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Peter C. Nowell (1928–2016)

  1. Brian J. Drukerc,d,1
  1. aPharma Research & Early Development, Roche, CH-4070 Basel, Switzerland;
  2. bDepartment of Biology, Eidgen?ssiche Technische Hochschule, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland;
  3. cKnight Cancer Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR 97239;
  4. dHoward Hughes Medical Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR 97239

The pioneering cancer cytogeneticist, Peter C. Nowell, died on December 26, 2016, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 88. His work laid the foundation for the recognition of the genetic basis of cancer that paved the way for modern targeted cancer therapeutics. Nowell’s observations of changes in chromosomal anatomy during progression of malignancies led him to predict that it was the accumulation of genetic abnormalities that underlies cancer progression, predating notions such as genomic instability as a fundamental hallmark of cancer.

Portrait of Peter C. Nowell. Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Art Collection.

Nowell was born on February 8, 1928, in Philadelphia. He attended Wesleyan University as an undergraduate and medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1952. He then performed a rotating internship at Philadelphia General Hospital and trained in pathology at Philadelphia’s Presbyterian Hospital. Nowell was drafted into the military and spent 2 years studying the health effects of radiation at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory in San Francisco, before joining the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1956, where he stayed for the remainder of his career.

As a pathologist, Nowell’s primary tool for discovery was the light microscope. He contributed to development of methods for visualizing chromosomes in mitotic cells (karyotyping). In 1960, using his improved karyotyping methods, Nowell and his associate David Hungerford published their discovery of the first nonrandom chromosomal alteration in cancer: an abnormally small chromosome #22 that was present in all blood or marrow samples from patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) (1). In the seminal paper describing this finding, Nowell wrote that …

?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: drukerb{at}ohsu.edu.

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