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. John Easton has more on their research in our Newsroom:
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.
In a profile by Rachel Levy in the Chicago Tribune, Rowley described how she began her research at home after her four sons had gone to school:
“I could just sit at home and have it be quiet and concentrate,” she said. “I was working from photographs. You see the chromosomes under the microscope and you take a photograph of them and you analyze and cut them out and line them up to see how each pair compares. My children used to say I was playing with paper dolls.”