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Cancer genetics pioneer wins Margaret Kripke Legend Award

HOUSTON - Janet Davison Rowley, M.D., trail-blazing researcher on the role of genetic variation in cancer, mentor of young scientists and role model for the possibilities of work-life balance, is the second winner of the Margaret Kripke Legend Award from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Rowley, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, receives the award today at MD Anderson.

"Janet Rowley has transformed the fields of cancer and cytogenetics, and, as a result, the field of molecular oncology," said Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D., MD Anderson associate vice president of Women Faculty Programs, which sponsors the Kripke Legend Award. "Her scientific work has proven immensely influential. She has had a major impact on patient treatment.

"For more than 40 years, she's been a dedicated mentor and an excellent role model for women in science and medicine, all while being fully committed to her family, as evidenced by working part time for 20 years in order to raise her children. I can think of no one who better exemplifies the essence of this award," said Travis, who also is a professor in MD Anderson's Department of Experimental Radiation Oncology.

The Kripke Legend award recognizes scientific and medical leaders who have made extraordinary efforts to hire a diverse workforce, promote women to leadership roles, nominate women for awards and otherwise advance their careers. The award was established in honor of Margaret Kripke, Ph.D., a distinguished scientist who achieved many firsts for women at MD Anderson, culminating in her promotion to executive vice president and chief academic officer.

"I have known and admired Margaret Kripke for more than 30 years, first when she and her husband were at the National Cancer Institute Frederick Cancer Research Center in Maryland and later at MD Anderson, where I was on the Scientific Advisory Board. Thus it is an especially meaningful honor to receive this award which recognizes the contributions of such an outstanding woman. She has been instrumental in bringing about many innovations at MD Anderson that advance science in medicine as well as promoting women in science," Rowley said.

Rowley will deliver the Kripke lecture, titled "MicroRNAs: The New Kid in Acute Myeloid Leukemia" at 4 p.m. today in MD Anderson's Hickey auditorium.

Rowley demonstrated that chromosomal aberrations are a cause of cancer, rather than an effect of the disease, which had been the conventional wisdom. She also showed that genetic variations caused by those altered chromosomes drive the development and growth of cancer, establishing that cancer is a genetic disease. Her research laid the foundation for personalized cancer care and targeted therapy, the primary focus of cancer research today.

Rowley found that the Philadelphia chromosome, a shortened version of chromosome 22 associated with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), was short because it swapped a portion of one of its genes with a piece of a gene located on chromosome 9 - an event called translocation. This led to identification of the affected genes, one of which produces a fusion protein that causes CML.

Her discoveries paved the way for the development of the drug Gleevec, which targets the fusion protein and greatly increases survival and quality of life of people with CML and one type of gastrointestinal cancer.

Rowley discovered chromosomal translocations and their associated genetic variations for a variety of leukemias and lymphomas. She and others have since discovered 1,500 translocations in a variety of cancers and identified 500 new genes. Her research today focuses on micro RNAs, tiny bits of RNA that regulate gene expression.

Remarkably, Rowley's Philadelphia chromosome discovery occurred during a 20-plus year period when she juggled her part-time research position at the University of Chicago with raising her four sons. The Philadelphia chromosome translocation was identified on images of the chromosomes spread out on her dining room table, Rowley recently told an interviewer from the American Association for Cancer Research.

In addition to serving as a role model for balancing a successful research career with family life, Rowley also excels at training scientists, many of whom have been women. Letters in support of her nomination for the Kripke award emphasize her success in this area.

"Janet has been a wonderful mentor to young colleagues, many of whom have gone on to make important contributions in the field of cancer research," wrote Michele Carbone, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and professor and chair of the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

Rowley has earned a variety of major awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor for civilian accomplishment, the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, the President's National Medal of Science, the Gruber Genetics Prize and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Association for Cancer Research. She also is a member of the National Academy of the Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

Kripke is a professor emerita at MD Anderson, where she was the first woman to chair a department, the first to advance to senior vice president and chief academic officer, and then to executive vice president and chief academic officer. Throughout her career, Kripke has been a committed mentor to up-and-coming women scientists and is considered a positive role model for those in cancer science and medicine, Travis said.

Her accomplishments and leadership earned her appointment to the three-person President's Cancer Panel, which recently issued a report on the cancer threat posed by exposure to toxins in the environment that called for improved regulation of those pollutants.


Contact: Scott Merville
University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center

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