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Gene Conversation

An interview with pioneering geneticist Dr. Janet Rowley

   Dr. Janet Rowley, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, is, if you’ll excuse the cliché, a living legend. She is indisputably one of America’s greatest physician/researchers of the post World War II era, an accolade acknowledged last year when President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
   Her most important work has been in genetics and cancer.  She discovered the link between specific chromosomal translocations with different types of leukemia.  (Translocations are breaks in the DNA of chromosomes with an abnormal rejoining of the broken parts.)  One of the truly groundbreaking discoveries in 20th century medicine and based on her research, leukemia patients who formerly would have died are now treated successfully and are “cured” or have long term remissions. Moreover, her discovery of the relationship between chromosomal abnormalities and cancer promises to have profound future implications as scientists unlock the secrets of the human genome.
   For her work, Dr. Rowley has received other notable awards, including the Lasker Award, the National Medal of Science and the Gruber Prize in Genetics, three of the most prestigious honors in science.  She recently received the seventh annual American Association for Cancer Research Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research in Washington, DC.
   Her time at the University of Chicago—from high school and medical school to faculty—has spanned 70 years. It would be no exaggeration to call her the First Woman of Medicine in Chicago.  Despite her considerable accomplishments, she was particularly humble and self-effacing in this interview.

What do you see for the future of genetic medicine? 
   I’m not as pessimistic as some. I think the future is very bright. It will take some time, five years or more, to figure out how to use genetic mapping effectively, at least in cancer medicine. We do know of several mutations in cancer cells that are not found in regular cells, and these present attractive targets for therapy. We just don’t know how to exploit these targets yet. We were fortunate with chronic myeloid leukemia (the discovery she contributed to), but other targets aren’t as easy to treat effectively. If we understand the genetic abnormality, and we are lucky, genetic medicine will be great and lead to remarkable new therapies.

One controversial area is whether private companies should be able to privatize, or essentially own, a gene. How do you feel about that?
  Recently a judge ruled a private company couldn’t hold a patient on an important gene that predisposes to breast and ovarian cancer. But it’s not a simple problem. One should avoid a knee-jerk response that all patenting is bad. In some cases, licensing may be a better approach. It’s easy to say you are against patenting, but at the same time, we need a mechanism to exploit new genetic discoveries in patients. The way mankind is motivated, there has to be some type of incentives for businesses. Risk-takers must be rewarded in some way for performance. We must figure out ways to be smart and wise so that important genes and mutations do not become orphans.

Another controversial area is excessive pharmaceutical company profits from these discoveries. Any thoughts?
  There are situations where the companies are making billions of dollars in profits on drugs from scientific discoveries. I’m not really in favor of that. They are certainly entitled to a fair profit, but patients must have access to these therapies. There is room for a fair profit while assuring access without bankrupting the patient or the system.

Is there still a role for the individual investigator?
  There will always be a role for the individual investigator, the scientific entrepreneur, as it were. But more and more the future of medicine will require the collaboration of scientists with different skills. In the future, scientists will have to cooperate, collaborate and sublimate their egos, along with those of their colleagues, in order to make valuable scientific contributions.

What advice do you have for young people going into science today?
First and foremost, don’t give up.  I didn’t do anything noteworthy in my career until I was 50. Take risks, do something different if it looks interesting. I got out of clinical medicine for what was supposed to be a year when I was younger to pursue research, and it wound up changing my career. Finally, success often involves a great deal of luck. Some people don’t like to hear that because it means there are things out of their control. But that’s the way it is.

Published: June 07, 2010
Issue: Summer 2010 Urban Living