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Great Scientists are Great Communicators – Part 1

 Eyewitness report of 20 great visionary scientists at press interviews in Tokyo

Genuine devotion to finding out and fighting off disease sources

“I can now feel hopeful about my future,” joyously told many patients, who in early 1999 went through clinical tests for chronic myelogenous leukemia1), or CML, treatment and showed promising progress within one month. “That was one of the happiest moments in my life,” said Dr. Brian Druker, internationally known oncology specialist, who conducted those clinical trials with imatinib, which is marketed as Gleevec, for the treatment of CML He carried out influential work to identify and develop the drug. As a young oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, he remembered many patients with CML were given the bad news that their disease had progressed. At the Institute physicians write to the families of their patients who died. He recalls he declared in his letters to bereaved families, “I’ll promise to devote myself to research and find a cure for the treatment of cancer.” “I still remember the faces and names of those patients who died.” His patients’ needs for cure and his promise to find out motivated him to develop the potent cancer drug.

Furthermore, findings by two other prominent scientists led to his discovery of the drug: Dr. Janet Rowley and Dr. Nicholas Lydon. Dr. Rowley found in 1972 that a particular type of leukemia could result when two chromosomes abnormally exchange genetic material. She initiated the basic research in the 1960s. Her first findings helped establish cancer as a genetic disease, and eventually made possible the development of targeted drug therapies for specific cancers by Dr. Druker and Dr. Lydon. Dr. Lydon, who led a drug discovery group at a major global healthcare company, joined Dr. Druker’s research in 1988 to begin screening for agents that worked on CML in his laboratory at a drug company that eventually became Novartis. Then Dr. Druker found one better than the others among the best compounds received from Dr. Lydon. It killed every CML cell in a petri dish, eventually becoming a lead compound for clinical development. In 1996 the two scientists succeeded in accomplishing development of the drug, Gleevec, at Novartis.

However, it was not easy to convince Novartis of the drug development in the first place, according to Dr. Druker. It was Dr. Lydon who helped bring the negotiations to a success in getting the nod from the drug maker. “At a time I faced an alternative of development or give-up. I consulted my co-researcher Dr. Lydon, who used to work at Novartis and was running his own drug venture company. He promised he would develop the drug on his own unless Novartis came along with us. In fact, he strived to secure the full support from the company,” explained Dr. Druker, recalling the difficult time before the mass production of the drug got started in time for carrying out the Phase II clinical trials successfully.

The drug, then called “Magic Bullet,” thus came into being. It took almost four decades since Dr. Rowley’s pioneering research led to the recognition of connecting the cause of cancer with genetic abnormalities until the development of the drug by Dr. Druker and Dr. Lydon for today’s promising targeted cancer therapies. The three scientists’ endeavor tells us of the length of time and the perseverance needed to pursue their researches from laboratory science to practical applications.
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From left: Dr. Nicholas Lydon (54), Dr. Janet Rowley (86) and
Dr. Brian Druker (56) at the interview by the Medical Tribune
on April 24, 2012 in Tokyo. (Courtesy of the Medical Tribune/Tokyo)

Note 1):
CML is a disease in which the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells, causing signs and symptoms of fever, night sweat, tiredness and pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs on the left side. Before imatinib, 50% of patients with CML survived their disease. Now, over 90% will survive beyond 5 years. Thus, the drug “Gleevec” has switched CML from a fatal cancer to a manageable chronic condition.

A tremendous honor – Meeting and working with great scientists in person in Tokyo

The three scientists as introduced in the first chapter came to Tokyo to receive the Japan Prize2) in April 2012, and graciously took on 11 face-to-face media interviews all together before and after their official engagement in the Award Presentation Ceremony and Commemorative Lectures. Each interview got started with journalists’ appreciation for their time and a protocol of exchanging cards.

At the outset of each interview, the interviewees always asked about a primary readership of each publication that journalists represented, since the media on hand ranged from major national dailies and business dailies to pharmaceutical and medical journals. Questions also covered from general and personal matters to highly technical aspects. They worded their responses carefully according to the primary readership of each publication, so that they tried the best to talk to the general media in plain language, for instance. When it came to professional journals, they elaborated quite eloquently and extensively on in-depth experiences in their research work without minding medical/technical terminology so much. All in all, they made remarks consciously thinking of target audiences of the media that conducted the interviews. They fielded every question enthusiastically and thoughtfully. Both the journalists and three Japan Prize winners enjoyed every moment at each interview. I could so tell for sure, since I was present on the spot at every media event to coordinate and supervise the entire course of the discussions.

I was exceptionally blessed with wonderful opportunities to attend and oversee in-person interviews of 20 prominent scientists who were awarded the Japan Prize annually during eight years from 2009 to 2016.

Photos of the three 2012 Japan Prize laureates at the Commemorative Lectures on April 26 in Tokyo follow:  Form the top – Dr. Rowley, Dr. Druker and Dr. Lydon

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Note 2):
As of April 2016, 88 scientists from 13 countries received the Japan Prize since the first prize was given in 1985. (Among them are eleven Nobelists: Six of them received the Nobel Prize after having received the Japan Prize; four received the Japan Prize and the Nobel Prize in the same year; and one was awarded the Japan Prize after the Nobel Prize.) Every year scientists selected from two scientific fields are honored with the Japan Prize. The laureates attend the Award Presentation Ceremony to be held in the presence of Japan’s Emperor and Empress in Tokyo in April. They receive a certificate of merit and a commemorative medal with a cash prize of 50 million Japanese yen in each field, and also separately talk to a packed general audience at the commemorative lectures.
Link to the Japan Prize: www.japanprize.jp/en

Dr. Janet Rowley, “a hero to many”

Over the years of my involvement in the Japan Prize media relations, I was particularly impressed with Dr. Janet Rowley, one of the three co-recipients of the 2012 Japan Prize in the “healthcare and medical technology” field, and the second lady after Dr. Anne McLaren to receive the Japan Prize, which was first given in 1985.

At 23, she married her classmate, Donald Rowley, and became a mother of four young sons before long. She spent the next 20 years raising them while working three days a week at various clinics including one for children with Down syndrome. It was at the age of 38 when she made the breakthrough discovery. It took 10 years of peering through the microscope. “I was not at an early stage as a researcher at that time, but I thought it would never be too late to get a research started. What is important is the determination to pursue things of your scientific curiosity with enthusiasm. My college days taught me to stick to my convictions if I really thought that I was correct, even when others disagree.”

Nevertheless, she struggled to convince her fellow researchers, since her discovery was then found too orthodox to regard cancer as a genetic disease. She recalled, “I got sort of amused tolerance at the beginning. I became a kind of missionary, preaching gene abnormalities were important and hematologists should pay attention to them.” Thanks to her persistence and long list of related discoveries, her ideas gained widespread credence and prestigious recognitions including the Lasker Award. Dr. Druker said, “I have always admired her unrelenting curiosity and graceful humility.”

Throughout her interviews in Tokyo, she remained preternaturally modest. Above all, her success in the research owed to her persistence and also her profound affection to her family. She told The New York Times in 2011, “People accuse me of being too humble. But looking down a microscope at banded chromosomes is not rocket science.”

On the occasion of the Japan Prize Presentation Ceremony in April 2012, she looked so happy being accompanied by her family members and grandchildren. She was a gret scientist, and also a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother.

Dr. Janet Rowley died on December 17, 2013, the year after I met her first and last in Tokyo. Her husband died early in the same year. She was survived by three of her four sons and five grandchildren.

I now recall vividly what Dr. Druker told about her at an interview in Tokyo, “Janet is a hero to many, including me.”

I was an exceptionally lucky man to have met such a fine great lady in my life.

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Dr. Janet Rowley alongside her husband Prof. Donald Rowley
at the Japan Prize Award Presentation Ceremony on April 25, 2012 in Tokyo

Nick Nishida
GCI SunPub Co., Ltd.
Tokyo

(To be continued to subsequent post Part 2)



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