Members' Memories of Bruce Cain

Bruce Cain was the first Director of the Auckland Cancer Research Laboratory, now known as the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre. He joined the NZSO in 1975 and served as president shortly afterwards. He remained a member of the Society until his sudden death in January 1981.

Bruce has not only been remembered by the Bruce Cain Memorial Lectures at the annual meetings of the NZSO but also by the Bruce Cain Memorial Award at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research from 1982 to 2006.

Tony Reeve met Bruce in the mid-1970s. He recalls: 'He was a legend, yeah. I met him on several occasions … I would have been about thirty and he seemed like an avuncular old gentleman, he really had that mana about him. He was right into interacting with the clinicians. I had another friend who's just – he was the head oncologist at the hospital [in Dunedin] and he's just retired – he was in the first intake of the medical school in Auckland. I remember going into Bruce Cain's office and there wasn't enough room and people just sat around on the floor, and he was one of them, just listening to this guy talk. And likewise, it was a two-way conversation because Bruce wanted to constantly get a clinical perspective to make sure that he was veering in the right direction. It's so important for basic scientists to actually have an idea of where their research is heading in terms of human needs'.


David Perez is the oncologist that Tony mentioned. He remembers Bruce's readiness to engage with clinicians to improve treatment for patients:
'He would come over to the hospital and he would be keen to talk to us, and you know, I was a very junior doctor, but he didn't care about that. He said, "are you treating cancer patients?" And said, "I'd like to talk to you", even though I was a young fella. And that was the great charm of Bruce Cain. He was very approachable, he was keen to talk to all sorts of people regardless of how senior they were … He was also the very keen guy to say, "tell me more about the side effects that patients suffer, because I hear about them, but I don't see them". And of course, that's a major part of cancer treatment – the side effects. And so, he was very keen to hear about that and that's a very important part of drug development: to maximise the anti-cancer component and minimise the side effects. And so, he was out there talking to all sorts of people to get that information that he needed'.

Bruce Baguley worked closely with Bruce Cain from 1968 until 1981. He remembers:'He believed that chemistry could solve problems. You know, so chemistry was a big enough field that it could produce cures for cancer and that's what he felt so it was just a matter of getting enough ideas to put that together. But he spent the evenings reading about cancer therapy and so on … Most chemists think just about chemistry. There are not many chemists that spend their evenings reading about clinical cancer therapy. There was a publication at that stage called Cancer Chemotherapy Abstracts where this organisation just took the abstracts from a number of medical and biological papers and basically published the abstracts together. So, rather than going to the original papers – which in many cases weren't available here anyway – we'd go to just the summaries of the papers to get an idea of what was going on. So, Bruce Cain would use that to get an idea of what was happening'.


Bill Wilson met Bruce Cain when he was completing his PhD at the University of Auckland. Bill's supervisor, Bruce Baguley, worked closely with Bruce Cain and often visited him in his laboratory, which was then located in the former army hospital at Cornwall Park. Bill remembers, 'Bruce had a very curious mind, he read widely. And in fact, both Bruces did, but Bruce Cain – unusually for a synthetic chemist – he read all the clinical literature in cancer research. He was interested in the big picture, and so the conversations were very free ranging, and I could still remember some of those conversations. And we would stand around a scale model of the DNA and try and work out how his drugs interacted with it and so they were great, very open-ended conversations'.

All photos are supplied by the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre.