Brian Druker, M.D.

The internationally renowned oncologist and cancer researcher Dr. Brian Druker, winner of the 2009 Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research (an honor often called the American Nobel Prize), was born in 1955 in Minnesota and earned his bachelor’s (in chemistry) and medical degrees from the University of California at San Diego. He then did his internship and residency at Barnes Hospital in Saint Louis (part of Washington University’s School of Medicine) and was a fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute before making the momentous decision to come to Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, where he now directs the Knight Cancer Institute, is a professor of medicine, and holds the university’s Jeld-Wen Chair in Leukemia Research.

“At Harvard,” he has said, “I was researching what drives the growth of cancer cells. For probably 30 years the view in cancer work was that if we understood what drives the growth of cancer we could target it with specific therapies and shut it down. But after all those years of people saying that, we stopped believing it because it had never been done. So as I tried to set up my own laboratory at Harvard, the view was what you are doing isn’t going to work, we just don’t believe it, nobody’s been able to prove it, we don’t want to put more resources into this. So at that point in my career I had to make a decision: do I believe that this is the path forward, or do I accept what some really smart people are telling me? And I decided that I believed this was the way forward…”

Toward Portland, toward OHSU’s cancer center, and soon to a drug called imatinib (better known as Gleevec), the first targeted cancer therapy. While doctors and scientists have battled cancer in many ways—interferon, bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy—Druker’s dream is to target cancers without harming normal cells. Gleevec is aimed at leukemia, and there are “probably thousands of ways that growth is regulated in cells, so ultimately our work and the work of many other researchers now is to create drugs to target all the abnormalities in cell growth,” he says. “The future of cancer therapy is going to be to define cancer by the broken parts.”

Today Gleevec treats ten different cancers, and Druker notes that there are targeted drugs being developed for skin cancers, breast cancers, and colon cancers. “For me the future of cancer research is far more targeted therapy. The analogy I use is infectious diseases. A century ago, if you got an infection, that was fatal. But antibiotics and vaccinations and public health prevention programs were discovered—all targeted therapies. We can make cancer treatable and curable, or even eradicate it, over this next century.”

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