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Tech Day speakers discuss medical advances

Life and death, cancer and sex -- topics that command universal attention -- were discussed on Technology Day on Saturday in Kresge Auditorium.

The series of short lectures was entitled "The Human Body: Emerging Medical Science and Technology." The annual event is sponsored by the MIT Association of Alumni and Alumnae.

Three members of the MIT faculty and a Yale professor who joins the Department of Biology on July 1 were the featured speakers. In introducing the group, President Charles M. Vest described them as "truly extraordinary in every dimension -- in brilliance, accomplishment, contributions to human welfare, as good and engaging people, and as teachers and mentors of the next generation. They make us all proud to be part of MIT."

Robert A. Weinberg (SB 1964 , PhD), a leading specialist in the study of the genetic basis of cancer, discussed "How Cancer Begins." He is the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at MIT and a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

"Over the last two decades, we have begun to understand the molecular properties of the cancer cell," said Professor Weinberg, whose research has led to major advances in understanding the genetic mechanisms that control or inhibit cell growth. "If we understand the origin, we can develop new kinds of cures. I am secure and confident when I predict that in the next decade a number of new treatments will be developed."

Professor Martha Constantine-Paton of Yale University, one of the nation's leading researchers and teachers in neuroscience, gave a talk titled "What Is Developmental Plasticity and What Does It Do for Us?" She said developmental plasticity allows young children to change their behavior readily and frequently irreversibly as they mature as a result of changes in the brain. She noted that children who learn American Sign Language before the age of 4 are "extremely sensitive to visual motion," which does not occur in persons who learn it later in life.

Since developmental plasticity is a process through which the brain responds to its environment by refining its precise wiring in childhood, Professor Constantine-Paton said, "Perhaps that's why the Bach family are all great composers. It's partly genetic and partly because they heard a lot of great music at an early age."

Robert S. Langer Jr. (SB 1974), the Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, spoke on "Biomaterials and How They Will Change Our Lives."

A pioneering researcher in bioengineering techniques, his work has led directly to numerous improvements in medical care, including the development of implantable polymer wafers that release timed, controlled doses of medication to treat tumors and other localized illnesses. He has also successfully developed tissue engineering approaches that have led to artificial skin therapies to help burn victims heal.

Professor Langer and MIT colleagues Professor Michael Cima and John Santini recently announced the development of a new microchip that can be programmed to release specific doses of multiple medications.

"Our hope for the future," said Professor Langer, is to develop new principles and materials that will "relieve suffering and prolong life."

Finally, Professor David C. Page of biology, an associate investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and an adjunct faculty member of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, discussed "The Human Genome Project, Sex and Fertility."

Professor Page -- who is also a member of the Whitehead Institute, where he chairs the Task Force on Genetic Testing, Privacy and Public Policy -- predicted that a rough draft of the entire human genome would be available in 12-18 months and a reference-grade version in three years. One result, he said, is that "we might be able to customize medical care" for genetically based diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Professor Page's research has focused on mapping the Y chromosome as a promising avenue toward understanding and treating a number of chromosome-based disorders, including infertility. "Sex is one aspect of human differentiation we all have been studying since early childhood," he quipped.

Executive Vice President William J. Hecht, head of the Alumni/ae Association, thanked Professor Phillip A. Sharp, head of the Department of Biology, for his role in organizing the program. Professor Sharp did not attend because he was in Sweden to receive an honorary degree from the University of Uppsala.

A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 33).

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