Dr. Janet Rowley, whose genetic research led to cancer treatment breakthroughs, dies at 88
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter December 18, 2013 8:58PM
Dr. Janet Rowley, cancer researcher at the University of Chicago, receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.
Updated: January 20, 2014 8:19AM
The phrase “rock star” gets thrown around a lot to describe someone who has achieved the height of accomplishment and fame.
In the case of Dr. Janet Rowley, it was absolutely fitting, colleagues say.
Dr. Rowley, a brilliant University of Chicago scientist and physician whose revolutionary research linked chromosomal abnormalities to certain cancers, died Tuesday of ovarian cancer at her Hyde Park home. She was 88.
Her work, which led to the development of new cancer-fighting drugs, was recognized with many awards, including the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the top U.S. honor for civilians. The New York Times called her “The Matriarch of Modern Cancer Genetics.”
Astonishingly, she worked part time for two early decades of her career — and she made some of her most important discoveries at her dining-room table as she approached 50.
At the University of Chicago, where she worked for more than half a century, the professor blended in, biking to work and eating lunch with her colleagues.
But “elsewhere, she was a rock star,” said Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade, a hematology oncologist with the University of Chicago Medical Center. When other scientists met her, “they couldn’t believe that they had the chance to talk to Janet, and she was so accessible, so humble, so interested in them.”
In the early 1960s, she joined her husband and fellow University of Chicago physician, the late Donald Rowley, when he headed to a sabbatical at Oxford University. She studied chromosomes at Oxford. A decade later, after another stint at Oxford, she learned staining techniques that used dye to better view chromosomal aberrations.
When the Rowleys returned to the University of Chicago, she used the methods she had learned to photograph and examine chromosomes of leukemia patients.
“Her children often teased her about getting paid to play with paper dolls as she sat at their dining-room table, cutting each chromosome out of the photographs and carefully arranging them in pairs,” the university said in a statement.
In 1972, she “lined up the chromosomes from leukemia cells on a table and told my kids not to sneeze,” she told the university.
In the case of a patient with acute myeloblastic leukemia, she discovered that bits of DNA from the eighth and 21st chromosomes appeared to be swapped. Later, she spotted similar trades between the ninth and 22nd chromosomes in patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Five years later, she and her colleagues discovered exchanges between the 15th and 17th chromosomes in patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia.
Recognizing the pattern of aberrations was a huge breakthrough. Previously, many scientists thought chromosomal abnormalities were an effect of cancer, rather than a cause.
“Janet Rowley’s work established that cancer is a genetic disease,” said Mary-Claire King, president of the American Society of Human Genetics.
Her research led to the development of Gleevec, a “life-saving treatment” for chronic myelogenous leukemia, said Dr. Brian J. Druker, director of the Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute.
Other scientists, initially skeptical, followed her lead, and by 1990, more than 70 chromosomal “swaps” had been mapped and tied to cancers, according to the National Library of Medicine.
“People thought that [her breakthrough] was an outlandish idea, and it really was the foundation of the molecular genetic basis of leukemia and other cancers,” said Dr. Wendy Stock, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Rowley grew up in Chicago, the only child of two University of Chicago graduates. She attended Mercy High School before entering the university at 15 in a special program for high school students.
In 1944, she earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. She was admitted to the medical school, but the class of 65 had already filled its quota of three women. Even though she had to wait to enter, she graduated from medical school at 23. She married her husband the day after graduation.
They had four boys, which led to her desire to work part time. She did so for more than 20 years. Once she discovered the chromosomal malformations, she returned to the lab full time, according to BioTechniques journal.
She served on advisory councils for Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, and President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Science in 1998. President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony where she was honored with physicist Stephen Hawking, actor Sidney Poitier and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Dr. Rowley loved gardening. She trucked in enough dirt to cover a concrete basketball court in her yard so she could cultivate flowers and zucchini and tomatoes, and basil for her homemade pesto.
She enjoyed biking and was still cycling to work last winter, Stock said.
A gracious hostess, she often invited co-workers to her Hyde Park home for Christmas and to her Indiana dunes place for summer gatherings, Olopade said.
“I really consider Dr. Rowley my mother away from home,” said Olopade, who is from Nigeria.
“I was very interested in characterizing all the genetic alterations in her tumor, and we did find them,” she said. “We just didn’t find the right drug to make her cancer disappear.”
Dr. Rowley was a tireless mentor for a generation of hematologists and oncologists, according to friends. A few days before she died, she lobbied for more research for a younger colleague, said her son, David Rowley. “She hadn’t been off the couch in quite a while, and she sat up, took the phone and had the conversation she thought she needed to have advocating for her colleague.”
She is also survived by two more sons, Robert and Roger, and five grandchildren. A memorial at the university is being planned.
In 2011, the New York Times asked her if her career would have been possible today.
“No,” she replied. “I was doing observationally driven research. That’s the kiss of death if you’re looking for funding today. We’re so fixated now on hypothesis-driven research that if you do what I did, it would be called a ‘fishing expedition’ . . . fishing is good. You’re fishing because you want to know what’s there.”