Vicky F
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Dr. Janet D Rowley, one of the greatest cancer research scientists of all time.

Vicky F
Posted by
04 Feb 2014

A blog post paying tribute to the late Dr. Janet D Rowley who made some of the most important discoveries in history about DNA mutations in leukaemias.

In this blog post, I would like to write about one of my heroes.  It’s unlikely that most people reading this will have ever heard of her, but if you or someone you know has experience of blood cancer – her work will have undoubtedly have affected you.  I’d like to write about the late Dr. Janet D Rowley, who sadly passed away from ovarian cancer last December, aged 88 and is considered one of the greatest leukaemia researchers (and more broadly, cancer researchers) who has ever lived.  Dr. Rowley was born in 1925 in New York City and gained a medical degree at the University of Chicago in 1948, no mean feat in a time where most medical students were male, and only 3 women were allowed to enrol in a class of 65.  Dr. Rowley then married, had 4 children and worked part time with children with Down’s Syndrome and at that point had not really considered a research career.  In 1961 she joined her husband at Oxford University and became involved in research on Down’s Syndrome, which led to her studying methods of analysing large bits of coiled DNA called chromosomes.  When she returned to the University of Chicago, she was able to get a small space in a laboratory, and began studying the chromosomes of samples from cancer patients. 

After many years of perseverance and training in new techniques on visits back to Oxford – in 1972 Dr. Rowley made a discovery that would change cancer research forever.  She took photographs of chromosomes taken from patients with acute myeloid leukaemia, and realised that a piece of chromosome 8  was abnormally stuck to chromosome 21, and vice versa.  This was the AML1/ETO, which I did my PhD research on, and is found in around 15% of all cases of AML.


Shortly after this, Dr. Rowley was looking at chromosomes from samples from chronic myeloid leukaemia patients and noticed that part of chromosome 9 was joined to chromosome 22 and vice-versa.  This was the Philadelphia chromosome (BCR-ABL)– which was the target of the first ever ‘specific target’ drug ever developed and approved in the year 2000 – Imatinib, which has saved the lives of thousands of people with CML, and has transformed the 5 year survival rate from just 30%, to over 90%.  If this wasn’t enough, Dr. Rowley and colleagues also discovered a third vital leukaemia fusion gene, this time a switch between chromosomes 15 and 17, resulting in the PML-RARA fusion gene in Acute Promyelocytic Leukaemia (APL).  Following on from this discovery, very successful treatment with drugs called Arsenic Trioxide and ATRA was developed, meaning patients with APL now have a >90% five year survival rate.

I was privileged enough to see Dr. Rowley speak at a large haematology conference a few years ago, and her passion for her research even in her mid-eighties, and her absolute modesty about her very major discoveries and their impact was inspiring.  Very few cancer researchers do the job for fame and fortune, and are happy to blend into the background, knowing that their work will help people with cancer.  Sometimes however, I think it is deserved to give credit to these unsung heroes, people like Dr. Rowley.  If you have survived blood cancer, she will have undoubtedly helped you.

Longer obituary by University of Chicago Press

All photos used, property of the University of Chicago


Owen B

Just made my partner read this, her quote, "it gave me goosebumps".