A Facebook Q&A with cancer research pioneer Janet Rowley

Two weeks ago, on the heels of Dr. Janet Rowley’s wide–ranging interview in the New York Times, Dr. Rowley graciously agreed to answer additional questions from the UChicago Facebook community. Thanks to all of our Facebook fans who participated. We hope to do more social media chats with UChicago researchers; if you’d like to suggest one, please add a comment to the UChicago Facebook page.


Question from Jacqueline Wisner, AB’83: How do you feel about the more personal use of genetics from such commercial enterprises such as "23andme" and similar outfits? As a physician, it is difficult to advise patients on such matters.

Janet Rowley: I do not have experience with genetic testing by commercial enterprises. However, discussing these issues with colleagues who were testing patients for BRCA1 mutations, it was clear that not all mutations carry the same risk of disease. Therefore, the test results must be interpreted by a geneticist/counselor who understands the implications and possible treatment options of any test. So the big question would be: What is the quality of counseling available to patients who agree to testing?

Question from Jennifer Hsieh: If you were given only 5 minutes to convince the scientific community, as well as commercial entities engaging in the business of drug discovery, that a lot of patience, a lot of money (billions), and a bit of serendipitous luck would indeed go a long way to unlock a small (albeit important) piece of mystery surrounding such big quest as a cure for cancer, what would you tell them?

Janet Rowley: I think the best illustration is the 40 years it took from identification of the Philadelphia Chromosome (1960) to the translocation (1973) to identification of the genes at the translocation breakpoints (1984) followed by an understanding of how the function of the genes was altered by the translocation and the identification of STI571 (later known as Gleevec or Imantinib) (1998). This is a billion–plus dollar success. But the first translocation identified, the 8;21 translocation (also 1973) still has no targeted therapy even thought we know the genes that are altered and how their function has been changed by the translocation. So no billion–dollar prize…yet.

Question from Shana Carp, AB’10: How do you feel about patents on genetics?

Janet Rowley: My views have changed with time and with more insight into the disadvantages of patenting. Initially, I thought that was how companies would become interested in identifying treatments for genetic abnormalities, including mutations in cancer. However, seeing the problems surrounding BRCA1 mutation testing, I have decided that the restrictions on patients and their families far outweigh the benefits.