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Dr. Brian Druker honored with Japan Prize

By pioneering the development of targeted cancer drugs, Druker’s work helped usher in the practice of personalized cancer medicine

Oregon Health & Science University congratulates Brian J. Druker, M.D., who has been awarded the 2012 Japan Prize in Healthcare and Medical Technology for his pioneering role in targeted cancer drugs. The Japan Prize is considered one of the world’s most prestigious awards in science and technology. Druker’s research proved it was possible to shut down cells that enable cancer to grow without harming healthy ones – a discovery that helped make once-fatal forms of the disease manageable.

“On behalf of all OHSU employees, I extend our congratulations to Brian,” said OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A. “Brian’s brilliance, hard work and dedication have impacted millions of lives. Though he has already achieved great things, Brian has maintained his fierce determination to make cancer a disease we no longer have to fear. It is impossible to not be inspired by him and want to be a part of his important mission to end cancer as we know it.”

Druker shares the Japan Prize in Healthcare and Medical Technology with Nicholas B. Lydon, Ph.D., who became a founder and director of Blueprint Medicines after a career at Novartis, and Janet D. Rowley, M.D., Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Human Genetics at The University of Chicago. All three were involved in the scientific discoveries that led to the development of one of the first drugs to target cancer-specific molecules. In addition to the prize for Healthcare and Medical Technology, the Japan Prize Foundation also recognized Masato Sagawa, president of Intermetallics Co., with the award for Environment, Energy and Infrastructure for developing the world’s highest performing permanent magnet and contributing to energy conservation.

“We’re honored to give this year’s awards to the four distinguished people,” said Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, chairman of the Japan Prize Foundation. “They truly deserve the Japan Prize, which is given to scientists and researchers who made substantial contributions not only scientifically but also to promoting the advancement of science and technology for the peace and prosperity of mankind.”

The Japan Prize Laureates will be formally honored at a Presentation Ceremony in Tokyo on April 25.

“I am honored to receive this distinguished award. It is most meaningful to me because the research it recognizes brings hope to cancer 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. “My goal going forward is to advance science so that someday there will be a targeted therapy to shut down every form of cancer.”

Druker began his cancer research career in the 1980s, studying why some formerly normal cells shift into overdrive producing tumors. In 1993, the year he joined OHSU, Druker began testing compounds that could target the molecules that drive chronic myloid leukemia (CML). He identified the compound that ultimately became Gleevec® and then led the drug’s clinical trials. During the trials, nearly all 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 within days, recovered and began leading normal lives and are still alive today.

The trials were so successful that they resulted in the fastest approval by the FDA in its history.

Since Gleevec® was approved by the FDA in 2001 to treat CML, it has since been proven effective against multiple forms of cancer including pediatric CML and gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST). Gleevec’s success has since led to the development of dozens of other FDA-approved targeted therapies and even more that are in clinical trials or about to be approved.

With his scientific and medical achievements, Druker has steadily built the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute into an international leader in delivering personalized cancer medicine. Public support through the National Institutes of Health and the Oregon Opportunity research investment has been joined with generous private donations – including the transformative $100 million gift from Phil and Penny Knight, the $5 million gift from John Gray and the $2.5 million gift from the Boyle family. These investments have enabled Druker to recruit some of the world’s top scientists to write the assembly manual for cancer. By figuring out how cancer cells function and why they grow out of control, researchers will have the knowledge they require to develop the drugs to stop it.

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