Janet D. Rowley, MD, who tenaciously worked to show that cancer is a genetic disease after identifying the process of translocation, died Dec. 17 at home in Chicago from ovarian cancer. She was 88.
The Blum-Riese Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics, and Cell Biology and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, who was universally described as gracious and generous, was still an active faculty member at the time of her death, although she had cut back to part time in recent years because of her illness. The university is planning a memorial service at a future date.
In the 1970s her leukemia research linked genetic abnormalities to cancer, eventually leading to targeted drug therapy.
She first observed that chromosomes 8 and 21 were abnormal in a patient with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) due to translocation—an exchange of parts from each chromosome to the other. She next noticed that the translocation of chromosome 22 with 9 was present in patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), and several years later Rowley and colleagues identified the 15;17 translocation causing acute promyelocytic leukemia.
The understanding of the 9;22 translocation was instrumental in the future development of imatinib (Gleevec).
After many years of perseverance to convince skeptics, her work helped change how cancer was understood, leading to numerous awards and honors including the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Lasker Award, the Japan Prize for Healthcare and Medical Technology, and the Albany Medical Center Prize.
One month before her death, Rowley traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Presidential Medal, along with other past recipients including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
Won Scholarship to University of Chicago at Age 15
She was born in New York City in 1925 and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago at age 15. Four years later she was one of three women out of a class of 65 to be admitted to the university's medical school, and the day after graduation she married fellow student Donald Rowley, who would become a pathology professor at Chicago. Their marriage lasted 64 years, until his death earlier this year, and they had four sons.
Except for an internship at the U.S. Public Health Service's Marine Hospital in Chicago, and two sabbaticals at Oxford University, she spent her entire professional career at the University of Chicago, often working from home when raising her family.
Colleagues and admirers all praised Rowley as both a great scientist and great person.
Brian Druker: ‘Incredibly Humble, Never Rested on Her Laurels’
Brian J. Druker, MD, who developed imatinib, said during a telephone interview that Rowley's work had laid the groundwork for the first targeted therapy for leukemia.
Druker, Director of the Oregon Health and Science University Knight Cancer Institute, said that he first heard of Rowley while in medical school during the late-1970s. “Janet established the genetic basis for cancer leading to personalized therapy and cancer genetics, and her identifying the reciprocal translocation between chromosomes 9 and 22 for CML made it possible to treat this and other types of leukemia.”
He said he first heard her speak at scientific meetings such as the American Society for Hematology in the mid-1990s when he was working on imatinib and knew the story behind the Philadelphia chromosome.
“We had a professional relationship, she was a dear friend, and we received some awards together, but we never worked together,” he said.
The first time they really sat down to talk, he said, was in 1998 or 1999 when imatinib was in clinical trials: “It was so exciting to speak with her and hear the history of her work and what she was working on at the time. She never rested on her laurels, and wanted to continue making significant contributions.”
Druker said that Rowley was incredibly humble and would attribute her success to luck or say that anybody could have done it. Noting that she often had a twinkle in her eyes, he recalled that when they received the Japan Prize together in 2012, they both spent a hectic week in Tokyo meeting the emperor and empress, attending state dinners, and giving talks, and by the end he was really beat, but Rowley, who was some 30 years his senior, was still going strong and “running circles” around him.
He said she tried to comfort him by saying he had to take care of three kids but she could just go home and rest.
Richard Schilsky: ‘Mother of Targeted Therapy,’ Great Mentor, Firm Believer in Team Science
Richard L. Schilsky, MD, said he had an unusual relationship with Rowley that spanned more than 40 years from the time he was a medical student at the University of Chicago where he had the good fortune to learn “from the master.”
Currently Chief Medical Officer for the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Schilsky spent most of his career at Chicago, including posts such as Cancer Center Director and Chief of the Hematology-Oncology Division, when he was in fact Rowley's boss.
“I first met Janet when she was teaching pathology. She was talking about a new technique called Giemsa that she was using for staining chromosomes, and as a typical medical student, I was probably thinking, why do I have to know about this?” he recalled, realizing in retrospect, he said, that she was teaching about techniques that were then well ahead of her time.
She was “the mother of targeted therapy for cancer,” and was always pushing technology to the next frontier, wanting to use the most modern, up-to-date equipment that would benefit not only her lab but the university community as well.
Schilsky said he marveled at her dedication to research and that although she probably could have attained any leadership role in cancer or academic medicine, she was not interested in being burdened by administrative responsibilities that would no doubt detract from her research focus.
He said that although Rowley was a distinguished internationally respected scientist, she was always modest, and generous and gracious with her time and was a wonderful mentor. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers influenced by her, he said, adding that every cancer cytogeneticist trained over the last half century or so was either trained by Rowley or one of her trainees.
She was also a firm believer in what is now called team science, Schilsky said, noting that she would collaborate with researchers from various fields.
“Janet had a deep love of her husband Donald and her family, and when they were together she was Donald's wife. She really loved him and was dedicated to him and would always say that it was her identity as a wife and mother that was most important to her.”
Margaret Foti: ‘Icon as Well as Model for Other Women Scientists’
Margaret Foti, PhD, CEO of the American Association for Cancer Research, said she first became aware of Rowley during the mid-1970s when Foti was managing editor of Cancer Research and received some of the cytogeneticist' s early papers on chromosomal abnormalities.
She thought Rowley's work was very exciting and that it was evident then she would become a great scientist.
AACR presented Rowley with several awards over the years, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, and when she was named a member of the Academy of AACR fellows during the association's most recent annual meeting, she managed to attend despite her failing health.
“Janet had enormous personal strength and never allowed her morbidity to slow her down,” Foti said, calling her an icon as well as a model for other women scientists, since she was able to navigate the difficult waters of managing an active career and a relatively large family.
Michelle Le Beau: ‘Always Pushed for Innovations, Left Legacy of Many Trainees & Pure Love of Science’
Rowley served as a mentor and more to Michelle M. Le Beau, PhD, and Olufunmilayo “Funmi” Olopade, MBBS, both of whom became her longtime colleagues at Chicago.
Le Beau, Director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Arthur and Marian Edelstein Professor of Medicine, came to Chicago in 1980 as a postdoc in cytogenetics who was interested in learning about cancer. She said that her advisors tried to dissuade her from working in cancer, which they considered a dead end. She looked into several Chicago-area laboratories working on medical genetics and genetic disorders, and when she learned that Rowley would be presenting a seminar, Le Beau contacted her.
“Janet told me to arrive early in order to meet, and she helped craft a training program for me. It was a great example of her graciousness,” she said, adding that she trained in Rowley's lab, and after joining the faculty, collaborated with her for years.
Le Beau said that Rowley always had a lot of good ideas and championed many causes, and it was always difficult to say no to her—and she was usually right.
“Janet was a leader in always pushing for innovations in the field. She really changed all of our lives by developing the foundation for personalized cancer genetics. She was a real humanitarian, and left a legacy of many trainees and a pure love of science.”
Olufunmilayo Olopade: ‘Surrogate Mother as well as Scientific Mother’
Olopade, the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics, Associate Dean for Global Health, Director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago, and Director of the University's Cancer Risk Clinic, said she left last month's San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium early to spend time with Rowley.
Olopade explained that after leaving Nigeria and training as a resident at Cook County Hospital, she was seeking a mentor for research, and Rowley took her under her wing, and also became something of a surrogate mother as well as a scientific mother.
“She was the only person to guide me, and I related to her because I had children and she had raised four sons, and she would talk about playing with chromosomes on the dining room table with her children.”
Olopade also worked in Rowley's lab, and she said her mentor couldn't do enough to help her, including aiding in setting up her own lab. Acknowledging that Rowley rarely attended the clinical ASCO meetings, she proudly related how the geneticist insisted on attending the year that Olopade was presenting a plenary session.
“Janet would open her home to all of us, and my kids would go there for holidays. Following Donald's death, she lived alone and didn't want to inconvenience anyone,” Olopade said, adding that after she left San Antonio to see Rowley, the two met that Saturday to discuss the meeting and other scientific topics.
Rowley died three days later.