-reduction.  “At least ten percent of infertile couples suffer from stress-induced infertility, and stress contributes to many more.”

Bentley is just beginning work in human subjects, but says his immediate excitement is for endangered species.  “Animals that are captured for breeding rarely do well, because they are continually stressed,” says Bentley, a 39-year old T-shirt and sandal-wearing marathon runner.  “If (GNIH) is the mechanism, then we can (chemically) interfere with it and enable reproduction of these endangered species.”  He has already shown early success with a compound he’s given to hard-to-breed starlings, an invasive bird species.  Since the molecular mechanism appears almost identical in mammals, including humans, Bentley says it’s not far-fetched to think one day there could be a low-side effect pill that would ease the effects of stress on sex.

A worthy goal.

Not Just for Diego

June 10, 2009

Three year old Diego Sanchez pats his hand repeatedly on a wooden train on the floor of his Oakland, California, home.  His dark eyes fix on the toy.  His mother kneels next to him, calling his name as she tries to hand him a noise-making toy rocketship.  Diego doesn’t look up.

“I began to be concerned about him when he was 18 months old,” says 33 year old Maria Rodriguez, with a wide smile of effort at precise English.  “He began to lose words and stopped talking.  He didn’t walk normally.”  Doctors diagnosed Diego with autism at age two and a half.

“We are beginning to identify characteristics that begin in early infanthood,” says Dr. Pilar Bernal, a Kaiser Permanente pediatric psychiatrist and Diego’s doctor.  “Autism affects sociability, communication and behavior.  Some say it’s like being socially blind.”

Diego is one of 7400 autistic children among Northern California Kaiser patients, almost one percent of all pediatric members.  Eight years ago the number  was 2600.  What’s caused such a dramatic increase?  No one is certain.  Some suggest it is the effect of determined looking for autism and a broadened definition, but most scientists say those factors cannot explain the rise.  Kaiser Permanente researcher Lisa Croen is confident a new $16 million primarily federally-funded study will provide important answers.  She is one of its principal investigators.  “This is the best methodology to find the cause of autism,” she says.

The EARLI (Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation) study hopes to enroll 1200 families with at least one autistic child for this first of its kind, real-time effort to discover what triggers the collection of symptoms known as Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Parents with an autistic child are at significantly higher risk of having another with ASD.  Scientists will use blood tests to collect genetic and biological information from parents, and, if the mother becomes pregnant again, researchers will also take samples during each trimester, at birth and then every three months thereafter. They will also vacuum families’ homes to scan for micro-contaminants, collect diet and industrial chemical exposure data.  Researchers from three other centers nationwide will do the same.

“Early stage development, we believe, is key to autism.  We also think it is a combination of genetic vulnerability and some environmental trigger, perhaps chemicals in the environment, household products, possibly something in food, in the air, the soil, or something else,” says Croen, a thin and lively, dark-haired perinatal epidemiologist who has previously studied mental disorders and genetics.  She has a 23 year old nephew with autism, whose painting of two blue fish has become the EARLI logo.

Researchers designed this study to last about eight years, but say they could have first clues in about three years.

“Diego’s father is a welder, I work in a restaurant, maybe some chemicals did this,” says Rodriguez, as Diego clutched her jacket.  “I will sign up for the study.  (It is) for all the children, not just for Diego, but for all of them.”

The Tumor Throttle

June 3, 2009

“This gene is like a cancer cell’s throttle, but it’s either full-on, or full-off.”  University of California, San Francisco Prof. Frank McCormick is talking quickly in his brand new third floor corner office of the Helen Diller Family Foundation Comprehensive Cancer Center.  He is the first Director of a dramatic $135 million, five-floor UCSF bioscience laboratory.  The view is of an impressive and growing skyline in San Francisco’s Mission Bay research park.  In ten minutes he is to give a short talk at a ribbon-cutting ceremony before two hundred international researchers, donors and media.  He patiently scans his computer desktop and opens a file.

McCormick is a wiry and shaggy-haired 57-year old British-educated genius of molecular biology.  He is an avid amateur race car driver who reminds himself of that particular adrenaline-rush with his computer screen saver.  It is a picture of him at the wheel of his 2004 Mazda-powered open-wheel racer screeching around a corner at Laguna Seca Raceway.  He uses a race-car analogy to help explain the action of an oncogene that he is studying.

The gene is called “ras ” (named, he explains, for “rat sarcoma.”)   There is actually an entire family of these genes, and McCormick is a world’s authority on what they do and how they do it.  “Ras is the on-off switch for cascades of proteins that act like the tumor cell’s accelerator.”  When ras genes are switched on, the cell rapidly divides and makes extra copies other genes that lead to cancer.  “It’s as if my gas pedal is jammed to the floorboard.”

McCormick, who has parlayed his insights and hard work into investments in the pharmaceutical industry (he founded Onyx Pharmaceuticals which sponsors his red and white race car,) now says his goal is to find the right drugs that can block the ras cascade of proteins.  On a flow chart he points to several spots where interrupting the chemical signals can stop the cancer process.  “Two major drug companies just announced a cooperative effort, one drug works here, the other here,” he taps to two junctions where the main cascades diverge.  “If these work, a combination therapy may have a major effect.”

“The trouble is, cancer cells mutate,” says Dr. Mitch Berger, in his still bare office down the hall.  Berger, a neurosurgeon and Chief of the Cancer Center’s Neurologic Oncology Program, is optimistic he and his researchers are on the path to understanding the inner mechanism of brain tumors.  Difficult to treat, in part because of the delicate and vital brain tissues they invade, brain tumors are a breed apart in the cancer wars.

Tall and tan, with gray flecked hair and dark eyes, Berger exudes confidence.  “We are very close to solving this,” he says of an especially tough brain cancer known as glioblastoma.  “Glioblastoma usually kills patients in 12-to-16 months.  It is a difficult diagnosis.  We have tried drug therapy and even vaccines to turn the body’s immune system against the tumors.”  Why any optimism?  “We now think we are on the cusp of understanding its inner mechanism.”  When I ask if he thinks it can ever be cured, Berger says flatly, “Oh yes, we will cure it in my lifetime.”

It turns out, glioblastomas are among the 25% of cancers that are triggered by the ras gene McCormick studies.  Another gene involved in glioblastoma is a called S6K1, and an international expert in that oncogene is Prof. Russ Pieper, whose office is a few paces from Berger’s.  “We are all here to share, to challenge and to inspire one another,” says Pieper, a boyish and smiling pharmacologist.  “If one of us has an experiment we’re working on, we can bounce ideas off each other.”

UCSF Chief of Urology Dr. Peter Carroll, who is among the nation’s foremost prostate cancer surgeons, has his office just down the hall from Director McCormick’s.  “We’ve been open here just about two weeks, and we’ve already had several new ideas.  This is how research and clinical work should team together.”

This is the idea behind this impressive travertine and aluminum building, with its soaring interior atrium, glass panel walls and joined laboratories.  Ideas and insights from different specialties converge and focus here; face-to-face discussions and informal talks, in a way no email, phone call or text message could ever do, spark the flashes of brilliance that may one day indeed cure cancer.

You might think of it as the hotrod racer on a fast track, with a daring driver at the wheel.  We all could be the winners.