A Triumph in the War Against Cancer

Oncologist Brian Druker developed a new treatment for a deadly cancer, leading to a breakthrough that has transformed medicine

"We're just seeing the start of matching patients with the right drug and seeing rapid improvements," says Dr. Brian Druker. (Robbie McClaran)
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Today, Suzan McNamara would agree that future is good. When she first traveled to Portland in 2000 to take part in the Gleevec study, she recalled, “I went there with half my hair, and anorexic, and couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs. And I came back in one and a half months 20 pounds heavier and full of life.” Her next steps were to attend McGill University, study leukemia therapies and earn a PhD in experimental medicine. Now 44, she lives in Montreal and works in Ottawa for Health Canada, a federal agency. Still on Gleevec, she runs several miles a few times a week. “I’d go more if I wasn’t so lazy,” she said. In January 2010 she wed her longtime boyfriend, Derek Tahamont, in Hawaii. “He stood by me through the whole illness and everything,” she said. “We decided to hop on a plane and get married on a beach, just the two of us. It was perfect.”

Gleevec has encouraged people to think cancer is not always a deadly invader that must be annihilated but a chronic ailment that can be managed, like diabetes. In follow-up studies led by Druker, some 90 percent of newly diagnosed CML patients who began taking Gleevec had survived five years. “I tell patients how optimistic I am about their future,” Druker said. “We’re projecting for Gleevec that average survival will be 30 years. Someone who’s diagnosed at 60 can live to 90, and die of something else.”

Back when LaDonna Lopossa was 60, she recalled, Druker said he would keep her alive until she was 70. Then she reached that milestone. “I meant when I turned 70,” he joked to her then.

LaDonna, now 71, and George, 68, live in Battle Ground, Washington, a rural town 24 miles north of OHSU, where LaDonna remains under Druker’s care. The Lopossas live in a bungalow in a state-subsidized senior-citizen housing complex across the street from a family that keeps hens in the yard and lets George grow herbs. A framed magazine ad for Gleevec featuring LaDonna hangs on a living room wall. Two portraits of Christ grace a dining room wall. George, who is quick to say he’s not religious—“nobody knows what Jesus looked like,” he quipped of LaDonna’s iconography—has his own den, where he watches “Family Guy.”

LaDonna volunteers at the North County Community Food Bank down the street, at the Mormon church she belongs to and, by telephone, she counsels people newly diagnosed with CML for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. One of her biggest challenges these days, she said, is convincing patients to keep taking Gleevec; they haven’t endured the symptoms of fulminating CML and some find the drug’s side effects annoying.

Gleevec held LaDonna’s CML at bay for seven years, at which time her disease became resistant to the drug. Fortunately, medical scientists and drug companies had developed two new CML drugs, each disabling the BCR-ABL enzyme in a different fashion and compensating for a type of Gleevec resistance. Sprycel didn’t help LaDonna, but Tasigna did—for about two years. Now she’s on her fourth targeted CML drug, bosutinib, which is still experimental. “Her leukemia is the best controlled it’s ever been since I have taken care of her in the past 11 years,” Druker said.

Personalized Oncology

Seated at the small round conference table in his small corner office high on Marquam Hill, Druker said he was still studying CML, hoping to understand how to eliminate every last mutant stem cell, and he was also trying to apply “the Gleevec paradigm” to other leukemias. A bright yellow bicycle-racing jersey worn and autographed by the Tour de France champ and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong hung framed on the wall. It was a clear day and the great vanilla ice-cream scoop of Mount St. Helens was visible out the window facing north and the storybook white triangle of Mount Hood could be seen through the window facing east. The guy who didn’t have the right stuff to be a Harvard assistant professor is today the director of OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute, named after Phil Knight, the founder of Nike and a Portland native, and his wife, Penny, who in 2008 pledged $100 million to the facility. “Brian Druker is nothing short of a genius and a visionary,” Phil Knight said at the time.

The honors have poured in, including the field’s top U.S. prize, the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, which Druker shared in 2009 with Lydon and Sawyers. Of his many appearances in the news media none would change his life more than a story about him in People, “The Miracle Worker,” published in February 2001. The magazine had sent a reporter named Alexandra Hardy to interview the dragon-slaying physician at the hospital in the clouds. The two were married in 2002 and are parents to Holden, Julia and Claire. Said Druker: “I have the ability now to focus on family as a priority. I couldn’t have done that 10 or 15 years ago.”

To some observers, the Gleevec fable soon lost its luster. “‘Wonder Drug’ for Leukemia Suffers Setback,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2002 once some patients became resistant to the drug or could not tolerate it. Also, it seemed researchers were slow to produce other drugs targeted to tame other cancers, calling the strategy’s promise into question. A Time reporter blogged in 2006 that Gleevec was a “Cinderella drug”—a glass slipper that fit a singular candidate. Sawyers said he got tired of researchers saying Gleevec was a one-off, a lucky shot.


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