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Meet Janet Rowley, legendary researcher and hero to biophiles everywhere

Dr. Janet D. Rowley, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago, is a member of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

Rowley entered the University of Chicago in 1940 as an undergraduate at the age of 15, as a member of President Robert Maynard Hutchin’s Four-Year College, and received her M.D. from the Pritzker School of Medicine in 1948. She chose to spend the next 24 years of her life working only part-time to raise a family.

In 1972, Rowley made the discovery that the Philadelphia Chromosome, a chromosomal defect linked to chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), was in fact not a deletion but rather a translocation between chromosomes 9 and 22. Genetics researchers worldwide now use this discovery and subsequent related discoveries in their hunt for specific genes that lead to many fatal types of cancer.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton presented Rowley, along with eight other researchers, with the National Medal of Science—America’s highest scientific honor. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Rowley to sit on his 17-member Council on Bioethics, a council headed by University of Chicago professor Dr. Leon Kass. The council had its first meeting in January 2002 and is preparing a ruling on the use of in vitro fertilization in the United States.

Dr. Rowley sat down with George Anesi of the Maroon to answer questions about life, the universe, and the University.

Maroon: You are currently sitting on President Bush’s bioethics council. What do you see as the current or next big ethical question facing the scientific community?

Rowley: The council is preparing to submit a report on the issues surrounding in vitro fertilization. Our goal is to make sure that patients and the children who are born from the process are adequately protected, and to state whether or not Congress should institute legislation to regulate the practice. Right now, the main finding of the council is that the U.S. does not have enough information to know whether or not it is appropriate to proceed with unregulated in vitro fertilization, and that we are ignorant of long-term consequences of the procedures.

What was involved in the appointment process to the council?

First of all, there has only been one set of members of this new council. The appointment process was complicated because members were selected by Leon Kass based on his contact with individuals, many of whom were longtime friends, many of whom where members of the Hastings research group, and others he knows from the bioethics community. Other members were chosen on the basis of scientific credentials and diversity of background and interests.

What has your experience on the bioethics council been like?

I have never before served on such a council. I didn’t really know what to expect in general, but the discussions have been what would be expected from university professors with the freedom to say what they want. Anyone can see this by reading the transcripts of the meetings. All words, no matter how outrageous, are included in the transcripts, and 80 to 100 members of the public generally attend the meetings.

Last week, two South Korean researchers cloned an embryo. What impact do you see this having on the scientific community and the ethical debate surrounding human cloning and stem-cell research?

Professor Rudolph Jaenisch of MIT made an important comment on the issue. He said that it is hard to know from the analysis of the DNA if a true cloning took place because the cloned tissue would be the same as the mother’s. It does, in my opinion, however, look successful. The focus of the experiments is to develop stem cell lines for individuals to potentially use for tissue growth. From my understanding, the process used by the researchers could only work in females and may not be able to be used to treat males. This may very well be a unique finding, but it is too early to comment now.

Do you approve or disapprove of President Bush’s handling of the stem-cell and human cloning debates?

The President has very strong views of his own, which lean towards the conservative members of the bioethics council. I don’t know if he has personally responded to the recommendations made by the council.

Where does the cloning debate currently stand?

No one on the council is in favor of reproductive cloning in humans. Unless new techniques change things dramatically, there is no sense to think about allowing cloning of humans. The risks to women and children are too great. Despite rumors about the Raelians cloning a human and other rumors, there is no evidence that suggests it is actually occurring anywhere. Congress may ban cloning, but it may be a futile ban if it is not going to happen anyway. Currently, we don’t have the information required to judge the effectiveness of the procedure using embryonic stem cells in treating patients with various diseases. Research to find out would require experimentation on human embryos, which is not going to happen in the U.S. The only way that laboratories are able to fund cloning research is with money from private donors, foundations, and companies—not from the government. A consequence is that the companies funding the research have sole rights over the findings, to which the greater scientific community would have no access. Something this important shouldn’t be proprietary to private companies—it would be very detrimental. The U.S. may be able to benefit from research done elsewhere, but the research is not going to be done here.

Where do you stand on the debate surrounding genetically modified (GM) food and the intense European opposition to it?

It all depends on what function is being modified. In most GM foods, researchers are introducing genes that are already present in some other plants—they are not making them up. This is an important component to the debate. To not allow the movement of beneficial genes—such as a gene that would allow a plant to grow in colder weather conditions—is foolish. We have to look carefully at each gene, and ask what are the potential effects of modifying it.

What, in your opinion, is the basis for opposition to GM foods in Europe?

Ignorance. There is a need for careful education of the population and explanation of what the modifications may do. Companies involved in the production of GM foods thought no one would notice—this was an erroneous approach.

In the research world, you are best known for discovering that the Philadelphia Chromosome was a translocation. What is it like making a scientific breakthrough with such tangible results?

The short answer is marvelous. The correct answer is that in 1973 the implications of the discovery were totally unknown. It was exhilarating at the time because it was important to see that this chromosomal change that led to leukemia was not a loss of chromosome but rather a movement or translocation. The initial connection between the translocation and leukemia and the reason behind the translocation were not made clear until much later when people started to clone the genes. The process required many researchers with many different skills.

What are some of your memories and experiences from your time as an undergraduate? How does it compare to today?

I came to the University when I was a junior in high school as part of Hutchins’s four-year college. Because of that experience, I am among those who were especially blessed—we were a privileged few. The Hutchins college does not exist anymore, and the organization is totally different now. Our humanities core was a three-year sequence that progressed chronologically. The study of art, music, and literature was integrated with the history that was being studied at the time—mostly European history. In my first two years at the University, my classes were held in a house on Woodlawn Avenue that no longer exists. The student newspaper used the kitchen as their office. By normal standards we were still in high school, but it was about as different an experience from a normal American high school as you could get. It was a very unique time in the University’s history.

As an undergraduate, what were some of your favorite courses?

The humanities courses were excellent, as was a biological sciences survey course that I took. The history courses provided a great framework from which to understand human achievement. Many of my courses were large lectures with small group discussions. Although many people think so, large lectures are not necessarily a bad thing. My BioSci survey course was held in Kent 107, the large lecture hall, and was taught by the leading researchers in the field—it was an excellent course. I think the advantages of smaller courses are sometimes overemphasized. Courses of very small numbers are not necessarily required to promote a good education.

You received your B.S. and M.D. in a time when few women pursued advanced degrees, especially in the sciences. What was your experience as a woman in medical school and practicing medicine in the 1940s and ’50s?

My experience was a very good one. I’m not a confrontational person, so I didn’t go out of my way to look for issues, but I think the professors treated me just as they treated my male colleagues. I did work hard to get good grades and was able to get into the top discussion groups. I was in a special pre-med discussion group, although I was not yet pre-med at that time. In medical school, being a woman was almost an advantage—the low expectations set out for women were easy to achieve.

You received all of your degrees from the University of Chicago and chose to stay here during most of your professional life. Why the U of C?

My mother and father both went to the U of C, and my mother was a teacher in Chicago. My mother knew of scholarships available to cover the $300-per-year tuition to the College. I applied to Pritzker for medical school because it was the best medical school in the city of Chicago. Also, I started medical school during the Second World War. My father went away to fight, and it was appropriate for me to stay in Chicago with the rest of my family. My husband did his undergraduate and medical school at Chicago as well, and soon after joined the faculty. It was easy to come back. I did other things elsewhere for a number of years, but I came back to the University in 1962 and have been here ever since.

Genetic research has the potential to one day allow doctors to remove, replace, or fix genes in an embryo or fetus that would lead to debilitating diseases. With that ability will also come the ability to alter physical traits, such as height and hair color, and even mental capacity. Where does genetic modification end, and how can it be regulated by government or otherwise?

We have to take a realistic view of this. We don’t have any idea of the specific number of genes involved in physical and mental traits such as height or hair color. There are probably 30 to 100 genes involved in each trait, so my own view is that to think we are going to understand regulation enough to make changes is totally unrealistic. Even for diseases that we know are caused by a single gene, such as hemophilia, to try to figure out how to insert a healthy gene and get it to function and produce the correct protein for an extended period of time is a long way off. There are many more important problems in the U.S. that need attention greater than this.

Last Tuesday, the Maroon wrote its staff editorial in favor of naming the Administration Building after Robert Maynard Hutchins. Would you support such an initiative?

Hutchins is one of my heroes. However, we don’t have an engineering school because of Hutchins’s shortsightedness, and we pay a high price for that. He was not perfect but was a fabulous person. It was very disturbing to me that the University did not recognize the centennial of his birth. In Hutchins’s defense, he built the administration building right after World War II when money was in short supply. The building has the same charm as the Research Institutes—charm being a derogatory term in this case. In general, I have mixed feelings about naming the Administration Building after Hutchins.

Arthur C. Clark said that: “Once science declares a things possible, there is no escape from its eventual realization.” Do you agree?

Only in part. Scientists are people who are highly motivated and moral, but there are also individuals who are amoral. For those who are amoral, no amount of legislation is going to stop them from doing something irresponsible. As an example of moral scientists, take the response to the discovery in the 1960s that DNA could be isolated and moved from one cell to another. Scientists called for a voluntary moratorium on the research until they could meet to set up guidelines on how it should be regulated, including reviews by university and national committees. They followed their guidelines.