The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

Louis Degennaro

An interview with Louis J. DeGennaro, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

It was 1993 when Brian Druker, M.D., left Harvard for OHSU to pursue a targeted therapy for chronic myeloid leukemia, a lethal blood cancer. At the time, patients with CML were given chemotherapy, but it only made them sicker. Most died within five years of diagnosis. 

Druker’s revolutionary vision for a drug that could target the cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone attracted a $540,000 grant from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in 1995. That grant provided critical funding that enabled Druker to pursue his groundbreaking research, and eventually led to the creation of the first targeted cancer therapy, Gleevec®, which targets cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. Today, targeted therapies are the new normal, with more than 60 FDA-approved therapies and many more in development. 

The LLS continues to support the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. In 2013, The LLS reached a milestone of $30 million in cumulative investment in research at OHSU. That same year, the organization launched the Beat AML cancer research initiative, a multi-institutional collaboration, led by The LLS and OHSU, designed to bring hope to patients with another deadly blood cancer: acute myeloid leukemia.

The OHSU Foundation interviewed Louis J. DeGennaro, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, about the long history between The LLS and its support for the work of Brian Druker, M.D., director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

"The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society was founded 65 years ago by a husband and wife who lost their teenage son to leukemia. They realized we needed more research for treatments and cures. We have been committed to this mission ever since. 

The challenge with blood cancers is that we don't know what causes them, so it’s hard to have a prevention strategy. There's no early detection for blood cancers; patients present with a full-blown disease. We believe the best use of resources is to find new cures and therapies for those patients. 


Pioneering a new kind of research grant

In 1995 Dr. Druker was in the first class of a new LLS grant award called the Translational Research Program grant. Translational science was not as understood or as well funded back then. We pioneered a new kind of award because we wanted to fund projects that had a clear path out of the lab, into the clinic and toward new therapies for blood cancer patients."

"We want to create incentives for teamwork instead of competition for the same funding."
- Louis J. DeGennaro, Ph.D.
  President and CEO, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

Encouraging the team approach

"Dr. Druker was able to show that a certain approach could work. He was ready to test the concept with clinical trials. In 2000, LLS innovated again, creating a grant program called the Specialized Centers of Research. We created these grants because we recognized that if we were going to advance new therapies, we would need teamwork. We would need to incentivize physician scientists and basic scientists to collaborate. To receive the grant, at least three senior investigators had to be willing to come together to advance a theme – as a team. Dr. Druker applied for and won the grant right when he was ready to begin clinical trials. The level of funding plus the teamwork environment allowed him to truly move out of the lab and into the clinic. The value was borne out in the result: It has had a tremendous impact for patients. The discovery of tyrosine kinase inhibitors transformed how we treat cancer - away from the sledgehammer of chemo to targeted oral therapies that address the molecular causes of cancers.

"Blood cancer research is paving the superhighway to cancer cures. If you count all the drugs newly approved by the FDA since 2000, 31 of 81 drugs, or almost 40 percent, were approved first for a blood cancer, and many of these were subsequently approved for other cancers and other diseases. 

Watch a video interview with Dr. Druker about how support from the LLS was so vital to his work