Cancer Treatment Pioneers to Share America's Most Distinguished Prize in Medicine

Apr 16, 2013, 09:48 ET from Albany Medical Center

ALBANY, N.Y., April 16, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Three physician scientists whose landmark research helped transform the treatment of cancer are the recipients of the prestigious 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. 

This year, the prize will recognize groundbreaking research into the nature of cancer, which has led to the development of a new generation of cancer drugs, most notably Gleevec for chronic myeloid leukemia that, unlike chemotherapy, target specific genetic defects causing cancer. 

The recipients are:

  • Peter C. Nowell, M.D., University of Pennsylvania, whose discovery of the "Philadelphia chromosome" in chronic myeloid leukemia established that genetics could be responsible for cancer.
  • Janet D. Rowley, M.D., University of Chicago, a geneticist who The New York Times called "the matriarch of modern cancer genetics."
  • Brian J. Druker, M.D., Oregon Health & Science University, an oncologist whose research to develop Gleevec saved countless lives and opened the door for more targeted cancer therapies.

Prize award activities on May 17 will include a Grand Rounds lecture by Drs. Rowley and Druker followed by a press conference and luncheon in Albany, N.Y.

James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer 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. These visionary scientists have advanced our understanding of cancer, vastly improved our ability to treat this devastating disease and given hope to so many around the world. On behalf of cancer survivors everywhere, I thank Drs. Druker, Nowell, and Rowley for their contributions in our fight to eradicate cancer."

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.

Joseph R. Testa, Ph.D., co-director of the Cancer Biology Program at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, called the trio's work on chronic leukemia "one of the finest examples ever of translational research," the process of making basic scientific research useful for practical applications. 

"Their collective achievements opened new fields of cancer research and have improved the lives of many," Testa said. 

Peter C. Nowell, M.D.
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, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Nowell has won numerous regional, national, and international awards, including the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences. At Penn, Dr. Nowell has been honored with the School of Medicine's highest honor, the Distinguished Graduate Award, the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Award of Merit. Most recently, he was the recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome. He has co-authored more than 400 publications and is a member of the Institute of Medicine.

Janet D. Rowley, M.D.
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."

Among numerous prestigious awards, Dr. Rowley is the recipient of the Lasker Prize (shared with Dr. Nowell), the Gairdner Award, The National Medal of Science, The Japan Prize (with Dr. Druker), and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Brian J. Druker, M.D.
Director, Knight Cancer Institute, Associate Dean for Oncology, Oregon Health & Science University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Portland, OR

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 Gleevec (imatinib). 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.

Since Gleevec was approved by the FDA in 2001, it has been proven effective in the treatment of 10 related forms of cancer. Its success has also led to the development of dozens of other FDA-approved targeted therapies and even more that are in clinical trials or about to be approved. For CML patients who develop resistance to Gleevec, Dr. Druker has played a role in the development of alternative drugs.

"This type of targeted therapy is the future of cancer drug therapy and the future is here," said Dr. Druker. "With the technology we have available today, what took 40 years (the discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome to the approval of Gleevec) can happen in a matter of months. It's an exciting time to work in this field."

Dr. Druker has extensively published research and has been cited by countless medical and scientific journals. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous other prestigious national and international awards and honors that include the Gairdner Foundation International Award and the Lasker Award.

For more detailed biographies and downloadable photos of this year's recipients and more information on the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, go to:

Sue Ford
(518) 262-3421

SOURCE Albany Medical Center