You could say that Janet Rowley is having a pretty good year. In March, the University of Chicago molecular geneticist stood at President Barack Obama’s right arm as he signed an executive order clearing the way for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Earlier this month, she was declared the winner of the 2009 Peter and Patricia Gruber Genetics Prize, which comes with a $500,000 cash award and a gold medal.
Today, another tremendous honor was announced for the still-active 84-year-old: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award an American civilian can receive from the White House. Among the other 15 recipients are Stephen Hawking, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Desmond Tutu; very prestigious company indeed.
In typical fashion, Rowley downplayed being recognized for her important research in the early days of cancer genetics.
“I felt very humbled, but also as though I didn’t deserve it,” Rowley said yesterday about her initial reaction to the honor. (You can watch the video interview with Dr. Rowley here: Janet Rowley talks about winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom)
With all due respect to Dr. Rowley, she’s wrong. When Rowley began to investigate the mysterious relationship between chromosomal abnormalities and leukemia in the 1960’s the scientific jury was still out on the relationship between genes and cancer. It was known that patients with certain types of leukemia had unusual chromosomes — notably the shortened “Philadelphia Chromosome,” associated with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) — but scientists debated whether that was the cause of the cancer or the result.
After starting a laboratory at the University of Chicago with help from legendary hematologist Dr. Leon Jacobson, Rowley used the newest chromosome-staining techniques to discover that the genetic segment missing from the Philadelphia Chromosome had not disappeared, but instead traded places with a segment from another chromosome in a process called translocation. This swap was not merely cosmetic; the gene for a particular protein that promotes cell division was separated from its natural genetic brake, causing the uncontrolled cell proliferation characteristic of cancer.
Rowley’s landmark paper on CML was published in 1973, but only after rejection by at least two scientific journals unconvinced of her findings. Eventually, chromosomal translocations were found to be responsible for several different cancers, and the concept of cancer as a genetic disorder became widely accepted in medicine. Her research also led to the development of the anti-cancer drug imatinib, aka Gleevec, which acts by inhibiting the protein that is excessively activated after the translocation.
For much of the past decade, Rowley served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, advising the White House on controversial scientific topics such as embryonic stem-cell research. Having long opposed Bush’s limitations on federal funding for such studies, Rowley celebrated Obama’s loosening of those restrictions, writing for US News & World Report that the decision “has removed a key barrier to research and discovery.”
Rowley continues her research at the University of Chicago, and is an avid swimmer, sailor, cyclist and gardener. When I interviewed her for a Chicago Tribune article on the Gruber prize in late June, she said, in her understated way, that she was flattered to receive such awards and surprised that her work was still being acknowledged.
“It’s a great honor to have one’s colleagues still recognize one’s accomplishments,” Rowley said. “I suppose it’s a great pleasure to be around to be recognized.”