Thursday, May 30, 2013

UC SAN DIEGO MOORES CANCER CENTER HITS THE BEACH FOR CANCER RESEARCH


The author in his element
I've always had a deep affinity for the ocean. Nowhere else do I feel more at home, more myself, more at peace. During my 16-year battle with stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer, there have only been two places where I've managed to find real solace and remember just how much I love life: in the arms of my beautiful wife, and at just about any Southern California beach.

That's why I chose a sand dollar as my symbol of hope for cancer patients in my book, Hope Begins in the Dark: 40 Lymphoma Survivors Tell Their Exclusive Life Stories. And that's why I want to tell you about an emotional and significant event for cancer patients this weekend at the water's edge in San Diego.

The Seventh Annual Survivor Beach, which takes place this Sunday near Scripps Pier in La Jolla, brings together surfers, cancer survivors and their loved ones for a common cause: raising funds for and awareness of cancer research at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, which happens to be where my doctors reside.

Survivor Beach, which kicks off a week-long series of events at the cancer center designed to inspire and inform cancer patients, was created in 2007 as a way to bring together individuals in the community to show their support for cancer research and to honor all individuals in their fight against cancer. New this year is a three-mile stand-up ocean paddle race. You can check out all the activities by clicking on this link. It's a worthy cause. 

On that note, I want to personally thank the good people at Moores Cancer Center. They are both compassionate and smart, which in healthcare is a rare and valuable combination. The center, which is run by a true visionary, Dr. Scott Lippman, is home to all kinds of groundbreaking cancer research and cancer clinical trials, which I plan to write about in more detail here in the weeks to come. Stay tuned for that.

But for now, I just want to share that on Sunday the center begins its Cancer Survivor Week 2013 by going back to the beach. It’s time to paddle out for a really good cause - maybe the worthiest of all causes, if you ask me. For more information on this event contact Nikisha Belt at 858-246-1230 or nbelt@ucsd.edu. 


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

SELECTIVE OUTRAGE: Darrell Issa and the Most Corrupt Congressman in America

Randy "Duke" Cunningham
The most corrupt Congressman in modern American history will soon be a free man. On June 4, former San Diego Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who took at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, then used his influence on The Hill to steer tens of millions of dollars in government contracts to these companies, will complete his 100-month sentence, according to the U-T San Diego.

Cunningham, now 71, tearfully pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion and was sentenced to eight years and four months in federal prison. I covered Cunningham's epic fall for Newsweek, and in my years covering politics this is easily the most egregious example I've seen of a politician succumbing to the temptation to capitalize on his position.

Cunningham, a decorated Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, entered prison a broken and virtually friendless man after taking bribes from San Diego defense contractor Brent Wilkes and others. But who was arguably his biggest defender in Washington? None other than Darrell Issa, current chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. 

Darrell Issa
Issa, the fiery Republican who's been sermonizing almost daily about the Obama administration's alleged abuse of power, sang a much different tune during the Cunningham scandal. Even after it became painfully obvious to most of the world that Cunningham was guilty as sin, Issa insisted that Duke was innocent. 

In a 2005 story in the North County Times newspaper (now part of the U-T San Diego), Issa said Cunningham was incapable of doing anything dishonest. "Duke has one thing he prides himself on more than anything and that is his integrity," Issa told the newspaper. "His word is his bond."

After Cunningham pleaded guilty, Issa told the The Copley News Service, "We wanted desperately to hear Duke explain his conduct in a way that made sense to us, but increasingly feared that would not happen." I'm still waiting to hear Issa tell us all how Duke could have explained his actions in a way that would have "made sense" to Issa, or anyone. 

As for Wilkes, the defense contrator who was convicted of 13 felonies for bribing Cunningham, he was also a big supporter of Issa's. In 2002, Wilkes' firm ADSC Inc., contributed $10,000 to Issa, and in 2004 Wilkes' firm contributed $5,000 to Issa. 

It doesn't stop there. Issa even went after the woman who put Duke behind bars - federal prosecutor Carol Lam - with a false report accusing her of  "lax" immigration enforcement. Lam, one of nine federal prosecutors ousted by the Bush administration on questionable and some say purely political grounds, was an obvious target of retaliation by Issa and others after she prosecuted Cunningham and Wilkes.

But Issa's zealous pursuit of Lam, and his support of Duke, weren't surprising. He routinely gives Republicans, even disgraced ones, the benefit of the doubt, while insisting - often before he has all the facts - that Democrats like Lam are guilty.

Which brings us back to Issa's current efforts as chair of the oversight committee. Issa has actually been trying unsuccessfully for years to bring down President Obama. In 2010 he told radio host Rush Limbaugh that Obama was “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” Issa later recanted the statement, but the fact that he said it is interesting given the fact that Issa is such a staunch defender of the man who actually is the most corrupt politician in modern times. 

A year ago in The Daily Beast I posed the question: Is Darrell Issa a proud government watchdog, or a dangerous pit bull? It remains a fair and important question. While virtually all Washington lawmakers are partisan, Issa is partisanship on steroids.

Are there legitimate concerns about government overreach by the Obama administration? Yes. Should they be investigated? Yes. But is Issa the right man to be heading this investigation, given the abundance of scandals in his personal and political lives and his transparently selective outrage and prosecution? 

As my colleague Michael Hirsh once insightfully wrote, Issa's agenda is to "Nail Barack Obama first, raise Issa's profile second (or maybe that's first), and get at the truth last."

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Memo to America's Lawmakers: Why Have You Forgotten Our Troops and Veterans?

Taking a quick look around, it's easy to cynically conclude that Memorial Day has become nothing more than a paean to big sales at the mall, beach BBQ's, and getting a day off from school and work. Not that there's anything wrong with any of those things - but let's please not forget to whom this day really belongs. And for the record, this holiday isn't just for our brave warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice. It's also for those who served our country and are still with us. 

As I reported late last year in The Daily Beast, as many as 30 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after you've seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death. PTSD is often debilitating. These veterans need our help. Now. 

Too many lawmakers have seemingly forgotten that America is still at war and that the suicide rates for both active-duty military and veterans are on the rise. But not Bernie Sanders. The no-nonsense Senator from Vermont, Sanders might seem an unlikely advocate for our veterans. After all, he's a longtime anti-war activist who never served in the military. But since he was named chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs six months ago, Sanders has proved to be a passionate and outspoken supporter of veterans.

A rare inside-the-Beltway political gadfly who has no patience for Washington's chronic conformity, Sanders is not afraid to shake things up on The Hill and get in anyone's face who would deny our war heroes. You may not always agree with Bernie's politics. But he's not in DC to win friends. He's there to make a real difference. True to form, Sanders has just released a statement that refreshingly goes beyond the usual perfunctory Memorial Day calls from jaded pols to support the troops. Bernie's statement avoids the bromides and the easy heartstrings. It cuts much deeper. It gets real. 

Here's what he has to say:

“Memorial Day must not simply be a day for picnics and ballgames. It is a time to remember and cherish the lives of service members who have died in defense of this nation and appreciate the unimaginable loss their families have experienced. But Memorial Day is not just a time to reflect upon the past. It’s important that we also focus on the present and dedicate ourselves to do all that we can to protect the interests of today’s veterans – many of whom came home from war wounded in body and in spirit. 

“In recent years we have come a long way in protecting the needs of our veterans, but much more must be done. 

Senate Veteran Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders
“Today, more than 6.5 million veterans utilize the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system. While VA’s network is regarded as one of the best in the country with cutting-edge achievements, we can and must improve it. We also must simplify the bureaucracy so that every eligible veteran knows how to access the system.

“The Post-9/11 GI Bill has been an extraordinary success. More than 920,000 veterans and family members have utilized this education benefit – at virtually no cost to them. Unfortunately, in a program this large, there have been some payment problems with payments to higher education institutions that must be resolved as soon as possible. 

“We also must address the very serious backlog of VA disability claims. While VA is today processing more claims than ever before, it is absolutely unacceptable that veterans in some cases are still waiting years for their claims to be processed. For whatever reason, VA did not even begin the process until 2009 of doing what the entire corporate sector already had done and move from paper to the digital world. Upon assuming his position at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a very ambitious transformation of the system. His goal is that by the end of the 2015, all claims would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy. I intend to work with the secretary to make sure that goal is achieved.

“One of our great national embarrassments has been that thousands of American veterans have been homeless and sleeping in the streets. VA has taken on an aggressive initiative to end homelessness among veterans by 2015, and has decreased the number of homeless veterans by 17 percent since 2009. My committee is considering legislation that will enhance VA’s programs to ensure that no veteran in this country is sleeping in the streets.

“Another issue of enormous importance is the alarming rate of suicide among veterans. While suicide is a serious national problem, it impacts veterans at a higher rate. Much of the focus has been on suicide’s impact on younger veterans, but it is also a very serious problem among older veterans who may have completed their work life and may be facing problems of isolation and financial stress. VA must be aggressive in reaching out to veterans at risk of suicide and my committee is working on approaches that we hope can address this issue.

“The Department of Defense estimates that more than 1 million service members will transition out of the military and into civilian life in the next four years. At a time when our country continues to struggle with high unemployment, we must do everything we can to make certain these brave men and women can find meaningful employment.

“We owe the veterans community more than we can ever pay back. As we celebrate Memorial Day this year we must do everything we can to provide them with timely access to the benefits they earned.” 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

POTENTIAL BLOCKBUSTER: New Research Shows Cancer Cells Could Be Prevented Before They Even Develop

Fernando Lopez-Diaz & Beverly Emerson from Salk Institute
There's more potentially blockbuster cancer news out of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, where scientists today announced the discovery of a survival mechanism that occurs in breast cells that have just turned premalignant which may eventually lead to new ways of essentially stopping tumors before they start. In their groundbreaking Molecular Cell study, the Salk researchers report that a protein known as transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β), considered a tumor suppressor in early cancer development, can actually promote cancer once a cell drifts into a pre-cancerous state.

The discovery, which was a surprise to the investigators, raises the almost unthinkably positive prospect that, with novel treatment, some cancers might be prevented before they even develop. If all this sounds counterintuitive, well, Salk researchers are evidently and thankfully adept at thinking way out of the box.


“Our work suggests it might be possible to halt cancer development in premalignant cells - those that are just a few divisions away from being normal,” says the study’s lead author, Fernando Lopez-Diaz, a researcher in the Regulatory Biology Laboratory at Salk.


Beverly M. Emerson, a Salk professor, head of the lab and the study’s senior author, says this study offers "both significant insights into early cancer development and a new direction to explore in cancer treatment. It would be fantastic if a single agent could shut down both advanced cancer and cancer that is primed to develop.”


That is, of course, an understatement. While this is a new discovery and far from being something to discuss with your oncologist, this finding could represent a monumental breakthrough in cancer treatment. Oncologists might even use this discovery to predict whether premalignant cells in a patient are destined to become malignant cancer. 


“Not all premalignant cells morph into cancer,” Emerson notes. “Many self-destruct due to cellular protective mechanisms. But some will become tumors and, at this point, there is no way to predict which of these cells are a risk.”


Lopez-Diaz emphasizes that there's much work yet to do. “We want to understand the signals that turn TGF-β into a bad guy,” he says. “If we know that, we might be able to inhibit those signals, and force damaged cells to die, as they should. That may offer us another treatment possibility, along with TGF-β inhibitors now being tested.”

Monday, May 20, 2013

BREAKING CANCER NEWS: Can Getting Chemotherapy at Night Actually Prevent Hair Loss?


Scientists may have figured out how to prevent hair loss in cancer patients undergoing chemo. And it could be as easy as holding off on your treatment until after the sun goes down. Discovering that mouse hair has a 24-hour cycle of growth followed by restorative repair, researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Irvine (UCI) suspect that hair loss in humans from toxic chemotherapy and radiotherapy might actually be minimized, if not totally eradicated, if these treatments are given late in the day.

Yes, you read that right. Getting chemo at night could allow cancer patients to keep most if not all of their hair. In a new study appearing in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), scientists found that mice lost 85 percent of their hair if they received radiation therapy in the morning, compared to just a 17 percent loss when treatment occurred in the evening. And they think this could apply to humans, too. 

Which begs the question: Where were these good guys in lab coats when I needed them? If only we'd known this when I did my CHOP chemo regimen. I would've insisted on getting treatment while watching David Letterman!

Researchers worked out the precise timing of the mice hair's so-called circadian clock, and also uncovered the biology behind the clockwork - that is, the molecules that tell hair when to grow and when to repair damage. They then tested the clock using radiotherapy.

The study’s co-lead investigator, Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor in Salk’s Regulatory Biology Laboratory and expert on circadian rhythm, explains the process exclusively to The Reno Dispatch.

"Clocks are everywhere in our body, but one new function of the clock we just learned is how cells repair their own DNA at certain times of the day," he says. "This has practical implications in cancer radiation therapy and chemotherapy, which often intend to damage the tumor DNA. However, the bystander normal cells are also damaged. The outcome is adverse effects such as hair-loss and upset stomach."

Panda says the difference in DNA repair ability in normal cells based on the time of day is "quite remarkable. It clearly shows that time-of the day specific cancer treatment might reduce side effects - allowing clinicians to potentially increase the dose for effective treatment with tolerable side effects."

Maksim Plikus, assistant professor of developmental and cell biology at UCI and the study’s first author, said in a statement today that these findings are "exciting" because they present a significant step towards developing new radiation therapy protocols that include minimizing negative side effects on normal tissues, such as hair or bone marrow, while maintaining the desired effects on cancer cells. 

"We will now apply our findings to design novel circadian rhythm-based approaches to cancer therapy," he said.

It remains to be seen how this will work in humans. But scientists are optimistic. Meanwhile, I know this isn't a cure for cancer. But hair loss is a very stressful part of cancer treatment for millions of people. I can only speak for myself: I wasn't at all happy about being bald for six months. 

Panda adds that while we don’t yet know if human hair follows that same clock they found in mice hair, "it is true that facial hair in men grows during the day, resulting in the proverbial 5 o’clock shadow. There's no 5 a.m. shadow if you shave at night."

Hmm. I never thought about that. Maybe I'd better start shaving at night, too. But wait, there's more. There are all kinds of clinical implications for all these internal clocks, beyond the timing of drug therapy. For example, some researchers suspect that obesity and diabetes occurs when an organ or organs — perhaps the liver or stomach or pancreas — should be sleeping, but is awakened by food that needs to be processed.


“These local clocks do a lot more things than the central clock in the brain, which primarily regulates sleeping,” Panda says. “This field of research is exciting and may, someday, contribute to human health.”

EXCLUSIVE: Historic Case Against American Company That Allegedly Supplied Chemical Weapons to Iraq Slowed by Texas Judge


Saddam Hussein
Just got an exclusive update on the stunning legal case in Texas involving an Army physician who was evidently exposed to and harmed by chemical weapons during the Gulf War. His legal case against the American company that allegedly supplied this toxic mustard gas to Iraq during Saddam Hussein's reign, which I covered in March for The Daily Beast, was set to go to trial in just days. But a judge has ruled instead to send the case to the appeals courts, citing the "current bias against plaintiffs in the appellate courts in Texas."

The case, which was first filed way back in 1994, now moves to the Texas Court of Appeals, then the Texas Supreme Court. This could add another two to three years to the process.

Gary Pitts, attorney for defendant Victor Algaron, the Army field surgeon who suffered serious health issues as a result of his alleged exposure to mustard gas, was disappointed with the decision. But Pitts says the judge is fair and has no agenda here, he simply wants to seek assurances that this case will hold up in the Texas appeals courts.

Still, this must be frustrating for Pitts, who's spent the last 20 years researching just what companies in America and around the world supplied chemical weapons to Hussein. Pitts is determined to keep this case alive, and says Algaron is just one of many American Gulf War veteran plaintiffs that were exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq. 

Pitts says that at the time of Hussein's attack on the Kurds, Alcolac, Inc., a now-defunct Maryland company whose assets are owned by Paris-based chemical concern Rhodia, was, through a middleman, supplying Iraq with thiodiglycol (TDG), the chemical used to make mustard gas, a highly toxic agent used in the attack.

David Klucsik, a spokesman for Rhodia, told me back in March, “Alcolac did not supply thiodiglycol to Iraq. Not even the plaintiff [in the current court case] argues that Alcolac did so. Rather, plaintiff says that Alcolac sold TDG to an entity that then resold it to Iraq.”

Texas courts are notoriously conservative in cases involving personal injury, especially where there are a number of people involved. 

Regardless, says Pitts, "this case involves our war veterans and the ongoing threat to all of us of chemical weapons, and we're cautiously optimistic that the appellate courts will take a very hard look at the evidence in this case, and not come to the harsh result that Dr. Alarcon and the other veterans that can be proven to have mustard gas injuries cannot even have a trial on the matter with a jury in Texas," Pitts says.

Pitts adds that there is "plenty of evidence to have a trial and win this case with any jury in Texas."

Stay tuned to The Reno Dispatch for updates on this historic legal case, which, if ultimately successful, would mark the first time an American company was convicted for providing the Hussein regime with chemical weapons.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Meet the American Sports Legend and Pioneer You've Probably Never Heard Of


Dennis Murphy commemorates the WHA, which he founded
Dennis Murphy isn't a household name among American sports fans. But he sure as heck should be. Murphy, an entrepreneurial genius and true game changer, founded the American Basketball Association (ABA), World Hockey Association (WHA), World Team Tennis (WTT), and Roller Hockey International (RHI), among other groundbreaking, tradition-rattling leagues. 

In his exceptionally entertaining and nostalgic new autobiography Murph: The Sports Entrepreneur and His Leagues, edited by Richard Neil GrahamMurphy, now 86 but still sharp as a tack, shares a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes stories about the formation of these legendary sports leagues, and more. Any fan of American sports over the last half-century will find this book impossible to put down. 

I thought I knew a bit about the ABA, but Murphy schooled me. Co-founded by Murphy in 1967, the league, which lasted until 1976, popularized the 3-pointer and the dunk and produced such legendary players as Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Rick Barry, Larry Brown, George Gervin and Moses Malone. Four ABA teams - the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs) - eventually moved to the National Basketball Association (NBA).


I was a huge ABA fan as a kid. My favorite player was Willie Wise, who played college ball at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, my hometown. In 1969, when I was eight years old, Wise and the rest of the players from this virtually unknown little Midwest school shocked the basketball world by making it to the Final Four, where Drake lost by three points in a poorly officiated game against a seemingly invincible UCLA Bruin team led by Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). 

I watched every Drake home game that year with my family, and continued to follow Wise, who became an all star in the ABA with the Utah Stars. Here's a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times sports section about Wise and that amazing Drake team. 

Murphy remembers Wise well. "He was an outstanding player in our league," says Murphy. "The ABA was a really fun experience. We had terrific players and great owners. I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish with that league, and of the influence the ABA still has on professional basketball today."

The ABA was also known for its colorful red, white and blue basketball. I proudly owned one of those basketballs as a kid and learned to dribble and shoot with it. Murphy says the league surprisingly didn't have a patent on that ball, and lost millions as a result.

"We blew it with that one," he says with a laugh. "George Mikan was the ABA's first commissioner, and he had a lawyer representing him, but when we got the red, white and blue ball, Mikan thought someone would take care of the rights to that basketball. We didn't have a patent on the ball, and a company took it and they did very well with it. We messed up. You can't blame the company for being smart."

Murphy's recollections sound like a page out of the script of the Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro, which chronicles a fictional team in the very real ABA. For example, Murphy explains that while all the teams in NBA have cheerleaders, that all started with the ABA. 

"Now we have the Laker Girls, etc, but we started all of that in Miami," says Murphy, who in addition to forming the league also ran the Miami Floridians franchise. He says the man who was behind the cheerleader idea was Rudy Martzke, the public relations man for the Miami team who later became a well known sportswriter. 

"The idea was that we needed to get attendance up at the games," says Murphy. "So he came up with the idea of the bikini girls. We always had them on the visiting side, so the visiting players would look at girls rather than pay attention to the game."

The WHA was just as exciting and savvy as the ABA - and is equally near to my heart. In addition to Wise, another childhood hero of mine was WHA player Pete MaraGrowing up in Des Moines, I was also a big hockey fan who with my best friend went to just about every home game played in the 1972-73 season by the Des Moines Capitols, who played in the International Hockey League (IHL). 

The Caps' leader was Mara, who brought the championship to Des Moines the following season and was awarded the Leo P. Lamoureux Memorial Trophy as the league's leading scorer and the James Gatschene Memorial Trophy for outstanding playing ability and sportsmanlike conduct. Pete went on to play two seasons in the WHA - one with the Chicago Cougars and another with the Denver Spurs and Ottawa Civics. 

The league, which debuted in 1972 and ran through 1979, was a worthy competitor/adversary to the stalwart National Hockey League (NHL). A pebble in the NHL's shoe, the WHA cannibalized NHL rosters, established teams in major cities that didn’t host NHL teams, and successfully challenged the reserve clause that bound players to their teams. 


This gave NHL players the opportunity to seek "greener" pastures in the WHA, and players such as the legendary Bobby Hull did just that. Hull signed a record 10-year, $2.75 million contract, and 66 NHL players followed Hull’s lead. The WHA disbanded in 1979, but not before four teams joined the NHL – the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets.

Dennis Murphy with hockey legend Gordie Howe
"Just like with the ABA, we had great owners in the WHA," says Murphy, "and we and had great players like Gordie (Howe) and Bobby (Hull) and of course Wayne (Gretzky)."

When the WHA was first established, Murphy says owners lobbied to have a bright orange puck so fans could follow the action more closely. But Bill Hunter, the owner, general manager and head coach of the Alberta Oilers, who were renamed the Edmonton Oilers the following season, wouldn't have any of that.

"Early on, we had league meetings down in San Diego at La Costa Country Club, and some of us came up with the idea of having the orange puck," Murphy recalls. "But Bill, who was a Canadian through and through, didn't like the idea. He gets up on table and starts shouting, 'No orange puck, that's bush league. You Americans stick to basketball and let us Canadians run hockey.' We all laughed. But he got his way. We gave up on the orange puck. We backed off."

Murphy says that  to this day people in professional hockey are still trying to add some color the puck design so people can follow the puck. "They're even talking about lighted pucks now," Murphy says. "They haven't done anything, and I can see why. No reason to change what works."

But Murphy always changed what worked, and in many cases he made it better. Murphy also was way out in front of the curve when he co-founded World Team Tennis, which gave women equal pay in sports for the first time.

Just why Murphy isn't more famous, and why he is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame are mysteries to me. It may be because he seems to enjoy being relatively anonymous. Even his new book is more about the people with whom he worked than it is about himself. 

Murphy is quick to credit his fellow executives, owners and players in the leagues he co-created but less interested in congratulating himself. So allow me do it for him. Thanks Dennis, for giving the world so much joy. The groundbreaking sports leagues you created brought a lot of entertainment to sports fans like me across the country and the world.