I was watching the Medal of Freedom award ceremony today. Some amazing people were getting the award: Sidney Poitier, Edward Kennedy, Billy Jean King, Sandra Day O'Conner, and Steven Hawking were among many worthy recipients.
I must admit I started to get bored and got up to leave the room when Dr. Janet Davison Rowley was called forward. The presentation to Dr. Rowley stopped me in my tracks and I started to cry. Though we have never met, Dr. Rowley saved my life.
In 1962, after a year in England as an NIH trainee, studying the pattern of deoxyribonucleaic acid (DNA) replication in normal and abnormal human chromosomes, Dr. Rowley returned to the University of Chicago, as a research associate in the Department of Hematology. She became an associate professor in 1969, and a full professor in 1977. In the 1970s, she further developed the use of existing methods of quinacrine flourescence and Giemsa staining to identify chromosomes, and demonstrated that the abnormal Philadelphia chromosome implicated in certain types of leukemia was involved in a translocation with chromosome 9 in some cases. Translocation is the process by which a piece of one chromosome breaks off and joins another chromosome, or when two chromosomes exchange material when both break. She also identified translocation between chromosomes 8 and 21 in myeloblastic leukemia.
When Dr. Rowley published her findings in the 1970s, she argued that specific translocations caused specific diseases, going against the established view of the cause of cancer which gave little significance to chromosomal abnormalities. Although there was some resistance to her ideas at first, her work has proven immensely influential, and by 1990 over seventy translocations had been identified across different cancers.
I have the Philadelphia chromosome abnormality mentioned above, and, as a direct result of her studies, my chance of survival has increased dramatically. Safe and effective treatments have been developed to battle Philadelphia positive leukemia and we have Dr. Rowley to thank.
And thanks also to the Obama administration for recognizing her contribution to Cancer research. Many famous people were honored today, but I wanted to take a minute to recognize someone who is not famous but means a lot to many people suffering from cancer.
Update: I should also mention that Nancy Goodman Brinker was also honored today. She has done miraculous work for people with breast cancer.