New Zealanders of the year: Bruce Baguley

By Carroll du Chateau

When cancer biologist Bruce Baguley discovered a drug that could stop myeloid leukemia in its tracks, he was barely 30. Now, three decades on, Professor Baguley's legacy to Auckland includes bringing eight, new world-class cancer chemotherapies to trial.

The first, Amsacrine (1978), discovered with Bruce Cain, then director of the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, was a world-beater. Seven others have followed. The most recent, DMXAA, which has taken 20 years to develop to Phase III trialling and which targets the blood supply to solid tumours (ovarian, prostate, lung cancers and probably more), is the most promising.

This is a brilliant record by any standards. Baguley can think of only two other laboratories in the world that have a comparable hit rate. They are the US National Cancer Institute and possibly Cancer Research United Kingdom - two of the world's leading research organisations.

Last month Baguley was awarded the Royal Society's Sir Charles Hercus Medal in molecular and cellular sciences and technologies and the Peter Gluckman medal for outstanding research endeavours (with co-director Professor Bill Denny).

Despite a yearning to spend more time practising the cello and perfecting his French, Baguley obviously loves his work.

Every day, starting about 8am, he folds himself into his cramped office and takes up the relentless battle. His dream is "to contribute to a quantum change in cancer treatment", which means he and his 80-strong team at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre lab are developing elaborate drugs designed to target different parts of different cancers - and ultimately create a range of personalised treatments.

Baguley explains that just as we all have different fingerprints, every person gets slightly different cancers - which means scientists need to develop different drugs to attack them.

So, rather than moaning about his cramped laboratories and offices, the professor's blue eyes dance when he talks about the brilliance of being able to test these new drugs on cancer cells taken from patients being treated at Auckland Hospital across the road; the excitement of trying to work out why one patient's cancer is resistant to a new chemotherapy, while another patient responds beautifully.

If Baguley has any complaint it is the inordinate amount of time he spends applying for and chasing funds. On the other hand, part of his genius is his ability to make people excited about cancer research. Although he kept a low profile for years for fear of over-hyping drugs that take decades to develop, more recently this mildly eccentric, humble professor in the stovepipe pants, who sometimes searches for short enough words but never talks down to his audience, has become the face of cancer research in New Zealand.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

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