On this day in history, September 26, 1929, Ida Owens, one of two first African Americans to receive a Ph.D. from Duke University and the first woman to receive any degree in physiology from Duke, was born in Whiteville, North Carolina. Owens’ early education was in segregated public schools. Owens then attended North Carolina College, now North Carolina Central University, graduating in 1961 summa cum laude in Biology (B.S.) and Mathematics (minor). In 1962, she began her Ph.D. studies in biochemistry and physiology at Duke University shortly after Duke racially integrated its graduate and professional schools.
After graduating, Owens held a postdoctoral position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) focused on how drugs are chemically processed in the body. Owens then became an NIH researcher, working for the Laboratory of Developmental Pharmacology in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). In 1981 her work evolved into the NICHD Section on Drug Biotransformation. Since 1988, Owens has directed NICHD’s Section on Genetic Disorders of Drug Metabolism in the Program on Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics.
Owens’ postdoctoral work sparked her specific interest in a critical group of enzymes, called glucuronosyltransferases (abbreviated UGTs), responsible for detoxifying numerous drugs, toxic chemicals, and other substances. She then designed methods to study genes that code for specific UGT enzymes. These methods allowed her to characterize UGT1A1, the gene coding for an enzyme in this family that processes the protein bilirubin, a breakdown product of hemoglobin, and to identify 12 other previously unknown and independent UGT enzymes.
Owens’ research group has subsequently made multiple advancements regarding UGT enzyme biology. Her laboratory was the first to identify a genetic defect, in the gene UGT1A1, that leads to Crigler-Najjar syndrome. Crigler-Najjar syndrome is a disorder that disrupts normal processing and excretion of bilirubin, leading to jaundice. Owens’ research group also identified that UGT enzymes must be activated before they can detoxify foreign chemicals and that in some cases suppressing these enzymes could enhance the effects of therapeutic drugs. Owens’ laboratory found that activity of UGT enzymes can be lessened by kinase inhibitors and that protein kinase C and tyrosine kinase enzymes can alter the enzyme specificity, likely contributing to their ability to detoxify a wide range of foreign chemicals.