Cancer treatment pioneers share prestigious medical prize

April 15, 2013

Janet Davison Rowley, MD, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, is one of three physician-scientists who will receive the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research for 2013.

The prize, one of the largest for medicine and science discoveries in the United States, honors those “whose landmark research helped transform the treatment of cancer,” according to a release from the Albany Medical Center. The prize will be awarded during a celebration on May 17 in Albany, N.Y.

Rowley will share the prize with Peter C. Nowell, MD, Harnwell Professor Emeritus, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania; and Brian J. Druker, MD, Director of the Knight Cancer Institute and Associate Dean for Oncology, Oregon Health and Science University. The three recipients will divide the $500,000 award.

They were chosen for their groundbreaking research that led to the development of a new generation of highly focused cancer drugs, beginning with imatinib (Gleevec) for chronic leukemia.

“These individuals exemplify the extraordinary impact that painstaking research can have on the lives of countless individuals,” said James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center and chairman of the National Selection Committee. “These visionary scientists have advanced our understanding of cancer, vastly improved our ability to treat this devastating disease and given hope to so many around the world.”

Most conventional treatments for cancer have been based on the ability to kill rapidly dividing cells. A series of discoveries by the prize winners led to a more precisely targeted medication, designed to interfere with the specific proteins that cause rapid multiplication of the cells seen in chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), but without damaging healthy cells.

The four-decade sequence of breakthroughs that led to imatinib began in the 1960s when two Philadelphia researchers, Peter Nowell and David Hungerford, found that patients with CML had an abnormally small chromosome 22 in their tumor cells. They called this the “Philadelphia chromosome.”

In 1973, using newly developed methods for visualizing distinct segments of chromosomes, Rowley showed that chromosomes from CML cells did not lose genetic material. Instead, one end of chromosome 22 had been exchanged for a piece of chromosome 9. Because of this transfer from one chromosome to another, important genes that regulate cell growth and division were no longer located in their normal position, a phenomenon she labeled a translocation. The result was the uncontrolled cell growth of cancer. Rowley has described similar exchanges in several types of leukemia.

“Janet Rowley is a visionary,” said her colleague, Michelle LeBeau, PhD, professor of medicine and director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Her pioneering work led to the recognition that cancer is caused by genetic changes that confer new properties to cells, such as uncontrolled growth, and forms the basis for the development of today’s most promising targeted therapies.”

Scientists used Rowley’s 9;22 translocation discovery as a roadmap to narrow the search for specific genes that were disrupted by this process. In the 1990s, Druker and colleague Nicholas Lydon, PhD, began a collaboration that produced a drug, initially known as STI-571, later named imatinib. They showed that it exerted powerful effects against CML cells.

During the clinical trials, nearly all CML patients saw their white blood counts return to normal in a matter of weeks with little or no side effects. The trials were so successful that they resulted in the fastest approval by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. agency’s history.

Since Gleevec was approved by the FDA in 2001 to treat CML, it has proved effective against other forms of cancer, including pediatric CML and gastrointestinal stromal tumor. Gleevec’s success has led to the development of dozens of other FDA-approved targeted therapies. More are in clinical trials.

The Albany Medical Center Prize was established in 2000 to honor scientists whose work has demonstrated medical value of national or international importance. A $50 million gift commitment from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation provides for the prize to be awarded annually for 100 years. Five Albany Prize recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

In 2012, Rowley, who has received many honors, shared the 2012 Japan Prize for Healthcare and Medical Technology with Druker and Lydon.

For more detailed biographies and downloadable photos of this year’s recipients and more information on the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, go to: www.amc.edu/Academic/AlbanyPrize.

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