When one thinks of award-winning movies, one might immediately think of the outstanding characters and the actors and actresses that bring them to life. What one does not think about, perhaps, are the many plot devices that drive the story. In the recent award-nominated Chinese movie Dying to Survive, medicine plays an important supporting role. Its protagonist Lu Yong, a leukemia patient, smuggles a cancer medicine from India for sufferers of chronic myeloid leukemia back in China, where it is so expensive as to be practically unavailable.
While the movie may be fiction, this life-changing medicine is real. Known by the scientific name imatinib and brand name Gleevec®, this miracle drug, developed by 2018 Tang Prize Laureate Brian Druker and his lab, has given cancer patients new hope, as it has extended the 10-year survival rate from an uncertain 50% to a manageable 90%. The amazing story of this drug is told in the recent Tang Prize documentary, where Druker himself shares his story of the drug that beat all odds.
Like many miracles, no one had believed such a drug was even a possibility. And like all great discoveries, its discoverer persisted, even in the greatest of adversity. Druker moved to the Oregon Health & Science University, in Portland, Oregon, with one goal in mind—to develop a drug to treat chronic myeloid leukemia. The pharmaceutical company developing the drug was not hopeful at first. In fact, the company later dissolved when the initial results came back lower than expected. But Druker was well aware of what was at stake and convinced a company to continue with development.
In June of 1998, imatinib entered the clinical trial phase with 54 subjects who were resistant to other cancer drugs. In just four weeks, 53 of the subjects no longer had any signs of cancer. After the 5-year follow up study, 98% of the subjects were still doing well; and the overall survival rate was 89%. Seeing the surprising efficacy of this drug, the US FDA put it on its priority list for review and approved it in a little less than three months. Druker’s success was noted by TIME magazine as “new ammunition in the fight against cancer” that could save countless lives.
“How do you give back? How do you ever give back for having your life saved?” asked Rob Shick, who was so moved by being given a new lease on life that he dedicated himself to raising money for cancer research. Seeing these people go on to live full lives made Druker hopeful for the future. While targeted therapy was long theoretically possible, Druker’s successful targeted therapy made it a viable option for more research. It is merely the first example of many targeted therapies to come.
Watch the Tang Prize Documentary in Biopharmaceutical Science at the link below.