Imagine being able to meet the person who saved your life. A good friend of mine had that experience nine years ago when he met the young woman who gave him her bone marrow, helping him beat a blood cancer that once was almost always fatal.
Today, he meets the other person who saved him: Dr. Brian Druker, the oncologist and researcher who developed Gleevec, the drug that made the transplant possible. Druker will be speaking today at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa about the future of cancer care, and my friend will be there, too.
Back in the early 1990s Druker saw promise in new compounds that targeted and blocked a specific mechanism in the cancer cells of leukemia patients. His colleagues were skeptical, but he persisted.
"I just believed there had to be a better way to treat cancer," said Druker, reached earlier this week at his office in Oregon.
Druker identified one compound that killed cells responsible for chronic myelogenous leukemia, a fairly rare but devastating disease. In 1998 he got approval to find out whether the drug was safe in humans.
The response was dramatic. Blood counts in all 31 study patients returned to normal. More than five months later, nine of 20 patients in a followup study were cancer-free and reported only minor side effects. Another study published in April 2001 reported a stunning 53 of 54 CML patients treated with the drug had normal blood counts.
The drug, named Gleevec, was granted a fast-tracked FDA approval on May 10, 2001.
This was one day after my friend learned he had an untreatable form of leukemia.
Lance Williams, my former colleague at WFLA-Ch. 8, received the drug, which bought him enough time to have his bone marrow transplant. Lance left television news and is a real estate consultant in South Tampa. He lives with his wife and two kids, one of whom was a baby when he was diagnosed and likely would not have known her father if not for Druker.
Wherever Druker goes he meets people with similar stories. "It never gets old," he said.
Druker, 56, is director of the Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute. He continues to lead research looking for the next cancer breakthrough and sees patients, mostly with CML, once a week.
"I started out my career to make a difference for people with cancer. Treating patients in the mid '80s, it was rare to cure anyone," said Druker. "Now I have a clinic full of patients who are alive and thriving. It's a joy to go to the clinic."
Unlike standard chemotherapy, Gleevec targets only the protein responsible for causing CML; healthy cells are left alone. That's one of the reasons it causes only minimal side effects. It has another advantage: It is given orally, so patients don't have to report to a hospital or clinic for repeated infusions. It now is FDA-approved to treat a number of cancers.
Since Gleevec's official introduction 10 years ago, many other targeted therapies have been developed or are in clinical trials. It took researchers 25 years to find the protein responsible for CML and how to block it. Now researchers can identify cancer-causing targets in a few months. The challenge is in finding new drugs to block those targets.
"The drug companies are working hard on this," said Druker. "In the next 10 to 20 years, we'll be able to take tumors from patients, analyze them for targets and have drugs that shut the cancer down. It won't be long before every patient has their Gleevec.''
Irene Maher can be reached at [email protected]