U. of C. researcher wins $500,000 prize for cancer research

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • July 02, 2009 @ 7:00 AM

A University of Chicago doctor whose research changed how scientists understand cancer and helped patients survive one form of leukemia is the most recent recipient of a $500,000 award for her work.

Dr. Janet Rowley learned in May that she had won the Gruber Foundation prize in genetics, though the foundation did not announce the winners until yesterday. The foundation also awards prizes to researchers in cosmology, neuroscience, women’s rights and justice each year.

“Janet, from the start, stood out as a serious candidate here, and it’s because of her early contributions to understanding the genetic basis to cancer, and her ongoing contributions to genetics over the years,” says Dr. Robert Waterston at the University of Washington in Seattle, who served on the selection committee.

Rowley has been studying chromosomes for decades, and made a breakthrough discovery in the early 1970s that a chunk of one chromosome in certain leukemia cells was being moved to another chromosome. A decade earlier, researchers found that one chromosome was smaller, but could not figure out why.

“It’s small size wasn’t because a piece of the chromosome and therefore the DNA was missing, but rather that it had been moved to another chromosome,” Rowley says.

That made those leukemia cells with the modified chromosomes stronger and able to grow faster, so they could quickly take over normal bone marrow cells.

Thanks in large part to Rowley’s discovery, there is now a very effective treatment for that form of leukemia, she says.

“It’s really transformed a disease that was fatal in three to five years to one that people appear to be able to live with for a very long time,” she says.

Waterston says Rowley’s critical discovery explained research that had been sitting fallow and gave the medical community a new way of thinking about cancer.

“People knew things were going wrong with cancer, but exactly why and how, and what the role of mutations was, what the role of underlying genetics was, I would say it was kind of up in the air” before Rowley’s work, Waterston says.

Rowley, 84, continues to conduct research at the University of Chicago and has no plans of retiring soon, since she must oversee moving several research laboratories into a new building.

Rowley says her five grandchildren will be the recipients of much of the $500,000 prize money.

“My grandchildren’s college fund has been decimated by the stock market, so I’m planning to use much of it for my grandchildren’s college education,” Rowley says.

One is already in college, Rowley says, while two are in high school and two are in elementary school.

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.