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January 2004 Issue

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Elwood V. Jensen, PhD

Published January 2004

Dr. Jensen grew up in Springfield, Ohio, where he graduated from Wittenberg College. He received his PhD degree in Organic Chemistry from the University of Chicago. In 1946, he spent a year as a Guggenheim Fellow at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, where he was introduced to steroid hormones and had an opportunity to climb the Matterhorn. In 1947, he joined the medical faculty at Chicago, where, in 1951, he became one of the original members of the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research, of which he became director in 1969.

On leave of absence in 1983 through 1988, he served for five years as worldwide research director for the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, based in Zürich, and one year as a Fogarty Scholar at the National Institutes of Health. After retirement from Chicago in 1990, he was Scholar-in-Residence at Cornell Medical College, Alexander von Humboldt visiting professor at the University of Hamburg, and Nobel visiting professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, before his present appointment at UC. Dr. Jensen is collaborating with Sohaib Khan, PhD, professor of cell biology, to elaborate the mechanism of estrogen actions.

Dr. Jensen's studies on estrogenic hormones completely revolutionized earlier concepts of the mechanism of steroid hormone action. During the 1950s, attention had been focused on the influence of estrogens on enzymes involved in biosynthesis. He took a different approach: not what does the hormone do to the tissue, but what happens to the hormone itself as it stimulates growth of the female reproductive tissues. To detect products resulting from administration of physiological doses of estrogen, he needed labeled hormone of much higher specific radioactivity than had ever been known before. Dr. Jensen devised a procedure for labeling estradiol with pure tritium, making possible the detection of one-trillionth of a gram. With this he identified an intracellular receptor protein in the rat uterus with which the hormone combines to bind tightly in the cell nucleus and stimulate RNA synthesis without itself undergoing metabolic change. This sowed the seed for a new area of research; Dr. Jensen is the father of the now very important "Nuclear Receptor" field. Dr. Jensen's landmark discoveries have had important clinical applications. He showed that estrogen receptor analysis of tumor tissue can identify the one-third of breast cancer patients who will benefit from hormonal therapy, thus allowing the others to be placed directly on chemotherapy without first undergoing treatment that will not help them. Estrogen receptor analysis of breast cancers for therapy selection is now standard clinical practice. His success in preparing the first antibodies to any steroid hormone receptor provided a widely used immunoassay for this purpose.

Dr. Jensen has received four honorary degrees and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1974. Of his twenty-five scientific prizes, the most recent is the 2002 Brinker International Award of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which he received while on the faculty of UC.

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