Breast Cancer research pioneer Elwood Jensen dies at 92

Issue 21, Summer/Fall 2013

Elwood Jensen

The field of breast cancer prevention lost one of its leading lights in late 2012 with the passing of Dr. Elwood Jensen at age 92. His discoveries on how estrogen interacts with tumor cells are widely credited with saving or prolonging hundreds of thousands of lives.

When Jensen first began studying cancer at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, most research was focused on how the steroid hormone estrogen might affect breast tissue to encourage malignancy.

But Jensen turned that approach on its head. Using a radioactive labeling technique he developed, Jensen discovered that only a subset of breast cancers carry receptors in their cells that effectively interact with estrogen.

The finding meant that onerous, estrogen-depleting treatments commonly used at the time to fight breast cancer -- for example, removal of the ovaries or adrenal glands -- might not be necessary for significant numbers of patients with "estrogen receptor-negative" breast cancers.

By 1968, Jensen had also developed a screen that could determine whether a breast cancer cell was estrogen receptor-positive or negative. Further research by Jensen and the University of Chicago's Dr. Geoffrey Greene refined the test, so that by the 1980s it began to be used in the clinic for breast cancers and other tumor types.

In turn, these breakthroughs led other scientists to develop drugs such as tamoxifen that dampen estrogen's impact on breast tumors -- offering women a powerful new means for prevention.

Now, by testing biopsy samples in the lab, physicians can tell a woman whether her tumor might respond to anti-estrogen therapy or whether she may require other forms of treatment.

Born in Fargo, ND, in 1920, Jensen studied steroid hormone chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1947. He eventually became director of the university's Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research, where many of his major discoveries were made. In 2002 he moved to the University of Cincinnati, where he worked until 2011.

Speaking in a 2008 article for the University of Cincinnati, Jensen said his initial findings in the 1950s were met with skepticism. "It took six years before estrogen receptors would even be accepted by biochemists," he said. "We got some nasty remarks. People would stand up in meetings and say, 'How dare you talk about a receptor?'"

But time proved Jensen right, and in 2004 he was awarded the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, one of the most respected scientific accolades in the world.

Jensen even saw his research benefit his family in a profound way: In 2005, his wife Hiltrud was diagnosed with breast cancer. In an interview, Jensen said she had the tumor removed, but it tested estrogen receptorpositive, so she was placed on an anti-estrogen treatment to help prevent a recurrence.

Jensen is survived by his wife, daughter Karen Jensen, a sister, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.