Brian J. Druker, M.D.,whose research led to the development of Gleevec, the first targeted cancer pill to kill cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue unharmed, has been honored with one of the most distinguished awards in biomedical research — the Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research.
"I am extremely honored to receive this recognition. We are making significant progress in the fight against cancer and are providing hope to millions of patients and their families," said Druker, director of the Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and JELD-WEN Chair of Leukemia Research at OHSU. "We are well on our way to making effective and non-toxic therapies a reality for all cancer patients."
The Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research is one of three awards given annually by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. The awards, which often foreshadow future recognition by the Nobel committee and are often referred to as "America's Nobels," honor scientists and clinicians who've made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure and prevention of human disease.
Druker shares the 2009 award with Nichols B. Lydon, Ph.D., formerly of Novartis, and Charles Sawyers, M.D., of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. This award recognizes Druker's decades-long quest to identify and develop a clinical therapy that targets a molecular abnormality in cancer. Druker and Lydon developed Gleevec, the critical reagents that helped identify imatinib, or Gleevec, as a drug that inhibits cancer cell growth, and were responsible for moving the drug into clinical trials; and Dr. Sawyers determined how to overcome resistance to the drug.
Druker began working on abnormalities that drive the growth of cancer cells in the mid-1980s. He developed a critical reagent to help identify drugs that inhibit cancer cell growth. In 1993 he began testing compounds to kill CML cells without harming normal cells and identified Gleevec as the compound he was looking for. After completing extensive laboratory studies, he convinced Novartis to move this drug into clinical trials. He then led the highly successful clinical trials of Gleevec.
The molecular targeted drug Gleevec works by turning off the signal generated by an abnormal cancer-causing protein, thereby shutting down the growth of leukemia cells. Prior to Gleevec, standard treatments for the disease were bone marrow transplantation, which carries significant risks for patients, and interferon, a drug that kills healthy cells as well as cancer cells and produces side effects can that can be severe.
Clinical trials of Gleevec began in 1998 and produced remarkable results. Approximately 98 percent of CML patients saw their white blood counts return to normal in a matter of weeks with little or no side effects. Patients in hospice facilities who were expecting to die in weeks or months were discharged and went on to lead normal, healthy lives. This unprecedented success launched a new era in cancer research and treatment. The result would be development of drugs that kill specific kinds of cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. The outstanding results for CML patients could eventually be duplicated in patients with many other kinds of cancer
"I can't think of anyone more deserving of this prestigious award than Brian. His brilliance, hard work and dedication have provided me and thousands of cancer patients around the world with renewed hope and a new lease on life. Brian's achievements are truly inspiring, and I have no doubt his best work is still to come," said Rob Shick, 48, who, diagnosed with CML in 2005, is living a normal, healthy life with no side effects, watching his three children grow up, thanks to Druker's groundbreaking work.
"OHSU's goal is to improve the health and well-being of all Oregonians. Dr. Druker's achievement is an exciting part of the work being done by hundreds of others at the Knight Cancer Institute and throughout OHSU who are developing new cures, sharing their work and improving care for patients in this community and throughout the world. This is one of the achievements of Oregonians' investment in biomedical research through the Oregon Opportunity and significant private donor support," said Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A., OHSU president. The Oregon Opportunity is a nearly $600 million public-private partnership to advance biomedical research at OHSU
Although initially developed and FDA-approved in 2001 for the treatment of CML, Gleevec now is FDA-approved to treat six other cancers, including pediatric CML. Researchers at OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital were the first in the world to test the effectiveness of Gleevec in children, and their findings helped prompt the first FDA approval of a new pediatric cancer drug treatment in more than a decade.
Today, more than 120,000 patients with CML and 28, 000 patients with gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) — and eventually thousands more — will live longer and better lives thanks to Dr. Druker's transformative research. As director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, Dr. Druker has set a goal of treating all cancers with drugs like Gleevec. He believes through the Knight's ongoing faculty recruitments — funded by the generous support of private donors, including a recent $100 million gift from Phil and Penny Knight — Oregon will continue to be one of the best places in the nation to receive cutting-edge cancer care.
Druker is the second Oregonian to receive a Lasker Award. Cardiologist Albert Starr, M.D., was the 2007 recipient. The Lasker awards will be presented on Friday, Oct. 2, in New York City.
Chronic myeloid leukemia is one of four common types of leukemia that primarily affects adults aged 50 to 69. CML is characterized by too many white blood cells. Normal cell counts range from 5,000 to 10,000. Patients with CML may have cell counts that range between 50,000 and 500,000. Some 5,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with CML each year. Prior to Gleevec, the average life expectancy for patients with CML was three to five years. With Gleevec, the five-year survival is close to 90 percent.
About the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute
With the latest treatments, technologies and 300 research studies and clinical trials, the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute is the only cancer center between Sacramento and Seattle designated by the National Cancer Institute — an honor earned only by the nation's top cancer centers. The honor is shared among the more than 500 doctors, nurses, scientists and staff who work together at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute to reduce the impact of cancer.