The Death of Christopher Hitchens

Among the more colorful writers, orators and pundits in the later part of the 20th Century and the early part of the 21st was Christopher Hitchens. Born in England in 1949, he moved to the United States where he became famous for his deeply held political views. An outspoken critic of injustice, he called it as he saw it. While his political leanings were mostly liberal, he was willing to take on the establishment on both sides of the political isle when he saw injustice and political hypocrisy.

Christopher Hitches died at age 62 from cancer of the esophagus. Although unapologetic for his use of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products, his lifestyle may have contributed to his diagnosis. What saddens me most is the possibility that he could have done better. And didn’t.

Like so many celebrities when they are diagnosed with cancer, Hitchens entered a realm that I call, “social medicine.” Not to be confused with socialized medicine and related political issues, social medicine is the process whereby the rich and famous receive care from the “right” doctors. These luminaries, through their channels and connections, are hand carried to the most famous physicians in the country. Their prominent and widely published ivory tower investigators then provide the best care money can buy. Yet, more often than not it is exactly the same therapy that they would have received from their home-town oncologists, who read the same journals, attend the same meetings and adhere to the same NCCN guidelines as the “best and the brightest” academics. We then conveniently chalk these patient’s failures up to the biology of the disease and the patient’s drug resistance rather than examining the more discomforting reality that protocol therapy doesn’t work for famous patients any better than it does is for anyone else.

But what if these patients just got the wrong treatment? What if the drugs these doctors chose were the very best for many, but not right for them? What if the right treatment was just right around the corner, but these prominent academics couldn’t see it? What if these patients had submitted a tumor sample for an EVA-PCD® assay and knew which drug or combinations would kill their cancer cells?

It isn’t that Christopher Hitchens or Steven Jobs are more important than any other patient. Their collective suffering and the losses to their families are no greater than any other cancer patient who confronts this illness. It’s just that they are famous and we know about it from the beginning to the end. We watch as these patients suffer through the toxicities and side effects of randomly administered therapies. And, in the case of Hitchens we are provided a blow-by-blow description in his writings. Unlike other patients who seek their care outside of the limelight, these celebrities are above the fray, protected by their handlers, PR agents and managers – they are unapproachable. With Jobs or Hitchens I would have relished the opportunity to offer any assistance possible, and through contacts at Apple I actually tried, but to no avail.

These individuals suffer and die in the public eye. Like salt in a wound, investigators like my colleagues and myself who are engaged in the pursuit of better, more intelligently delivered therapies, suffer with them. No, they are not more important, but it just seems so when you watch it every day on television, online, or in the print media, you clearly see an “in your face” example of a failing paradigm of cancer therapeutics.

About Dr. Robert A. Nagourney
Dr. Nagourney received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and his doctor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a University Scholar. After a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, Irvine, he went on to complete fellowship training in medical oncology at Georgetown University, as well as in hematology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. During his fellowship at Georgetown University, Dr. Nagourney confronted aggressive malignancies for which the standard therapies remained mostly ineffective. No matter what he did, all of his patients died. While he found this “standard of care” to be unacceptable, it inspired him to return to the laboratory where he eventually developed “personalized cancer therapy.” In 1986, Dr. Nagourney, along with colleague Larry Weisenthal, MD, PhD, received a Phase I grant from a federally funded program and launched Oncotech, Inc. They began conducting experiments to prove that human tumors resistant to chemotherapeutics could be re-sensitized by pre-incubation with calcium channel blockers, glutathione depletors and protein kinase C inhibitors. The original research was a success. Oncotech grew with financial backing from investors who ultimately changed the direction of the company’s research. The changes proved untenable to Dr. Nagourney and in 1991, he left the company he co-founded. He then returned to the laboratory, and developed the Ex-vivo Analysis - Programmed Cell Death ® (EVA-PCD) test to identify the treatments that would induce programmed cell death, or “apoptosis.” He soon took a position as Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. His primary research project during this time was chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He remained in this position until the basic research program funding was cut, at which time he founded Rational Therapeutics in 1995. It is here where the EVA-PCD test is used to identity the drug, combinations of drugs or targeted therapies that will kill a patient's tumor - thus providing patients with truly personalized cancer treatment plans. With the desire to change how cancer care is delivered, he became Medical Director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in 2003. In 2008, he returned to Rational Therapeutics full time to rededicate his time and expertise to expand the research opportunities available through the laboratory. He is a frequently invited lecturer for numerous professional organizations and universities, and has served as a reviewer and on the editorial boards of several journals including Clinical Cancer Research, British Journal of Cancer, Gynecologic Oncology, Cancer Research and the Journal of Medicinal Food.

4 Responses to The Death of Christopher Hitchens

  1. Elaine L. says:

    Dr. Nagourney, can you tell us anything about The Farrah Fawcett Symposium on Circulating Tumor Cells and Chemosensitivity Testing? Did you leave feeling hopeful for the future of the EVA-PCD® assay?

    • The symposium was held in Santa Monica in early December. As there had been a death in my family, my ability to attend the entire conference was limited and I could only particpate the afternoon session. The symposium included several areas of investigation, including circulating tumor cell analysis, molecular profiling and functional analytic platforms. I had the opportunity to sit in on several presentations including one by Dr. Weisenthal, who gave an overview of his seminal contributions to the field followed by his discussion of his work on VEGF inhibition and the crosstalk between other classes of tyrosine kinase inhibitors and endothelial (vascular) cell viability. Dr. Presant gave a presenation on their work with the MiCK assay, with a focus upon leukemia studies and their developing work on solid tumors. My impression is that we made a fundamental transition. In the past I was repeatedly confronted by oncologists who said:”We could not do this”. Today the question appears to be more: “How best can we to do this? “. In that regard there has been progress.

  2. Sally says:

    Dr. Nagourney, thank you for the noble work that you and your associates do! God bless you and yours!

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