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  • A reflection on the achievements of Peter C. Nowell, MD, by Penn Medicine magazine in 1999, following Nowell's receipt of the Lasker Award in 1998.

Peter Nowell’s laboratory in the John Morgan Building is a few steps away from the prime site for viewing Eakins’s Agnew Clinic, which depicts one of the School of Medicine’s distinguished figures of the previous century. Nearby, too, are portraits of other grand personages. There is, in short, a whiff of history about the place — in addition to labs busy with current research. Such a setting seems appropriate for Nowell, who was honored in the fall [of 1998] with one of biomedicine’s highest prizes, the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award.

First conferred in 1946, the Lasker Awards were presented to seven scientists in 1998. Nowell’s award was in the clinical category. The Lasker Foundation focused on his research that led to the discovery of the “Philadelphia chromosome” in 1960, in collaboration with the late David Hungerford. They observed that individuals suffering from chronic myelogenous leukemia had an abnormally small chromosome in the tumor cells. According to the Lasker Foundation, “At a time when the idea that cancer had a genetic basis was widely disbelieved, Nowell’s results provided the first clear evidence that a particular genetic defect in a single chromosome can lead to a population or clone of identical cells that accumulate in numbers to form a deadly malignancy.”

The scientists who also received awards in the same category are Alfred G. Knudson Jr., M.D., Ph.D., an adjunct professor of human genetics and pediatrics at Penn who is now at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, and Janet D. Rowley, M.D., of the University of Chicago, who later discovered that the Philadelphia chromosome’s small size resulted from exchanges of pieces of genetic material between chromosome 22 and chromosome 9.

Winning a Lasker Award is often seen as a precursor to winning a Nobel Prize — and the foundation itself does nothing to discourage such speculation. In fact, the foundation lists 61 scientists who have gone on to receive the Nobel. (The list includes Penn Med’s two most recent recipients, Michael S. Brown, M.D. ’66, and Stanley B. Prusiner, M.D. ’68.) Nowell, who gives every appearance that he does not take himself too seriously, says that he is “personally indifferent” to such talk. “I’m far enough along that I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

Among the awards that Nowell prizes is the Lindback Award, given by the University for excellence in teaching. Indeed, as he joked with The Philadelphia Inquirer last fall, “Part of it is, professors are basically frustrated stand-up comedians. If my students don’t laugh, they don’t pass.” His other honors include the Parke Davis Award and the Rous-Whipple Award of the American Association of Pathologists; the Outstanding Investigator Grant from the NIH; the Robert de Villiers Award of the Leukemia Society of America; and the Mott Prize of the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society.

Nowell has been a valued colleague and mentor at the Medical Center for many years. After earning his M.D. degree from Penn in 1952, he took his residency in pathology at Presbyterian Medical Center and completed two fellowships in pathology at the United States Public Health Service. He joined Penn’s medical faculty in 1956. Currently the Gaylord P. and Mary Louise Harnwell Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, he served as chair of the department from 1967 to 1973. Nowell was also the first director of the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center and now serves as its deputy director.

In the past, Nowell has occasionally been somewhat casual about his work in identifying the Philadelphia chromosome, once explaining that his experiments involved “diddling around with leukemic cells in culture.” The judges for the Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards are not the first to disagree.

-- John Shea


This article appeared in Penn Medicine, Spring 1999.


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