Elwood Jensen discusses his life at the University

By Zachary Binney

Elwood V. Jensen, the Charles B. Huggins Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research at the University, received the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research Saturday.

Jensen earned the award for his controversial study of hormones over two decades. He took an alternative approach in his research, branching off from studying the physiological effects of steroids. Instead, he tagged and measured them directly.

His work led to the discovery of cellular receptors, which are activated by hormones. These receptors interact with genes to produce physical changes to the organism, such as growth in the reproductive tract.

Jensen’s research—specifically on estrogen and its receptors—improved techniques for identifying breast cancer patients as candidates for ovary or adrenal gland removal. Some, not all, forms of breast cancer need these sources of estrogen to survive. Before his discoveries, approximately two thirds of these operations were performed needlessly. His work “saves or prolongs 100,000 lives annually,” the Lasker Foundation’s award statement said.

He was a graduate student at U of C starting in 1940, but World War II interrupted his studies. From 1942 – 45 Jensen researched poison gas and, after Germany’s defeat, synthetic rubber. Working on the weekends, he finished his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1944.

He joined the University’s Department of Surgery at the medical school in 1947 and was on the faculty there until 1990. In 1990 he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. He is currently the George and Elizabeth B. Wile Professor for Cancer Research at the University of Cincinnati.

Did your experiences at the University aid or impede the progress of your research?

It absolutely helped. I think it’s a special place. I wanted to stay there my whole life. Especially valuable is the interaction between the medical school and the basic science departments. We’re right across the street! That’s a very special advantage for basic research. I had grad students both in chemistry in the physical sciences division and in biology and physiology. That, I think, is so important: bringing the techniques of chemistry and mathematics to interact with the biological sciences. It was a big help.

How do you feel about receiving such an award? Do you feel it helps to bring honor to your work and/or life?

I’m thrilled. I had no idea I was even nominated, but it turns out I had been on the list for several years and many fellows thought the award was overdue. I am very happy now to have it and to share it with two other distinguished scientists. We divided it three ways, so financially it isn’t that big! But it is certainly the most prestigious prize I have ever received.

Does the award mean anything for the University of Chicago?

Oh absolutely. The University of Chicago is where all the work was done! There aren’t too many professors, only five or six that I recognized, who have ever received the Lasker and worked at Chicago. That I think brings distinction to the U of C.

Could you talk for a minute about the resistance you encountered in pursuing your line of research?

All the thinking was, back in the ’50s, everything was enzymes. This was before RNA synthesis and gene transcription became fashionable. We came in saying two things; estrogen isn’t acting with enzymes, and it isn’t chemically changed in the cell. Going against current dogma, it takes a while to convince somebody—even with strong evidence. It took us seven years before we could even use the word receptor! By 1965 we had very good evidence showing a parallel between inhibition of estrogen binding and inhibition of cancer growth. In other terms: more anti-estrogen drugs, more inhibition, less cancer growth. By then, everyone but the most hardcore enzymologists accepted receptors as fact. Resistance pretty much evaporated then.

It would’ve been more frustrating today. I never was turned down for a grant until 1998! Back in the 1950s people were more open to investigating things that went against the grain. We had good funding even from the beginning. Money was much more available for controversial projects back then than it is now.

Do you have any words of advice for undergraduates pursuing a career in biology or scientific research?

If you want to do medical research, I would advise doing the M.D.-Ph.D. program, but get a good grounding in basic science, too, especially chemistry. The other thing is to keep an open mind and ask questions. We need alternative approaches—like the ones I used. There’s still a lot out there, a big frontier to explore, especially if you’re interested in biomedical research. Give it all you got.