Hundreds of members of the MIT community gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate the dedication of the new headquarters of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, a pioneering cancer research center that brings life scientists and engineers together in one building. The event was presided over by John Reed, chair of the MIT Corporation.
Institute Professor Phillip Sharp, a molecular biologist and member of the institute, said celebrating the dedication was “a dream come true.”
The institute will build on the decades of work that cancer biologists have done unraveling the molecular mechanisms of the disease, Sharp said. “Now is the right time, and the Koch Institute is the right place, for the science of cancer to join the engineering of nanoparticles and new materials, the engineering of the immune system, the engineering of cellular pathways to create new knowledge about cancer and new treatments. I am thrilled to join my tremendous colleagues in engineering here at MIT in this great adventure.”
Sharp went onstage with one of the institute's engineers, Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT. Langer told the audience that three decades ago, when he turned to biomedical research after training as a chemical engineer, he was one of a very small number of engineers who got involved in medicine. “I’ve seen firsthand the power that can come from looking at age-old problems through a different lens,” he said.
MIT President Susan Hockfield said that the Koch Institute epitomizes MIT’s longstanding commitment to find solutions for real world problems.
“MIT’s world-class biologists and engineers, with their laboratories side by side, collaborate in understanding the most basic molecular mechanisms of cancer cells and in developing practical, patient-ready devices,” she said at the dedication ceremony. “With the galvanizing leadership of Tyler Jacks, Koch Institute researchers are cultivating frontier-breaking ideas at the remarkably fertile intersection of biology with engineering and the physical sciences.”
The new Koch Institute building, located on Main Street between Ames and Vassar streets, houses researchers from disciplines such as biology, chemical engineering, computer science, materials science and more. Construction of the new building, which began in 2008, was made possible by a $100 million donation from David H. Koch ’62, SM ’63. Researchers moved into the new building in October 2010.
Along with its neighbors, including the Whitehead and Broad institutes, the new Koch building forms a “hub of transformative collaborations,” Hockfield said.
Jacks, the Koch Institute's director, said that new collaborations have become common in the past five years since MIT’s Center for Cancer Research transformed into the Koch Institute. Those partnerships have been enhanced now that Koch Institute engineers, who had been scattered across campus, have joined their biologist colleagues in the new building.
“I’ve witnessed the hallway conversations between bioengineers and Nobel laureate biologists blossom into full collaborations to design an RNAi delivery system that might be well suited for use in treating ovarian cancer,” Jacks said. “Every day, there are countless more examples of how this interdisciplinary vision is taking root and is transforming the very nature of cancer research here and well beyond.”
Jacqueline Lees, professor of biology and associate director of the Koch Institute, said that the new building represents “the very heart” of the institute’s effort to pursue new solutions to cancer, and Alice Shaw, a clinical investigator at the institute, spoke of the need to find new therapies that will extend patients’ lives by years or decades.
A powerful team
Koch said he was “simply overwhelmed by the turnout today and by the enormous feelings of accomplishment that we are enjoying on this very special occasion.”
Koch told the audience that he inherited from his father a strong desire to give back to MIT, which his father and two brothers also attended. “My father admired immensely the brilliant professors and outstanding instruction he received here. He strongly advised his sons to attend MIT and to get an education, which we three greatly benefited from.”
When he and his brothers were all diagnosed with prostate cancer, Koch developed a passion for finding a cure for the disease. He’s pursued that goal by funding cancer research at institutions across the United States. “I follow the same strategy I used when I bet on the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby many years ago, and that is, I bought a ticket on every horse in the race,” he said.
“No one knows from where the next major cancer discovery will come, but it makes sense that the more centers that are tackling cancer research, the more likely that major discoveries will occur,” he said.
Koch picked MIT for his biggest cancer research support because “these people constitute one of the most powerful teams in cancer research to be found anywhere in the world.”
Koch also recently endowed two new faculty chairs at MIT, one in life sciences and one in engineering, which will be filled in the coming months.
MIT on the map
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) told the crowd that the new institute enhances MIT’s and Massachusetts’ stature as leaders in academic research.
“It really puts Massachusetts and Cambridge and MIT on the map to do things that no other countries and no other institutions can do, by taking the convergence model and using that multidisciplinary way of thinking to tackle a problem that we’re all faced with,” Brown said.
Cambridge Mayor David Maher called the new institute “a stunning addition to Kendall Square.”
“When you look at our city and think of the transformation this community has had over the decades I’ve been alive; we have gone from a manufacturing city to really the hub of life sciences in the country,” Maher said. “It’s an extraordinary transformation that we’ve seen.”
The new building houses 27 faculty labs, which are populated with hundreds of young researchers being trained to lead the next charge against cancer — 100 undergraduates, 150 graduate students and 150 postdoctoral researchers, Hockfield said.
“The creative energy of the Koch Institute is remarkably accelerated by the intelligence, curiosity and potential of next-gen researchers,” she said. “To imagine the full, far-reaching impact of the Koch Institute, think of the future, when these students take the collaborative instincts, interdisciplinary skills and hands-on problem-solving they have learned here and sow these seeds in universities, hospitals and companies around the world.”
Hockfield thanked Koch for supporting MIT’s goal to promote multidisciplinary collaboration in biotechnology and the life sciences, particularly in cancer research. “By virtue of his advocacy and support for several of the very best cancer research centers in the country, David has a unique understanding of cancer research, from bench to bedside,” she said. “His passion for accelerating progress made his involvement in this project sophisticated, insightful and inspiring.”
Hockfield also thanked Judy and Erica Swanson, Charles B. and Anne Johnson, and the Koch Institute Leadership Council for providing additional funding for the building. Their donations funded the Swanson Biotechnology Center, the Center for Nanotechnology Science, the Philip Alden Russell 1914 Gallery, the Koch Institute Public Galleries, the Frontier Research Fund and the Clinical Investigators program.