Rowley wins National Medal of Science

Janet Rowley, MD, awarded prestigious National Medal of Science for 1998

December 8, 1998

Janet Davison Rowley, MD, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, was selected to receive the National Medal of Science for 1998--the nation's highest scientific honor. The Medal is awarded each year by a distinguished, presidential-appointed committee of outstanding scientists and engineers from a variety of scientific disciplines.

Rowley will share the award, often described as "America's equivalent of the Nobel Prize," with eight other leaders in the biological, physical, and social sciences--including former University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson, now at Harvard University. Rowley is the eighth University of Chicago faculty member to win the award while on staff.

President Bill Clinton praised the recipients for "their creativity, resolve, and a restless spirit of innovation to ensure continued U.S. leadership across the frontiers of scientific knowledge."

According to a statement from the National Science Foundation (NSF), "The individuals named to the nation's highest scientific honor, have had wide-ranging impact on social policy, cancer research, materials science, and greatly extended knowledge of our Earth and the solar systems. Their theoretical achievements also led to many practical applications."

"These are superstars in their respective fields," said Rita Colwell, director of NSF. "They've contributed a lifetime of stunning discoveries. We can only recognize them once with a science medal, but we applaud them daily for their continual contributions to humankind, to the reservoir of scientific knowledge, and for the impact they have on the students they mentor and educate along the way. Their work betters science as a whole and betters our daily lives in ways we often take for granted."

Rowley is being honored, says the citation: "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."

"It is not only a fantastic honor to be awarded the National Medal of Science," said Rowley, "but receipt of this award also recognizes the critical importance of chromosomal (genetic) changes in cancer."

Rowley has collected several honors this fall. She received the coveted Lasker Award--also referred to as "America's Nobels"--in September, and was named, along with her husband, Donald, a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in October.

"Although I try not to take most of these things too seriously," she noted, "this is quite exciting. I couldn't sleep the night after I was told of it."

Rowley, 73, earned her BS (1946) and MD (1948) 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.

In 1962, after learning the latest techniques of chromosome study while on a sabbatical in Oxford, Rowley, at the request of her clinical colleagues, began to study the chromosomes of patients with leukemia. For the next decade she labored over the microscope, looking for consistent chromosome abnormalities amid the seeming genetic chaos of leukemic cells.

The first such abnormality had just been reported by Peter Nowell and colleague David Hungerford, who found that patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia had an abnormally small chromosome 22 in their tumor cells, which they labeled the "Philadelphia" chromosome.

The next big step came in the early 1970's when geneticists perfected the art of chromosome "banding," a new way of visualizing segments of chromosomes with great precision. Rowley learned these techniques at a second sabbatical in Oxford (1970-71). This improved resolution allowed her to discover that chromosomes from leukemic cells not only lost genetic material, they sometimes exchanged it. Early in 1972, Rowley discovered the first such "translocation," an exchange of small pieces of DNA between chromosomes 8 and 21 in patients with acute myeloblastic leukemia.

Later that same year, she found that Nowell and Hungerford's "Philadelphia" chromosome was also the result of a translocation. In patients with CML, a crucial segment of chromosome 22 broke off and moved to chromosome 9, where it did not belong. At the same time, a tiny piece of chromosome 9, which included an important cancer-causing gene, had moved to the breakpoint on chromosome 22. Because of this transfer from one chromosome to another, important genes that regulated cell growth and division were no longer located in their normal position on the chromosome. This provided critical evidence that cancer was a genetic disorder.

Rowley and her colleagues subsequently identified several other chromosome translocations that were characteristic of specific malignancies, such as the 14;18 translocation seen in follicular lymphoma and the 15;17 translocation that causes acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL).

Quickly 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 in some cases lost it altogether in a process known as a "deletion." Others used the translocations as road maps to narrow the search for specific genes that were disrupted by chromosome damage, thus opening up the current era of cancer genetics.

Not content to rest on her laurels, Rowley is still at the forefront, constantly adapting newer techniques to the search for cancer-causing chromosomal abnormalities. In 1990, using a new technique, fluorescence in-situ hybridization, she mapped and cloned a gene involved in a chromosomal rearrangement that occurs in most infant leukemias.

More recently, using spectral karyotyping--which distinguishes each chromosome pair--she is trying to identify all of the complex changes that occur in cancer cells. In addition, she and her colleagues are investigating the mechanisms of chromosome rearrangement by focusing on a leukemia-causing chromosome translocation that is seen only in patients previously treated with particular drugs.

Rowley emphasizes that her discoveries depended heavily on the help of many colleagues, both those taking care of the patients and those in pathology who helped to establish a precise diagnosis.

The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 and is administered by NSF. It honors individuals who have significantly advanced knowledge in the fields of behavioral and social sciences, biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, and physics. A 12-member presidential committee reviews nominations for the annual awards.

Including this year's recipients, the Medal of Science has now been awarded to 362 leading U.S. scientists and engineers.

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