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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You didn’t have to be a Harvard doctor to see that a single enzyme that causes a fatal leukemia was, as researchers say, an attractive target for intervention. And, indeed, scientists were then setting out to find or invent compounds that could block the BCR-ABL enzyme.

Druker and his Boston co-workers, using specially designed antibodies, developed a new way to measure the enzyme’s activity—a tool that would prove invaluable to evaluating potential CML treatments. A necktie-wearing physician among jean-clad PhDs, Druker was racing competitors at other research centers to find a drug that suppresses cancer by disabling a critical enzyme and spares healthy tissues in the bargain. By tradition, cancer treatments carpet-bombed the body with powerful drugs, killing healthy and cancer cells alike—“cytotoxic chemotherapy,” doctors call it. The alternative, targeted therapy, would fight cancer better with less collateral damage, or at least that was the notion that often kept Druker in the lab until 11 p.m.

Then things began to fall apart. “My marriage had broken down. I wasn’t what you would call a devoted husband. I was a devoted researcher and scientist and physician. And that took a toll.” (Druker and his wife split after two years of marriage and were later divorced.)

Still, with a score of published studies and a nifty enzyme-measuring technique to show for his efforts, Druker thought he was ready to move up the Harvard ladder from instructor to assistant professor. “I sat down with the head of medical oncology at Dana-Farber,” Druker recalled. “He looked over my résumé and said, ‘I just don’t think this work is going to go anywhere here.’” Translation: “I was told I had no future at Dana-Farber.”

“It was awful,” he recalled. “I was depressed. But it forced me to really say, Do I believe in myself? Am I going to make it, make a difference?”

Growing Concern

Asked to describe Druker’s approach, one scientist said it boiled down to “perseverance and stubbornness in not letting go of an idea.”

“I think intrinsically he’s a shy person,” said another. “But on this”—cancer therapy—“he’s like a crusader.”

“He takes everything that is complicated, shoves it in his mind and outputs the simplest possible interpretation and intervention.”

“When you ask a question, there’s silence in the room, almost uncomfortable silence, and you’re, like, did he even hear me? He thinks things through before giving an answer.”


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