Janet Rowley: Paying Tribute to a Scientific Giant

Photo of Janet Rowley standing in a building at the University of Chicago.

Janet D. Rowley. Photo from University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

Recently, someone asked me who would make it into my personal science and medicine “hall of fame.” That’s a tough question, because I am fortunate to know and admire a great many scientists. However, today I want to pay tribute to a dear friend who represents the very best of American biomedical research, and who died this week at the age of 88: Janet D. Rowley, M.D.

This longtime University of Chicago researcher was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. Her discoveries about cancer genetics dramatically changed our understanding of the disease and opened the door to the development of personalized medicines for cancer.

Up until the 1970s, the established view was that chromosomal rearrangements, or translocations, were of little clinical significance in cancer. But Janet’s research implicating translocations in specific subgroups of leukemia and lymphoma showed otherwise [1]. In particular, her 1973 study proving that the translocation-shortened “Philadelphia chromosome” was tied to chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) paved the way three decades later for the approval of imatinib (Gleevec), a remarkable drug that’s saved the lives of many people with CML and other cancers. With hundreds of translocations now identified across the genomes of different cancers, this paradigm has generated much hope for similar therapeutic advances for other kinds of cancer, as well for other types of human diseases in which such rearrangements occur.

In recognition of her influential work, Janet received many awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, the Lasker Award, the Japan Prize and, just this year, the Albany Prize. She also gave generously of her time to serve on public scientific advisory committees, including the National Cancer Advisory Board, the President’s Council on Bioethics, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) Board of Scientific Counselors, and the National Advisory Council on Human Genome Research.

Yet, when the world lost Janet, we lost much more than a scientific giant. Her students and trainees lost a wonderful mentor, her colleagues and collaborators lost a good friend, patients lost a strong voice for applying basic science to clinical problems, and her family lost a loving mother and grandmother.

I, too, will miss Janet greatly. I always thought of her as indestructible, perhaps because of her no-nonsense, energetic approach to science and life. Never one to sit on the sidelines, this living legend remained a sharp, active, and outspoken participant in the scientific community right up until her final months. In fact, two research papers that she co-authored were just published this summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [2,3]. Outside of the lab, she kept on gardening, bicycling, skiing, swimming, and sailing well into her 80s. Even when diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer a few years ago, she remained focused on action—how information gathered about her cancer might be put to use helping future patients.

Female researcher at microscope

Janet D. Rowley, 1998
Source: National Library of Medicine, NIH

Janet stands as a hero for many women in science, as well as for anyone—male or female—looking for insights on how to balance the often-competing demands of work and home. When she applied to medical school in 1942, she was accepted, but had to wait a year to enroll. Why? Because the med school told her that its quota for women—three out of a class of 65—was already filled! But she persevered and went on to earn a medical degree, get married, and give birth to four sons. Somehow, amid the hubbub of family life, she found a way to see patients three days a week and later run a state-of-the art cytogenetics lab on a part-time, and eventually full-time, basis.

In an interview before she received the Lasker Award in 1998, I had the opportunity to ask Janet about the secrets to her scientific success [4]. And here’s some of what she shared:

“What I think is important is that young people take a very long view of their lives … Don’t be too impatient for things to all happen quickly, or think by the time you’re 35, that you’re over the hill. … I was 47 years old before I did anything that people would really look at twice. So, patience is an important aspect … and good luck. I have led, by and large, an extraordinarily lucky life.”

True enough, but it’s not quite the whole story. Serendipity may have indeed played a role in Janet’s groundbreaking discoveries. But I also know a huge part of this scientist’s amazing success stemmed from her exceptional ability to recognize scientific opportunity when it came along, and her extraordinary persistence in pursuing that vision. Young scientists would do well to follow that example.

Janet, the world has been greatly blessed by your remarkable contributions.  We will miss you.

References:

[1] Genetics: A story of swapped ends. Rowley JD. Science. 2013 Jun 21;340(6139):1412-3.

[2] miR-9 is an essential oncogenic microRNA specifically overexpressed in mixed lineage leukemia-rearranged leukemia. Chen P, Price C, Li Z, Li Y, Cao D, Wiley A, He C, Gurbuxani S, Kunjamma RB, Huang H, Jiang X, Arnovitz S, Xu M, Hong GM, Elkahloun AG, Neilly MB, Wunderlich M, Larson RA, Le Beau MM, Mulloy JC, Liu PP, Rowley JD, Chen J. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jul 9;110(28):11511-6.

[3] TET1 plays an essential oncogenic role in MLL-rearranged leukemia. Huang H, Jiang X, Li Z, Li Y, Song CX, He C, Sun M, Chen P, Gurbuxani S, Wang J, Hong GM, Elkahloun AG, Arnovitz S, Wang J, Szulwach K, Lin L, Street C, Wunderlich M, Dawlaty M, Neilly MB, Jaenisch R, Yang FC, Mulloy JC, Jin P, Liu PP, Rowley JD, Xu M, He C, Chen J. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jul 16;110(29):11994-9.

[4] Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, Transcript of an Audio Interview with Janet Rowley by Francis Collins, 1998 August.

Links:

Biography, National Library of Medicine, NIH

Rowley Lab, Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, University of Chicago

Obituary, University of Chicago

Video Tribute, University of Chicago Cancer Conversations