By Ian Dillingham, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 12, 2013
On Friday, the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute presented their $100,000 Taubman Prize to a pair of cancer scientists for their research into chronic myeloid leukemia.
Brain Druker, director of the Knight Cancer Institute at the Oregon Health and Sciences University, and Charles Sawyers, chair of the human oncology and pathogenesis program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, were the recipients of this year’s grant, which was presented at a ceremony in the Taubman Institute’s Kahn Auditorium inside the Biomedical Science Research Building.
While the money is available to be used at the discretion of each recipient, most past recipients have used the money to continue their research efforts.
The event drew a crowd of about 200 people, including many researchers and physicians from the institute. Important leaders from the University of Michigan Health System were also present, including CEO Ora Pescovitz, the University’s executive vice president of medical affairs; and real estate developer A. Alfred Taubman, the namesake of the institute.
Pescovitz, who delivered opening remarks, said the recipients embody the slogan of the institute — “where scientists create cures” — because both have used their knowledge of basic biological mechanisms to develop real-world treatments for patients with CML.
“The driving passion behind the Taubman Institute is to support translational research,” Pescovitz said. “That is research that translates discoveries from the bench to the bedside — into practical applications for patients afflicted by diseases.”
Since the institute’s founding in 2007, researchers have initiated 50 clinical trials — including 19 this year alone, Pescovitz said.
“The Taubman Prize is Alfred (Taubman’s) innovated way to foster the development of this kind of life-saving research all around the world,” Pescovitz said. “This is truly an extraordinary celebration of science and the remarkable scientists at the Taubman Institute.”
Chronic myeloid leukemia is a cancer that affects human white blood cells and it currently represents 15 to 20 percent of all leukemia cases, Druker said.
Prior to the 2000s, CML was almost always fatal, with most patients given a 3 to 5 year life expectancy after being diagnosed. Through their research, Druker and Sawyers have turned CML into a treatable condition — with a 90 percent remission rate in current patients.
“It’s truly an inspiring story about understanding the mechanisms of a disease at a molecular level and how it plays out in patients,” Pescovitz said. “The discovery of (this) new treatment has really become a miracle drug.”
After receiving their awards from Taubman, both researchers were given the opportunity to present their work and ideas to the audience.
Molecular mechanisms soon became a theme of both presentations. While translational research is ultimately aimed at treating patients, both Druker and Sawyers said understating the molecular mechanism allows faster and more accurate development of drugs.
“Our task for the 21st century is to get to a point where we understand all of these molecular pathogenic events,” Druker said.
Druker’s talk focused on the development of the CML drug, Gleevec, while Sawyers spoke of the challenges associated with drug resistance. Both men addressed the scientific methods behind their work, but also called for changes in the process of drug development moving forward.
From diagnosis of the underlying condition to drug treatment, Gleevec took approximately 40 years to develop, Druker said, which is much too long for many patients who can only survive a few years with the disease. Moving forward, he added that there need to be faster methods in place to allow new drugs to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — the federal agency that regulates the development and testing of pharmaceuticals.
Sawyers, who referenced the FDA as a “friend” of research, placed the greatest emphasis on the need for reform of the pharmaceutical business model. In particular, he said companies are not incentivized to research combination drugs, which can potentially interact and prove more effective than individual treatment regimens.
While neither researcher could suggest a specific plan for reform when questioned, both agreed the regulations and incentive structure for pharmaceutical companies needs to be changed in order to allow for faster development of therapies. By incorporating these changes with a greater understanding of the molecular basis for disease, the researchers hope to cut the time required to bring a treatment to market.
“We treat our patients one at a time, we treat our diseases one at a time, but pretty soon it all starts to add up, with lots more patients surviving and thriving despite a diagnosis cancer,” Druker concluded.