Professor Bruce Cain

Biography written by Bruce Baguley in 2010.

Professor Bruce Frank Cain has his name given to a prestigious invited oration at each annual meeting. He was born in Auckland in 1930 and studied at The University of Auckland, receiving a BSc in Chemistry in 1951 and a PhD in Organic Chemistry in 1955. After two years of postdoctoral studies with the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Sir Robert Robinson at Oxford University, he returned to New Zealand in 1956, accepting an invitation from the Cancer Society of New Zealand to set up what was then called The Cancer Research Laboratory. This had the aim of developing new anticancer compounds, a very new field of research at this stage with few other international players. Bruce initially concentrated his studies on extracts of New Zealand native plants as a source of possible anticancer drugs, but in the 1960s decided to change research direction, instead utilising the rapidly developing field of synthetic organic chemistry to design, synthesise and test new anticancer drugs.

NZSO Bruce Cain
NZSO Bruce Cain 2

Bruce was passionately interested in making advances that would be of direct benefit to cancer patients and became very widely read in all aspects of anticancer drug development and clinical trial. His own research was based on the concept that drugs designed to interact selectively with DNA might provide useful anticancer drugs, and he was one of the first scientists to use molecular modelling, achieved with a plastic model of DNA more than a metre high and an array of molecular building blocks to construct potential binding drugs. His early studies focused on drugs that bound to an outer narrow helical groove of the model, but he later turned his attention to drugs that intercalated between adjacent base pairs of the DNA double helix. His work was rewarded by the development of a drug, later called amsacrine, which showed high activity against an experimental leukaemia in mice. He made frequent visits to the U.S. National Cancer Institute to support the advancement of amsacrine to trial, and after much frustration succeeded in convincing the NCI to initiate a Phase I clinical trial. This led to a positive result, and subsequent Phase II and Phase III studies, including a key Phase III trial carried out in the Haematology Department at Auckland Hospital, established amsacrine's significance as a treatment of acute leukaemia. Amsacrine subsequently became widely used internationally for second-line treatment of adult acute leukaemia and Bruce also became recognised internationally as a pioneer in the use of medicinal chemistry to develop new anticancer drugs.

Bruce was an active member of the New Zealand Society for Oncology and was President for one term, and his contributions at annual meetings included not only chemical synthesis of anticancer drugs but also the broader issues of the rationale behind clinical cancer treatment. Following the development of amsacrine he turned his attention to a number of other areas including the design of drugs active against carcinomas and the design of drugs that could recognise specific sequences of base pairs in the DNA double helix. He was one of the first scientists to develop a multidisciplinary team approach to drug development, exploiting the rapid feedback of physicochemical and biological data in the design of new compounds. He had a profusion of ideas and an infectious enthusiasm which united his research team. His untimely death in 1981 at the age of 50 from a heart attack deprived New Zealand of one of its greatest scientists, but his concept of a team approach to cancer research has endured. His wide knowledge of cancer, combined with a single-minded desire to make research relevant to cancer patients, will inspire others in the future.

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