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Robert Weinberg wins major cancer prize

Robert Weinberg
Robert Weinberg

Professor Robert A. Weinberg has won one of the largest prizes awarded to cancer researchers by a professional society of peers, according to the American Association for Cancer Research.

He and Angela M. Hartley Brodie of the University of Maryland School of Medicine are being honored with 2006 Landon-AACR Prizes for Basic and Translational Cancer Research. Each will receive an unrestricted cash award of $200,000 and will present successive scientific lectures at the AACR annual meeting on April 3.

Weinberg, a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and MIT professor of biology affiliated with the Center for Cancer Research, will receive the fifth Kirk A. Landon-AACR Prize for Basic Cancer Research. Brodie will receive the fifth Dorothy P. Landon-AACR Prize for Translational Cancer Research.

"These extraordinary scientists have spent their careers working to unravel at the molecular level some of cancer's most elusive mysteries," said Dr. Margaret Foti, chief executive officer of the AACR. "Each has spent more than 30 years in the laboratory, pursuing with relentless dedication their theories about cancer's mechanisms of invasion and progression in the complex chemistry of the human body."

According to the AACR, Weinberg's major contribution to the groundbreaking discovery of human oncogenes -- genes that cause cancer when mutated -- started with a simple question: How does cancer begin?

"If one looks at a human tumor, one realizes it's a conglomerate of many cells which are growing, multiplying out of control," Weinberg told the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on July 28, 1999. On that day, the journal Nature published an article by Weinberg and his research team reporting their successful conversion of normal human cells into tumor cells in a culture dish.

"Looking inside the cells," he continued, "we identified a number of damaged genes, called oncogenes or tumor suppressor genes. They're the regulators that orchestrate the proliferation of the cell."

Weinberg's lab continues to study the molecular mechanisms that control the growth of human tumors and their ability to seed distant growths -- metastases. This work has revealed ways in which normal stromal (connective tissue) cells recruited into a tumor aid the growth and survival of the cancer cells. In addition, by studying genes that are normally active early in embryonic development, Weinberg and colleagues have discovered mechanisms by which cancer cells in a primary tumor acquire the ability to invade nearby tissues and to spread to distant sites in the body.

"Cancer research has been a consuming passion of my life for three decades, and so it comes as an extraordinary honor that I am recognized in this way by my peers who include, by all measures, the world leaders in this dynamic and ever-fascinating field of science," said Weinberg. "I am extremely flattered. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that my work begun three decades ago would lead to recognition of this sort."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 8, 2006 (download PDF).

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