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OHSU Knight Cancer Institute Director receives prestigious Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award

Honor recognizes Brian J. Druker’s work in changing how cancer is treated

Brian J. Druker, M.D. — whose research led to the development of Gleevec, the first genetically targeted cancer drug that left healthy cells unharmed and revolutionized how the disease is treated — has received the prestigious Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award from the American Society for Clinical Investigation, an honor that recognizes physician-scientists for advancing knowledge in their field and mentoring future generations of life-science researchers.

“I am deeply honored to receive this recognition from the American Society for Clinical Investigation. We are now in an era where we’re making significant progress in determining how different cancer cells grow,” said Druker, director of the Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute. “Because of these advances, our approach to fighting cancer is changing and the resulting treatments are providing new hope to patients and their families.”

The Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award was established in 1998 to honor Korsmeyer, who died in 2005, for his work in determining the key genetic mechanisms that govern cell death and survival. Among the past recipients is National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., whose work in identifying the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis helped pioneer the entire field of human genome research.

Druker shares the 2011 Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award with Charles L. Sawyers, M.D., of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The award celebrates their work, collaboratively and as individuals, in revolutionizing the treatment of cancer through rigorous molecular science. Druker and Sawyers will share the $10,000 award honorarium and present the Korsmeyer Award Lecture at the 2011 ASCI/AAP Meeting, April 15-17, in Chicago, Ill.

In granting the award, the American Society for Clinical Investigators cited the breakthrough Druker achieved in the development of tyrosine kinase inhibitors to arrest chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), which was “a case study in the successful progress of basic research to the clinic.”

Druker began his lab work investigating the genetic abnormalities that drive cancer in the mid 1980s. Among his early achievements was developing a laboratory reagent to help identify drugs that could inhibit cancer cell growth. As an extension of that work, in 1993 he began collaborating with a pharmaceutical company to test compounds that could stop CML cells from growing without harming normal cells. Of the compounds he tested, Druker identified imatinib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, as the most effective. After extensive laboratory studies, Druker was able to move the drug into clinical trials in 1998.

Working with industry, Druker and Sawyers began clinical trials of imatinib, demonstrating impressive results in chronic-phase CML patients. The vast majority of patients’ white blood cell counts were restored to near normal with few, if any, side effects. The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug in 2001, less than three years after the trials began.

During the course of the trials, Druker and Sawyers learned that problems remained for some CML patients, who developed resistance to imatinib, leading to relapse and acceleration of the disease. In 2001, Sawyers and his lab identified an assortment of mutations that caused resistance to imatinib. Working with structural biologist John Kuriyan, they recognized that other kinase inhibitors could block growth of the resistant tumor cells. These findings led to the development and FDA-approved use of other tyrosine kinase inhibitors in patients with resistant CML. Imatinib, or Gleevec, is now approved for use in treating other diseases, such as gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST). In addition, several other kinase inhibitors have been developed to target other cancers following similar molecular principles.

Along with heading the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, Druker is associate dean for oncology, adjunct professor of pediatrics (hematology and oncology) in the OHSU School of Medicine, JELD-WEN Chair of Leukemia Research at OHSU, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. He was elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation in 1997.

Sawyers is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he is Director of the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program and holds the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Chair. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. He was elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation in 1999.

Druker and Sawyers shared the 2009 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award with Nicholas B. Lydon.

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