Tony describes the earlier meetings as 'very low key, it was old Kiwi style'. Members would 'just get together and have a good time and talk about cancer. And as a result, it was very educational and it built up strong networks which is something that just doesn't happen easily'.
He explains that the relationships that developed at the NZSO broke down any communication barriers between scientists and clinicians:
The clinicians look at scientists and think 'God, they're brainy people. I don't understand a word that they're talking about' … It goes the other way too, where the scientists can't understand what the clinicians are talking about. But in fact, in order to do good cancer research you have to have that mix of the basic fundamental science and the clinical science going on simultaneously. And so, I think the NZSO was just the perfect breeding ground for that.7
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Lai-Ming Ching made similar observations about the culture of the Society across the 1980s. Lai-Ming joined the NZSO after she returned from Seattle in 1985 and gained employment with the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, which was then called the Auckland Cancer Research Laboratory. She recalls the meetings were 'so simple then. I mean, we stayed at the nurses' homes instead of fancy hotels' and the conference took place in university lecture theatres.
Lai-Ming explains that any communication barriers between scientists and clinicians at the NZSO were minor compared with those that can arise among the researchers from a range of fields who work in drug development:
The language differences in talking chemistry and talking biology are bigger than for us to be talking to clinicians. So, I don't think it was a major concern. I think the clinicians knew enough about what we were saying, we did all our stuff in mice and they did it in humans, but it was still a cancer.8
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Lai-Ming's experience as a biologist was very different from some of her colleagues during this period. Bill Denny explains that scientists in the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre range from 'molecular modelling, through chemistry, through biochemistry, through tumour biology … and the chemists are really at the far end'. Consequently, he and the other chemists who attended the NZSO meetings were 'really quite divorced' from the clinical papers.9
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The increasing involvement of clinicians generated heightened support from pharmaceutical companies. The executive committee of the NZSO had first approached pharmaceutical companies and other businesses in the late-1970s to request they sponsor an award at the annual meetings. The members had attended other conferences that offered prizes and noted a marked improvement in the standard of presentations when awards were available.10
Some of the earliest prizes included the Bristol-Meyers Award in Oncology in 1981, followed by the establishment of the Eli Lilly Award (formerly Lilly Industries) for best junior speaker in 1983, and the Farmitalia Award in Clinical Oncology in 1984.