Oct. 1, 1998
Vol. 18, No. 1

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    Davison-Rowley receives prestigious Lasker prize

    By John Easton
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    Janet Davison Rowley, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine and Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, has been awarded the Albert Lasker Clinical Medicine Research Prize for 1998. Often called "America's Nobels," because 59 of the recipients have subsequently won the Nobel Prize, the Laskers are the nation's most distinguished honor for outstanding contributions to basic and clinical medical research.

    Rowley will share the award for clinical research with Peter Nowell, professor in pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Alfred Knudson, former president of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. The awards celebrate their combined discoveries of the genetic alterations that cause cancer in humans and allow for cancer diagnosis in patients at the molecular level.

    "It is not only a thrill to win the Lasker Award," said Rowley, "but it is a great honor to be named along with two such distinguished scientists and to share the prize with two such good friends."

    The awards were presented last month at a luncheon ceremony in New York City. Three other researchers received the prize for basic medical research, and one award was presented for special achievement.

    Rowley, 73, earned her Ph.B. in 1944, her B.S. in 1946 and her M.D. in 1948 and has spent her entire professional career at Chicago, where she has meticulously demonstrated that specific types of cancer are caused by specific alterations of chromosomes.

    In 1962, after learning the latest techniques of chromosome study while on a sabbatical in Oxford, Rowley, at the request of her clinical colleagues, began to study the chromosomes of patients with leukemia. For the next decade, she labored over the microscope, looking for consistent chromosome abnormalities amid the seeming genetic chaos of leukemic cells.

    The first such abnormality had just been reported by fellow Lasker winner Peter Nowell and colleague David Hungerford, who found that patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia had an abnormally small chromosome 22 in their tumor cells, which they labeled the "Philadelphia" chromosome. The next big step came in the early 1970s when geneticists perfected the art of chromosome "banding," a way of visualizing segments of chromosomes with great precision. Improved resolution allowed Rowley to discover that chromosomes from leukemia cells not only lost genetic material, they sometimes exchanged it.

    Early in 1972, Rowley discovered the first such "translocation," an exchange of small pieces of DNA between chromosomes 8 and 21 in patients with acute myeloblastic leukemia. Later that same year, she found that Nowell and Hungerford's "Philadelphia" chromosome was also the result of translocation.

    In patients with chronic myeloid leukemia, a crucial segment of chromosome 22 broke off and moved to chromosome 9, an abnormal position. At the same time, a tiny piece of chromosome 9, which included an important cancer-causing gene, had moved to the breakpoint on chromosome 22.

    Because of this transfer from one chromosome to another, important genes that regulate cell growth and division were no longer located in their normal positions on the chromosome. This provided critical evidence that cancer was a genetic disorder.

    Rowley and her colleagues subsequently identified several other chromosome translocations that were characteristic of specific malignancies, such as the 14:18 translocation seen in follicular lymphoma and the 15:17 translocation that causes acute promyelocytic leukemia.

    Quickly picking up on her lead that specific translocations defined specific forms of cancer, scientists around the world joined the search for chromosomes that either exchanged genetic material, or in some cases, lost it altogether in a process known as a "deletion."

    Others used the translocations as road maps to narrow the search for specific genes that were disrupted by chromosome damage, thus opening up the current era of cancer genetics.

    Not content to rest on her laurels, Rowley is still at the forefront, constantly adapting newer techniques to the search for cancer-causing chromosomal abnormalities. In 1990, using a new technique called fluorescence in-situ hybridization, she mapped and cloned a gene involved in a chromosomal rearrangement that occurs in most infant leukemia cases. Rowley and her colleagues are trying to identify the mechanisms of chromosome rearrangement by focusing on translocations involving this same gene that are seen in leukemia patients previously treated with particular drugs. More recently, she is using spectral karyotyping to identify all of the complex chromosome rearrangements that occur in leukemia cases. The 1998 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Prize, given to Leland Hartwell of the University of Washington, Yoshio Masui of the University of Toronto and Paul Nurse of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, London, also honors scientists involved in research on the mechanisms of cell division.

    The Medical Science Special Achievement Award for 1998 went to Daniel Koshland Jr.of the University of California, Berkeley, in recognition of his research contributions, his achievements as 10-year editor of the journal Science and his efforts to improve teaching of the biological sciences. Koshland received his Ph.D. from Chicago in 1949. First presented in 1946, the Lasker Awards are administered by the Albert & Mary Lasker Foundation. The awards were created to raise public awareness of the enormous value of biomedical research. Recipients are chosen by an international body of distinguished scientists. The current chairman is Joseph Goldstein.