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Cancer Center highlights past, present research

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MIT School of Science Dean Robert Silbey called the Institute's Center for Cancer Research the "jewel in the crown of MIT" at a recent short course on cancer for alumni and faculty that included highlights of the Center's past and present research.

CCR Director Tyler Jacks pointed out that over its 30-year history, the Center has produced a stream of Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine -- Salvador Luria (1969), founding director of the center; David Baltimore (1975), now president of Caltech; Susumu Tonegawa (1987), Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience; Phillip Sharp (1993), Institute Professor; and H. Robert Horvitz (2002), David H. Koch Professor of Biology.

"We're doing basic cancer research to bring a molecular understanding to the disease," said Jacks, Koch Professor of Biology, to course attendees on June 7. Jacks added that about 1.4 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year, and 560,000 die of the disease.

MIT discoveries led directly to two of the first generation of targeted anti-cancer drugs now on the market, Jacks said. Herceptin, from Roche Pharmaceuticals, targets hyperactivity of the Her-2 receptor in breast cancer cells; it is based on work by Robert Weinberg, Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research, and colleagues. CCR research also was instrumental to the development of Gleevec from Novartis, which is used for some patients with a rare and otherwise incurable cancer, gastrointestinal stromal tumors.

"Today, the fuel for cancer breakthroughs is technology," Jacks said. "We're starting to look at a cancer cell like an integrated circuit by taking a systems approach." In October 2004 the CCR became one of nine interdisciplinary centers to get National Cancer Institute funding to use computational and mathematical systems approaches to understand complex problems in cancer biology (see MIT Tech Talk, October 27, 2004).

MIT President Susan Hockfield said that the northeast edge of MIT's campus is a cauldron of convergence of the sciences and engineering. The CCR, David H. Koch Biology Building, Whitehead Institute and most recently the Broad Institute are located close to one another there.

"One-third of the faculty across the MIT campus is involved in some sort of biological research," she said.

Jacks said the CCR plans to set up a center within the CCR that is dedicated to studying how cancer spreads. The new center will include the research of Weinberg, who is also the American Cancer Society Professor of Biology, and Richard Hynes, Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research.

"There are 3 x 10 to the 13th cells in the human body dividing at any given time," said Weinberg. "Each cell division is an opportunity for disaster. Cancer is one cell type that begins to multiply uncontrollably, yielding chaos." Weinberg, who also co-teaches the 7.01 introductory biology courses at MIT, admitted to the audience that he received a grade of "D" when he took the courses himself.

Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute, who also teaches 7.01, said cancer research has been fundamentally transformed by genomics. Lander, who directed the Whitehead-MIT Center for Genome Research and who was instrumental in the Human Genome Project, said he and his colleagues are working on a paper that will revise the human gene count to less than 20,000, down from the 23,000 genes now thought to compose the genome.

"Biomedicine is poised for a historic transformation with genomics," he said. "Students at MIT in 2020 will look back at the late 20th Century with horror and bemusement and say, 'Can you believe people actually looked for the gene for something?'"

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