Tens of thousands of people are alive today because of Brian Druker, M.D., director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. Dr. Druker turned a lethal leukemia into a manageable illness. He also showed that a drug could target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells mostly unharmed.
Dr. Druker helped develop Gleevec, the first medication that specifically targets cancer cells. Patients with a devastating form of leukemia — chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML — could suddenly expect a normal life span.
In 2001, Gleevec gained FDA approval in record time. Gleevec landed on the cover of Time magazine and established Dr. Druker as a cancer pioneer. Dr. Druker’s work launched the era of precision cancer medicine, leading to hundreds of other therapies.
Chemistry set locked away
Brian Druker was born in 1955 and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. In a 2021 interview, he said that when he was a boy, he dreamed of becoming a baseball player. He also had a strong interest in science; his father locked away his first chemistry set out of fear that he’d blow up the house.
When the time came to apply to college, he was rejected by Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. His brother suggested he go to the University of California at San Diego. There, Druker majored in chemistry and went on to medical school.
As a medical student, Druker was inspired by the progress doctors had made in treating childhood leukemia. In this type of cancer, white blood cells multiply uncontrollably.
Druker decided to focus on figuring out what was wrong with the cells. At first, he pursued research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. After several years, his boss told him his ideas were too impractical.
Dr. Druker didn’t listen. He packed his bags and moved to OHSU, where he dived back into his quest: a way to target the abnormal cells in CML.
Leukemia cells keep dividing because they have a genetic mutation. This mutation produces a molecular switch that is stuck in the “on” position. The switch tells the cell to keep dividing. Dr. Druker wanted to home in on that switch and shut it off.
At the time, this was a radical idea. The drugs then used in chemotherapy attacked all cells. No one had figured out how to make a drug that aimed only at cancer cells.
But Dr. Druker was convinced his strategy would work if he could turn the switch into a target.
In 1999, he published a groundbreaking study on 31 patients who were dying of CML; chemotherapy wasn’t working, and they didn’t qualify for bone-marrow transplants.
The patients volunteered for an experimental medication now known as Gleevec. After a month of treatment, 30 of the patients showed a normal blood count. Gleevec locked onto the cancer cells and shut them down — just as Dr. Druker had predicted.
Since then, tens of thousands of patients have managed their illness with a daily pill. The era of precision cancer medicine had begun.
A self-described workaholic, Dr. Druker gets his exercise by running to and from work, rain or shine. His favorite way to spend free time is with his wife, son and two daughters.
He became the Knight Cancer Institute’s director in 2007, leading it to national prominence.
In 2015, he celebrated the Knight Cancer Challenge, raising $1 billion for Knight Cancer Institute research. The Oregon Legislature and more than 10,000 donors from Oregon and beyond matched a $500 million grant from Phil and Penny Knight.
The challenge gave Dr. Druker the funding to launch the Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center (CEDAR), a pioneering effort to find cancer early. Hundreds of scientists now work in CEDAR’s home, the state-of-the-art Knight Cancer Research Building.
Dr. Druker is also helping to lead a national clinical trial to find effective treatments for another leukemia — AML (acute myeloid leukemia). The BEAT AML trial — sponsored by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society — is a joint effort by medical centers, drug makers and the Food and Drug Administration.
“Thank you for saving my life”
Dr. Druker has won a cascade of accolades and awards, including the prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research, the Sjoberg Prize, the Japan Prize and the Tang Prize.
But he derives the most inspiration from his patients.
“At least once a month, an email shows up from a patient with CML saying: ‘I just want to thank you for saving my life,’ ” he said in 2021. “What could be more satisfying for a scientist-clinician than that?”
Learn more about Dr. Druker
- Groundbreaking Cancer Researcher Brian J. Druker, MD, Shows No Signs of Slowing Down, The ASCO Post, March 2021
- The survivors: How an experimental treatment saved patients and changed medicine, STAT, April 2017
- Researcher Behind the Drug Gleevec, New York Times, November 2009
- A Triumph in the War Against Cancer, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011
Dr. Druker has won many prestigious awards, including:
- The Sjöberg Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
- The Warren Alpert Prize from Harvard Medical School
- The Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research
- The Japan Prize in Healthcare and Medical Technology
- The Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science
- The Prince Mahidol Award for outstanding achievements in medicine and public health worldwide
Dr. Druker has also been elected to:
- The National Academy of Medicine
- The National Academy of Sciences
- The American Academy of Arts and Sciences