Brian Druker Receives $7.5 Million Leukemia Grant

08/03/00    Portland, Ore.

Brian Druker Receives $7.5 Million Leukemia Grant.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (formerly the Leukemia Society of America) today announced a $7.5 million grant award over a five-year period -- one of the largest research grants ever awarded by a private foundation -- to Oregon Health Sciences University researcher Brian Druker, M.D., to further understanding of his groundbreaking leukemia pill.

Druker, an oncologist and professor in the OHSU School of Medicine, in collaboration with Novartis Pharmaceuticals, developed a pill that has shown dramatic benefits for patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Druker will oversee Phase III clinical trials of the leukemia pill, known as STI571, at more than 70 sites around the world beginning this month.

The Specialized Centers of Research, or SCOR, grant will encompass research conducted at OHSU, M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Center in Texas, and the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA. Led by Druker, the research will explore ways to cure patients with CML either with STI571 alone or in combination with other forms of treatment. More importantly, this grant seeks to individualize therapies so that the largest number of patients can be cured with the least invasive therapy possible. Additionally, Druker and his team hope to be able to answer some vital questions about STI571, such as how does it work, why do relapses occur in some patients with more advanced disease and can STI571 be improved?

With a greater understanding of how this compound is able to destroy cancerous cells while allowing healthy cells to survive, the hope is that this research will not just benefit CML patients, but also will provide a paradigm for treatment of patients with other types of cancer.

In order for Druker to answer these complex questions, he has divided the research into three projects:

Sum Project one, led by Druker, will address the mechanism of action of STI571. It will seek to understand why some patients have cytogenetic, or molecular, responses to STI571, but others do not.

Sum Project two, led by Charles Sawyers, M.D., at UCLA, will address the mechanisms or molecular basis of resistance to STI571.

Sum Project three, also led by Druker, will analyze combinations of STI571 with other anti-leukemic agents that are based on solid theoretical and preclinical data in an attempt to improve therapeutic outcomes for patients.

The SCOR grant marks the first time a volunteer cancer organization has dedicated the same level of research dollars for the study of blood-related cancers that have previously been available only through the federal government. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is awarding three separate grants of $7.5 million each for leukemia and lymphoma research and intends to award a total of nine grants, totalling $67.5 million, over the next three years. The other two grants announced today are for James Griffin, M.D., at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to attempt to identify and understand the genes that cause acute myelogenous leukemia and CML in order to develop new drugs that target these diseases. Selina Chen-Kiang, Ph.D., at Weill Medical College at Cornell University, has received the other grant to study how multiple myeloma plasma cells develop and how the genes that regulate their development and transformation work in order to formulate new treatments.

About 5,000 Americans each year come down with CML, a disease characterized by an excessive proliferation of white blood cells. STI571 targets the enzyme that produces the growth of excessive white blood cells while leaving normal cells alone. The drug has produced few side effects, and in the first phase of trials that began in June 1998, 31 of 31 patients at the effective dose saw their white blood cell counts return to normal within a month. Thirty of those 31 patients are still in remission. In subsequent trials with more patients at various stages of the disease, the success rate has remained high, but some patients with advanced disease have relapsed.

Druker, a program leader of the Oregon Cancer Center at OHSU, has a long involvement with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He is a vice president of the board of trustees of the Oregon Chapter based in Portland, and last April was awarded the national organization's Lifetime Achievement Award in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Druker participated in a live Webcast, along with the other grant recipients, to talk about their research.