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Dr. Janet Rowley

Dr. Janet Rowley, cancer genetics pioneer and mentor to women scientists, dies at 88

By Andis Robeznieks
Posted: December 17, 2013 - 12:01 am ET

Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, a pioneer in finding the genetic links to cancer and a mentor to dozens of female physicians and scientists, died at her home in Chicago Dec. 17 from complications of ovarian cancer. She was 88.

The drug imatinib, marketed by Novartis as Gleevec, was developed in late 1990s based on discoveries Rowley made almost 30 years earlier connecting chromosomal abnormalities and leukemia. The discovery is also credited as a starting point for the fields of personalized medicine and translational research which turns scientific findings into medical treatments.

"Janet Rowley is a hero to many, including me," Dr. Brian Druker, director of the Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute in Portland and leader of the first clinical trial of Gleevec in June 1998, said in University of Chicago news release.

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The rearrangement of the chromosomes produces an abnormal enzyme that gets “turned off” by Gleevac. By 1990, more than 70 similar misplaced chromosomes had been identified that were linked to various cancers, according to the release.

Michelle Le Beau, director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, worked with Rowley for more than three decades, and said the impact of this research was twofold.

“Conceptually, the discovery was important for that disease, but it was also important because it led to our understanding of the genetic links to cancer,” said Le Beau, who is also a professor of medicine in the department of medicine's hematology/oncology section. “It really was the foundation of what we call personalized medicine. Personalized medicine for cancer means we'll be able to determine the molecular fingerprint of each person's tumor and then target its Achilles heel.”

Because of this, Le Beau said, treatments will be available that are much more effective and much less toxic than those currently used.

“All of us have had our lives changed by her work whether we realize it or not,” Le Beau said. “She had a lot of skeptics that she had to convince. It took two decades to convince some, but it just goes to show how persistent she was.”

Blood cancer specialist Dr. Richard Larson, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, said Rowley “developed the Rosetta Stone” that led to the understanding how cancers progressed and responded to treatments.

“I think she realized at the time that, if we could discover what the genes were that were involved in these translocations that led to distinct forms of leukemia, we could learn not only how leukemias developed, but also how we could treat them,” Larson said. “And that turned out to be true, of course.”

The result, he said is that, with what used to be fatal diseases, can now be treated on an outpatient basis with drugs taken orally. “It was the very first effective targeted therapy in a human cancer,” Larson said.

The reason it took so long between discovery and treatment development, Larson said, was that new “technology had to be developed each step of the way to take the next step forward.” Now, he said, the process can be completed in only a year or two.

Le Beau said that Rowley “truly was an icon,” not only for her scientific discoveries, but also because of how she served as mentor at a time when women had few female physician or scientist role models.

“Thirty-three years ago, there were relatively few mid-level or senior professors who were women,” Le Beau said of the time she arrived on the University of Chicago campus. “She was one of a handful, but she mentored well over 100 women faculty members and scientists. But she was a wonderful role model for both men and women because of the rigor of her science, her pure love of science and how she conducted herself in a collegial fashion.”

Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade, director the University of Chicago Medicine's Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics, began working in Rowley's lab in 1987 as a post-doctoral fellow.

“She was not just a mentor, she was like a mother to me,” Olopade said. “She was a trailblazer. She worked on genetics long before others were talking about personal medicine.”

Olopade said that Rowley was most interested in “research that matters at the bedside.”

“It wasn't about putting cells into laboratory animals,” she said. “It was about taking samples from the patient to analyze.”

Olopade said Rowley taught that every bone marrow sample taken from a patient was valuable and could help unravel the mysteries behind their condition. After analysis of the sample, hematology meetings were held to go over the findings and multidisciplinary approaches to treatment were discussed.

“It was always starting with the patient,” Olopade said.

Le Beau said Rowley didn't stray from this approach even when, in the end, she herself was the patient. “She was very proactive about having her tumor studied so others could benefit,” Le Beau said. “She did approach it in a very analytical fashion.”

In 1998, Rowley was awarded two of the nation's top scientific honors. First, she was given the Albert Lasker Clinical Medicine Research Prize. Later that year, President Bill Clinton presented Rowley with the National Medal of Science.

She served on President George W. Bush's Presidential Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2009 while at the same time pushing his administration to loosen restrictions on federally funded stem cell research. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded her with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In a 2011 interview with the New York Times, Rowley downplayed her discoveries.

“People accuse me of being too humble,” she said. “But looking down a microscope at banded chromosomes is not rocket science. If I hadn't found it, somebody else would.”

Rowley, according to the university news release, advised young scientists to take risks.

"Do something different if it looks interesting,” she was quoted as saying. “I didn't do anything noteworthy until I was 50. Success often involves a great deal of luck. Some people don't like to hear that because it means there are things out of their control. But that's the way it is."

Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks

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