Janet Rowley of University of Chicago selected for President Bush's bioethics council

Janet Rowley of University of Chicago selected for President Bush's Bioethics Council

January 16, 2002

Janet Davison Rowley, MD, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and of Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, has been selected as one of 17 members of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, formed to advise the President on issues of scientific and ethical policy. Dr. Leon Kass, also of the University of Chicago, is head of the Council.

The Council will hold its first meeting on January 17.

An authority on the relationship between chromosomal or genetic abnormalities and specific types of cancer, Rowley has long acknowledged as a leader in her field. She received the prestigious Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor, in 1998.

Rowley, 76, was educated and has spent her entire professional career at the University of Chicago, where she has meticulously demonstrated that specific types of cancer are caused by specific alterations of chromosomes.

The citation for the National Medal of Science praises Rowley: "For revolutionizing cancer research, diagnosis and treatment through her discovery of chromosomal translocations in cancer, and in her pioneering work on the relationship of prior treatment to recurring chromosome abnormalities, for epitomizing the 'bench to bedside' philosophy in her application of basic discoveries to clinical medicine, and for her leadership nationally and internationally in the oncology and biomedical communities."

A "whiz kid," who entered the University through the Four-Year College in 1940 at the age of 15, Rowley graduated from medical school--one of six women in her class--in December, 1948, at the age of 23. Although she received her medical license in 1951, Rowley chose to spend the next 24 years working only two or three days a week, devoting most of her time to her children.

So it was only fitting that she made her first big discovery at home. After learning the latest staining techniques for illuminating the different stripes or "bands" on chromosomes, Rowley photographed the chromosomes of leukemia patients using the fluorescence microscope and took the pictures home to ponder. Her children often teased her about her "puzzles" as she sat at their dining-room table, cutting each chromosome out of the photographs and carefully arranging them in pairs.

In early 1972, while sorting out her photos of chromosomes, Rowley noticed that the chromosomes of a patient with acute myelogenous leukemia had two abnormalities. Chromosomes 8 and 21 appeared to have made a trade; part of 21 had broken off and moved to chromosome 8, and part of 8 had moved to chromosome 21--an exchange that was called a "translocation." When she looked again at other patients with this same kind of AML, she often saw the same process, sometimes with chromosomes 8 and 21 and sometimes involving two other chromosomes.

When Rowley began to look at the chromosomes of patients with a different type of leukemia, she found a slightly different version. The end of chromosome 22 wasn't missing; it had been exchanged for a piece of chromosome 9.

Rowley and colleagues subsequently identified several other chromosome translocations that were characteristic of specific malignancies, including a gene involved in most infant leukemias. Other scientists, from around the world, have used the translocations as road maps to narrow the search for different genes that were disrupted by chromosome damage, thus beginning the current era of cancer genetics--an approach that promises to dominate the field for the coming decades.

Rowley insists that her discoveries depended heavily on the help of many others--scientific colleagues, the oncologists taking care of the patients, the pathologists who helped to establish a precise diagnosis, and most of all the patients.