Cancer Researchers Receive $100,000 Taubman Prize


ANN ARBOR — Two physician-scientists whose research transformed chronic myeloid leukemia from a routinely fatal to a manageable condition will share the 2013 Taubman Prize for Excellence in Translational Medical Science. The $100,000 prize is given by the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, based at the University of Michigan Medical School.

This year’s recipients are Brian Druker, M.D., of Oregon Health & Science University, whose work led to the development of the widely used drug Gleevec and served as the proof of principle for targeted cancer therapies, and Charles Sawyers, M.D., of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, whose studies on resistance to Gleevec led to the development of second generation drugs.

“Brian Druker and Charles Sawyers are quintessential role models for modern transitional medicine,” said  David Ginsburg, M.D., a Taubman Scholar and professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School and leader of the nationwide panel of translational research experts that selected the 2013 Taubman Prize recipients.  “Their success in developing specific, targeted therapies for chronic myeloid leukemia, including second- generation drugs for resistant disease, has inspired the pharmaceutical industry and an entire generation of future physician-scientists.”

The Taubman Prize is presented annually by the Taubman Institute and is open to clinician-scientists — doctors with active patient practices who also conduct laboratory research — around the world.  In keeping with the mission of the Taubman Institute, the prize is intended to recognize work in the crucial field of translational medical science by the clinician-scientists who have done the most to transform laboratory discoveries into clinical applications for patients suffering from disease.

Druker and his team performed laboratory research that led to the development of imatinib, the generic name for Gleevec. He then led the clinical trials with participation from Sawyers and Moshe Talpaz, M.D. — who now serves on the faculty of the U-M Medical School and is associate director for translational research at the U-M’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

In contrast to chemotherapies, which are toxic to healthy cells, imatinib targets only cancer cells – leading to fewer side effects. Gleevec has been called a “miracle drug” and “silver bullet” for its ability to halt CML, a cancer that affects the white blood cells.  Prior to Gleevec, bone marrow transplantation was the only treatment for CML, with very poor outcomes.  But patients taking Gleevec have demonstrated a five-year survival rate of about 90 percent.

Since Gleevec was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2001, it also has been found effective for certain gastrointestinal tumors and nine other cancers.  “I am extremely honored that the Taubman Institute has chosen to recognize our work and am especially pleased by the attention they are bringing to research that is making such a difference to the lives of patients with cancer,”  Druker said.

Sawyers, recognizing that some patients become resistant to imatinib, performed critical laboratory studies that led to a molecular understanding of the mechanism of this resistance. The understanding laid the groundwork for the development of drugs to combat resistance to imatinib. Together with Druker’s work, this has converted CML from a fatal cancer into one that is highly treatable.

“I am thrilled to be honored with Dr. Druker for our work leading to new therapies for chronic myeloid leukemia,” said Sawyers.  “Of course the greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that thousands of patients, including many of my own, have benefited from our work. 

“I applaud the Taubman Institute for their foresight in recognizing the importance of translational medical research, which is making progress in all fields of medicine at a pace that could not be imagined just 10 years ago.”

Druker and Sawyers will present the keynote addresses at the Institute’s 2013 annual symposium on Oct. 11 in Ann Arbor, where they will be awarded the Taubman Prize trophy.  The prize was first awarded in 2012, to Harry Dietz, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins University.

Nominations for the 2014 Taubman Prize, which is open to all non-University of Michigan physician-scientists with an M.D. or other medical degree, will be accepted through Feb. 1, 2014.  For more information, visit