The Healer

33175954630_d58cf699c6_zYou could call Brian Druker ’77, MD ’81, determined, committed, tireless—but what does he say of himself? “All of that is really just a healthy genetic dose of stubbornness from my parents.”

Whatever you call it, it was the drive that kept him pushing through research and development of Gleevec, a wondrous treatment for leukemia that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Inspired by the memory of his patients who succumbed to the disease, and making good on the promises he made them and their families, Druker brought the treatment from bench to bedside and has kept going strong in his role as a physician-scientist at Oregon Health & Science University and Director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

On choosing UC San Diego:

“UCSD has an incredible history—what they did by bringing in so many high-profile scientists and faculty to build the school, it created just an outstanding learning environment. And so here I was at a relatively small school on a steep upward trajectory, and when I think back about the professors and the classes, the access that I had, it was remarkable. I couldn’t have made a better choice.”

On a prescient term paper:

“In my first year of medical school at UCSD, I took an elective class called ‘The History of Chemotherapy’. I recall sitting in that class thinking that even though it was remarkable you could cure leukemia with four different chemotherapy drugs, it still seemed like such a barbaric and toxic process that there just had to be a better way. The last line I wrote in a final for that class was, ‘Only through the understanding of what distinguishes cancer cells from normal cells can we attack it more effectively.’ I didn’t know if that would be possible in my lifetime, but it clearly rings true in terms of what I ended up doing. To think that in my very first year of medical school, that class laid the foundation for what I did with my career.”

On how his patients drove his work:

In 1984 and 1985, during my oncology training, I got first-hand experience with just how toxic most of our chemotherapy drugs were and the majority of the patients that I was treating with chemotherapy were destined to die of their cancer. We might prolong their life a bit with the treatments, but this was a difficult experience. As was the custom at Dana Farber [Cancer Institute], I would write a letter to the family of someone whose loved one had died, and I would put in those letters my personal desires to work on something that would be better, and let them know that was what I intended to devote my life to. After completing training in oncology, I went back in the lab and my goal was to try to figure out what distinguishes a cancer cell from a normal cell and to see if there was some way that knowledge could be translated back in the clinic with a more effective, less toxic, therapy.  My experience in the clinic, taking care of cancer patients, solidified my desire to find a better way to treat cancer.

On leading drug development that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives:

“You know, you don’t dwell on it. The reality is there’s still way more work to be done, and there’s still too many people dying of cancer—600,000 people will die from cancer in the United States this year. We’ve improved the situation for one particular type of leukemia, and we’ve launched a new paradigm for how we can attack cancer, but there’s still work to be done. I think I’ve put an important piece of the puzzle into place, but there are still a lot of puzzle pieces left to put together.”

On putting together the rest of those pieces:

“I have three current projects: one is finding a way from a durable, stable, remission of leukemia to a cure so we can get patients off treatment. The second is tackling a much more difficult leukemia called acute myeloid leukemia, a far more complicated cancer that will likely require combinations of treatment. And the third area of work is how to detect cancer at an earlier, more curable stage, when it’s less complicated. So we’re putting significant emphasis and effort into precisely detecting cancer at an earlier stage.”

On his favorite UC San Diego memories:

The best memories I have from my time as an undergrad were spending time with my friends on the fields around Revelle college playing intramural sports. I had grown up not particularly gifted athletically, but always enjoyed sports. Most days after class, I could spend time with my buddies playing football, basketball, soccer, or whatever sport was in season. It was quite an adjustment having grown up in Minnesota, where typically if the weather was nice, you went outside and played, so my tendency in my early years at UCSD was to spend a bit too much time outdoors. Once I realized that the good weather was always there, I was able to buckle down and do much better on my school work.” But, what I learned about myself during that time was how much I valued being active. So, I’ve made sure to carry that lesson forward by remaining active in my daily life. The weather’s not as good in Portland as it is in San Diego, but I can still get out and run most days of the year, including running back and forth to work.”