Cancer Treatment Pioneers to Share Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research

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These individuals exemplify the extraordinary impact that painstaking research can have on the lives of countless individuals.

—James J. Barba

Peter C. Nowell, MD, Janet D. Rowley, MD, and Brian J. Druker, MD, have been named as the recipients of the 2013 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, to be officially awarded May 17. The $500,000 award, given to those who have altered the course of medical research, is one of the largest prizes in medicine and science in the United States.

James J. Barba, President and CEO of Albany Medical Center and Chairman of the National Selection Committee, said, “These individuals exemplify the extraordinary impact that painstaking research can have on the lives of countless individuals. On behalf of cancer survivors everywhere, I thank Dr. Druker, Dr. Nowell, and Dr. Rowley for their contributions in our fight to eradicate cancer.”

Award Recognizes Significant Outcomes

The Albany Medical Center Prize was established in 2000 by the late Morris “Marty” Silverman to honor scientists whose work has demonstrated significant outcomes that offer medical value of national or international importance. A $50 million gift commitment from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation provides for the prize to be awarded annually for 100 years.

Five Albany Prize recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Peter C. Nowell, MD

Dr. Peter C. Nowell is the Gaylord P. and Mary Louise Harnwell Professor Emeritus, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Dr. Nowell’s research, the first to show that a genetic defect could be responsible for cancer, has led to numerous discoveries into the growth of cells related to cancers and other disorders. In 1960, as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, he and graduate student David A. Hungerford of Fox Chase discovered a strange chromosome in blood cells from patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), then an incurable form of leukemia. They further observed that the defective chromosome was found only in malignant blood cells in CML patients and that it was not present in healthy individuals. The results were published in Science.

This pivotal discovery of what was later named the Philadelphia chromosome, was the “smoking gun” for a much debated link between cancer and genetics.

“Although a number of previous studies had shown chromosomal abnormalities in human cancer, the Philadelphia chromosome was the first documentation of a bona fide genetic signature of malignancy, and this discovery led Dr. Nowell to hypothesize that this genetic alteration might somehow provide a growth advantage to the abnormal cells,” said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, dean of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Janet D. Rowley, MD

Dr. Janet D. Rowley is Professor of Medicine, Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago.  Dr. Rowley’s discoveries of consistent chromosome abnormalities in leukemia secured a common agreement by the 1970s among scientists, physicians, and the general public that cancer is, in fact, a genetic disease.

In 1973, Dr. Rowley, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, was working on novel approaches to studying chromosomes, including Q-banding, a technique by which scientists could visualize bands of DNA treated with special stains using fluorescent microscopes. Using this technique, Dr. Rowley discovered that Dr. Nowell’s Philadelphia chromosome defect was the result of a “translocation” between chromosomes 9 and 22, where small pieces of these two chromosomes had switched places.

“Her finding of the same 9;22 translocation in virtually all bone marrow cells from CML patients, and not in unaffected lymphocytes, indicated that this chromosomal rearrangement occurs as an acquired genetic change in a single bone marrow cell that is thereby afforded a proliferative advantage which, through clonal expansion, gives rise to leukemia,” explained Dr. Testa.

This understanding was critical and Dr. Rowley went on to find other translocations responsible for various blood cancers, giving physicians a new tool to understand how cancer might affect an individual.

“For many years, chromosome changes were the best prognostic indicator for leukemia,” said Dr. Rowley. “If you analyzed a patient’s leukemic cells you could have a good estimate of whether that patient would respond well or poorly to treatment.”

Brian J. Druker, MD

Dr. Brian J. Druker is Director, Knight Cancer Institute, Associate Dean for Oncology, Oregon Health & Science University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Portland, Oregon.  The earlier work of Drs. Nowell and Rowley paved the way for oncologist Dr. Druker to develop a lifesaving treatment for CML that specifically targets the leukemia cells without harming healthy cells.

Once scientists understood the chromosomal nature of leukemia, they were able to determine that the malignant cells in CML contain a protein called a tyrosine kinase that essentially “drove” the disease by causing an overproduction of white blood cells. With this knowledge, Dr. Druker began a quest to find a compound that could inhibit the activity of the type of tyrosine kinase that caused CML.

Through that research, he and his colleagues identified the compound that ultimately became imatinib (Gleevec). Dr. Druker then led the drug’s clinical trials. During the trials, nearly all CML patients saw their white blood counts return to normal in a matter of weeks with little or no side effects. Patients in hospice facilities, who were expecting to die within days, recovered and began leading normal lives and are still alive today.

The trials were so successful that they resulted in the fastest approval by the FDA in its history.

“This type of targeted therapy is the future of cancer drug therapy and the future is here,” said Dr. Druker. It’s an exciting time to work in this field.” ■