Dr. Brian Druker graduated medical school determined to find a better way. Despite debilitating chemotherapy and dangerous bone marrow transplants, life expectancy for Chronic Myeloid Leukemia patients remained three to five years.
Everything changed when Druker pioneered the first targeted cancer treatment, a medicine called Gleevec. Now, a pill with minimal side effects gives most CML patients a normal life expectancy.
On May 15, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and Mittleman Jewish Community Center presented “The End of Cancer is within Reach, An Evening with Dr. Brian Druker.” It began with a small technical discussion with JFGP’s Maimonides Society for Jewish healthcare professionals. Almost 200 came for the public presentation that followed.
JFPG 2012 campaign chair Kim Rosenberg explained the program was part of the federation’s vision “to serve as a convener, bringing the community together around matters of communal importance.”
Richard Rubinstein, who spearheaded fundraising for Oregon Health & Science University’s first endowed cancer chair, introduced the speaker. Druker is director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and a recipient of the Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research, considered “America’s Nobel Prize,” he said. In 2001, the FDA approved Gleevec, the world’s first targeted cancer therapy drug. Now approved for 10 types of cancer, hundreds of thousands of people are alive thanks to the pill that kills diseased cells while leaving healthy tissue unharmed. When the applause died down, Druker began.
“My hope is to leave you with a sense of optimism about cancer research, and let you know why I’m so optimistic about the future,” he said. He took the audience back to New York City 100 years ago, with mass overcrowding, poor sanitation and rampant, often fatal, infectious disease. “Children had one in 10 chance of dying before age 4. Being diagnosed with pneumonia was a death sentence. Still, scientists were optimistic. The germ theory of infectious disease had been developed, and it was no longer mystical forces. Scientists knew germs caused infectious disease.”
The point, Druker said, is if the cause is discovered, there is hope for a cure. Just as the germ theory of infectious disease led to the end of that scourge, so the gene theory of cancer will follow suit. Just as pasteurization, antibiotics and vaccines wiped out one terror, public health measures like smoking cessation, vaccines like the one against cervical cancer, and drugs like Gleevec will one day control cancer.
Druker compared cancer to a home thermostat gone awry. Instead of keeping the temperature between 68 and 72 degrees, it uncontrollably shoots up making the room hotter and hotter. You can bang the thermostat with a hammer, rather like chemotherapy, replace the thermostat, like a bone marrow transplant, or just fix the broken part. “That’s exactly what we did with Gleevec,” he said. “We understood what part was driving the growth of this leukemia and basically turned it off, disabling the growth of the cancer without disabling the patient. Cancer melted before our eyes. In June 1998, we started clinical trials in Oregon. Within six months 100% of our patients were responding. A woman referred from hospice with weeks to live had picked out music for her funeral. We started her on Gleevec, and in three weeks her blood count
Druker cautioned cancer involves hundreds of “broken parts.” Discovering and developing a “Gleevec” for each will take dedication and millions of research dollars.
“There’s lots of work to be done,” he said. “We have an urgent mission; 500,000 patients die of cancer every year in this country. We need to seize the opportunity, and we need more funding. It’s about hope, optimism and understanding that we are on the cusp of making cancer a treatable, manageable and curable disease.”
- How Gleevec changed everything for Ken and Jennifer Zeidman
by Polina Olsen
Ken Zeidman was happy the summer of 2001, acting like a man who had recently married his sweetheart. Then, routine blood work showed a sky-high white blood count. Two weeks later the oncologist confirmed a grim diagnosis: Chronic Myeloid Leukemia.
“I thought, it’s another hand I’m being dealt,” said Zeidman, who has battled Crohn’s disease since his childhood in Eastmoreland and Raleigh Hills. A person with deep roots in Portland, he knew the community and had support among family and friends.
“Given that I’ve had a chronic illness since I was a kid, I probably handled it better than some others,” he said. “I’m a stubborn person. I thought this is what it is, and what do we need to do? But you’re also thinking about mortality.”
At first, what to do meant debilitating chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant. (Zeidman’s sister was a match). Then Zeidman learned of Dr. Brian Druker and the new medicine he’d pioneered. The FDA had approved Gleevec only six months before Zeidman’s diagnosis.
“He was a soft spoken, nice guy,” Zeidman said, remembering his first meeting with Druker. “He doesn’t come off as conceited or arrogant, just down to earth. He reassured me and started me on Gleevec. They did a lot of blood work. The drug was still so new they wanted to know if I was improving or not. Within months, my white count had dropped significantly. After a couple years, the leukemia was statistically undetectable.”
That was 11 years ago.
“Fortunately we had good insurance because the medicine costs between $2,000 and $4,000 a month, as I understand it,” he said. “The first couple years the pills were bigger. It took a year or so to get acclimated without having stomach side effects, but it’s not like losing your hair with chemotherapy. For six or seven years, I had annual bone marrow biopsies. Dr. Druker was the gentlest person in the world.”
Zeidman’s wife, Jennifer agrees. “It was shocking, frightening, to hear the word ‘cancer,’” she said. “At first you’re apprehensive. Gleevec had been approved for only six months. For a few years, we worried how long this pill would keep him healthy but now it’s part of normal life. Dr Druker is the reason Ken is in my life today.”
For the past 11 years, the couple has enjoyed their house in the Garden Home neighborhood and stayed active. Ken Zeidman has served on the Mittleman Jewish Community Center and Beit Haverim boards while Jennifer is taking a one-year break from her work with Jewish Family and Child Service. Best of all, their daughter Ruth was born in 2005. She’s now a first-grader at Portland Jewish Academy.
“I call her the Gleevec baby,” Ken Zeidman said. “I would have needed high-powered chemotherapy that could have made it impossible for me to have children. Dr. Druker has two daughters. His eldest is a year older than Ruthie. When I run into him at Costco, we talk about our girls.”