Druker Named Howard Hughes Investigator

05/27/02    Portland, Ore.

OHSU leukemia researcher receives one of science's most prestigious awards

Brian Druker, M.D., was named one of 12 new Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators today. The prestigious award will bring up to $1 million annually in unrestricted funds for continued research to Druker's lab at Oregon Health & Science University Cancer Institute. He joins two other researchers at OHSU who have received this honor and 324 across the United States.

Druker was at the center of one of the most exciting recent advances in cancer treatment - the development of STI571, commonly known as Gleevec. The drug inhibits the activity of specific proteins called tyrosine kinases that promote the formation of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) and gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST).

Working from the premise that the Bcr-Abl tyrosine kinase caused CML, Druker searched for a molecule that would block the action of the mutant kinase without interfering with other kinases. His search led him to scientists at Ciba-Geigy, now Novartis, who provided a number of chemical compounds that Druker tested. The studies turned up STI571, a compound that Druker played a key role in shepherding through development - from early experimental therapy to large-scale clinical trials in patients.

"Scientists must be patient to endure the long hours and years of research that may or may not bear fruit," said Druker, JELD-WEN Chair of Leukemia Research at OHSU. "Thanks to programs like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, scientists can dedicate themselves to their work without taking great amounts of time to solicit funding. This is a great honor."

Through collaborative agreements with universities and other academic research organizations, HHMI investigators carry out their research in HHMI labs while still holding faculty appointments at their respective institutions. This model differs from the grant-based approach used elsewhere by focusing on people, rather than projects.

Druker's role in the clinical trials of the drug earned him the top presentation at this year's American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting. On Monday Druker presented results - showing that Gleevec performs four to six times better than interferon as a first-line treatment for CML. Last year Gleevec was approved in record time by the Food and Drug Administration for CML patients who failed interferon; these latest results will change the standard treatment for newly diagnosed CML.

As the STI571 studies have shown, tyrosine kinases make excellent targets for new cancer therapies. Druker and his colleagues are continuing to study how tyrosine kinases spur cellular transformation. His group is now studying the FLT3 tyrosine kinase, which is mutated in 30 percent of patients with acute myeloid leukemia. Using the STI571 studies as a road map for drug development, Druker and his colleagues at OHSU hope to design an effective FLT3 inhibitor and take that to clinical trials.

Druker received this honor after being selected from among 138 nominations of the country's leading physician-scientists. He was appointed to a five-year term with the institute.

"I'm honored to be in such select company, but even more fortunate to know that I'll be able to continue my research unhindered by financial considerations," said Druker.