Named professorship to honor cancer researcher Janet Rowley, MD

Named professorship to honor cancer researcher Janet Rowley, MD

May 23, 2012

Donations from Jim and Karen Frank and others will endow the Janet Davison Rowley, MD, Professorship in Cancer Research at the University of Chicago Medicine. This new named professorship will honor one of the University's most distinguished scientists and alumni, Janet D. Rowley, MD'48, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, and Human Genetics.

Rowley, 87, a pioneer in understanding the connections between genetics and cancer, remains an active member of the faculty. She rides her bicycle to work every day.

In the early 1970s, Rowley made the first of a series of fundamental discoveries demonstrating that specific chromosomal changes caused certain types of leukemia. She then struggled for years to convince fellow researchers that cancer was essentially a genetic disease.

Her discoveries eventually gained acceptance. They brought her widespread recognition, including the Lasker Award, the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the last six months, she received the Ernest Beutler Prize and the Japan Prize for Healthcare and Medical Technology.

"Dr. Rowley, a graduate of the University's Laboratory Schools, the College and the Medical School, has long been a shining example of the power of a University of Chicago education," said medical center trustee Jim Frank, of Winnetka. "She is also a model of what that kind of training, combined with enormous talent and dedication, can do. Karen and I are proud to help celebrate her accomplishments and support the outstanding researchers who will be honored to hold this endowed chair."

"All of us in the Cancer Center are excited to see Janet's remarkable career recognized in this enduring way," said colleague Michelle Le Beau, PhD, director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, who trained under Rowley. "She has received just about every imaginable honor. Now someone with extraordinary promise will benefit from this support, from the history of Janet's discoveries and the immediate recognition that comes with selection as the Rowley Professor."

Rowley was born Apr. 5, 1925, in New York City. At age 15, she won a scholarship to enroll in the University of Chicago's Hutchins College, which combined the last two years of high school with the first two years of college. "The U of C," Rowley later recalled, "taught me to stick to my convictions -- if I really thought that I was correct -- even when others disagree."

She completed a bachelor of philosophy degree in 1944 and graduated from medical school in 1948. The next day, she married fellow medical student Donald Rowley, MD, now a professor emeritus of pathology at the University. She spent the next 20 years raising their four boys while working three days a week at various sites, including a Chicago clinic for children with Down syndrome, a genetic condition caused by an extra chromosome.

Her interest in chromosomes and cancer gained focus in 1962, after a year at Oxford University, where she learned newly developed techniques of chromosome analysis. Back in Chicago, Leon Jacobson, MD, a colleague and mentor, suggested she apply those techniques to the study of chromosomes from patients with leukemia.

She made her first big discovery in 1972. Rowley found that the chromosomes of a patient with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) appeared to have made a trade: part of chromosome 21 had broken off and moved to chromosome 8, and part of 8 had moved to chromosome 21 -- an exchange now known as a "translocation." When she looked at more patients with this same kind of leukemia, she saw the same process.

She later found that patients with a different disease, chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), had a different translocation. One end of chromosome 22 was exchanged for a piece of chromosome 9. Because of this transfer, important genes that regulated cell growth and division were no longer located in their normal position. The result was the uncontrolled cell growth of cancer.

The two consistent translocations -- one in AML and one in CML -- argued that such translocations were tied to specific types of leukemia. In 1977, Rowley and colleagues identified a third example, the 15;17 translocation that causes acute promyelocytic leukemia, a rare disease but one where every patient had the same genetic flaw. "That made me a believer," she would later recall. "That was the frosting on the cake."

Understanding the 9;22 translocation eventually led to the development of the drug imatinib (Gleevec), one of the most successful targeted cancer therapies to date. Gleevec blocks an abnormal growth-regulating protein produced by the 9;22 translocation.

Picking up on her lead that specific translocations defined specific forms of cancer, scientists around the world joined the search for chromosomes that either exchanged genetic material or lost it altogether. Others used the translocations as road maps to find specific genes disrupted by chromosome damage, thus opening up the current era of cancer genetics.

"Establishing the Rowley Professorship is one more way to celebrate Janet's remarkable series of discoveries, a process that is still under way," said Kenneth Polonsky, MD, Dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. "Any future professor to hold this chair will find that the honor comes with high expectations."