Dr. Robert A. Weinberg, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and professor of biology, is among 10 US scientists and five European scientists selected to receive the Christopher Columbus Discovery Award in Biomedical Research, according to an announcement today by the Christopher Columbus Medical Sciences Committee of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Dr. Weinberg was selected "for pioneering studies leading to the identification of a gene capable of converting normal cells into cancerous cells, thereby laying the groundwork for understanding cancer as a genetic disease."
The one-time awards are cosponsored by the NIH Committee and by the Christopher Columbus Medical Sciences Committee of Genoa, Italy, as part of the commemoration of the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus' epic voyage to the Americas. The committees also have planned two international scientific meetings, "Aging-The Quality of Life," beginning February 10 in Washington, D.C., and "Biotechnologies," in Genoa Italy, October 27-30.
The US awards-a medal and a cash prize-will be presented at a banquet in Washington D.C., on February 11, in conjunction with the aging conference. In announcing the winners, Dr. George J. Galasso, chairman of the NIH committee, said, "By their excellence in research, these scientists have personified the boldness of exploration shown by Columbus' venture into the unknown."
In the 1970s, Dr. Weinberg and his associates were the first to demonstrate that human cancer cells and chemically transformed animal cells carry mutated genes-oncogenes-capable of forcing cells into malignant growth. His subsequent studies revealed that oncogenes are slightly altered versions of normal cellular genes. In 1981, he showed that a single DNA base change in a normal growth regulating gene could convert the gene into the virulent H-ras oncogene of a human bladder carcinoma.
Dr. Weinberg and his associates later identified the first "tumor suppressor gene." These genes suppress abnormal growth in cells; tumors result when the genes are missing or damaged. Isolation of the retinoblastoma gene (responsible for a form of eye cancer in children) in the Weinberg laboratory provided a foundation for new strategies in cancer diagnosis and therapy.
Today, Dr. Weinberg's laboratory is making rapid progress in deciphering the molecular mechanisms underlying oncogene activity. A recent paper, "Expression Cloning and Characterization of the TGF-b Type-III Receptor," (Cell, November 1991) opens a new field of investigation in the area of growth control. Other ongoing work includes molecular dissection of the ras pathway and the application of novel gene knock-out procedures to create new experimental models of human cancers in laboratory animals.
A version of this article appeared in the February 5, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 19).