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Conquering Cancer: Opening Remarks Reflections on Major Milestones in Cancer Research and Technology Development

03/16/2011 8:30 AM Kresge
David A. Mindell, PhD '96, Frances and David Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing; ; Dr. Susan Hockfield, President, MIT; Tyler Jacks, Director, David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and David H. Koch Professor, MITInvestigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; ; Nancy Hopkins, Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology; Phillip A. Sharp, HM, Institute Professor; Founding Director, McGovern Institute for Brain Research ; Jacqueline Lees, SM '86, PhD '90, Associate Director, Center for Cancer Research and Professor, Dept of Biology; Robert S. Langer, Jr., ScD '74, Institute Professor, Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering and Harvard"MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology ;

Description: The breadth and depth of thinking represented in MIT's 150th anniversary symposia would do William Barton Rogers proud, believes David Mindell. MIT's founder and first president envisioned the university pursuing cutting edge work, and the "convergence of science and engineering 150 years later captures the essence, the special courage" that Rogers imagined, says Mindell.

MIT's pursuit of a cure for cancer constitutes just this kind of convergence, states MIT president Susan Hockfield. While the Institute began significant research on the disease decades ago, work underway today promises major breakthroughs. "We've got the right place, the right people and this is the right time. We are riding the crest of a powerful wave in science," says Hockfield. And at MIT's new David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, states Tyler Jacks, partnerships between scientists and engineers are "already helping us treat the disease more sensitively, and one day will give us the tools to prevent it altogether."

Jacks' colleagues from the Koch Institute describe past milestones in cancer research, and attest to the promise of science and engineering collaborations in current and future research.

Nancy Hopkins starts with the Nixon Administration's declared "war on cancer" in 1971. Researchers could identify environmental factors, such as smoking, that caused cancers, and learned that early detection and treatment were critical in battling the disease. But these two avenues were not enough, and tackling cancer at the molecular level soon became essential. Energized by the revolution in molecular biology, MIT was "courageous or crazy enough" to take on this challenge, says Hopkins.

She characterizes progress in understanding the cellular basis of cancer as "breathtaking," leading to the development of "smart drugs," some of which seriously extend the lifespan of cancer patients without the side effects of previous therapies. But while the number of cancer deaths this country avoids has grown enormously in the past decade, Hopkins believes "the true number being saved is not nearly as great as it should be," primarily because basic discoveries "are not exploited as effectively as they could be."

There "are still major things about cancer we don't know," says Phillip Sharp, in spite of a raft of important discoveries from researchers at MIT. Salvador Luria, David Baltimore, Robert Horvitz, Susumu Tonegawa and Sharp himself pried apart such secrets as the function of genes in bacteria, genetic changes in the immune system, oncogenes, and programmed cell death. Sharp notes the long evolution of one of the first personalized cancer treatments, Gleevec (for chronic myelogenous leukemia), from MIT laboratories to actual drug. "To turn down the death rate due to cancer," says Sharp, "we must accelerate understanding and the ability to take fundamental discoveries and move them into therapy." Convergence of engineering and medicine will be critical to quickening the pace of drug discovery, says Sharp, and no better place than at MIT, which has brought together all the essential research elements.

Cancer genes acquire mutations along a stepwise path that proves diabolically difficult to trace, as Jacqueline Lees describes. But the job of researchers has been elucidating this process of transformation from normal cell to metastatic cancer, and seeking opportunities to detect, disrupt, and destroy the disease at different points along the way. Lees points to several types of genes scientists have been targeting in their battle. Her lab has been exploring a tumor suppressor gene that plays a major role in retinoblastoma, a childhood cancer of the eyes, and that also predisposes some patients to other tumors. Researchers want to control this gene to inhibit mutations, and stop the cancer from marshaling resources from other cells. Lees advocates the use of mouse models, rather than "studying isolated cancer cells in cultures," in order to "analyze the progression of disease and most importantly, test chemotherapeutic agents in the context of a living organism."

Robert Langer credits a series of lucky breaks for bringing him to the engineering side of medicine, including his entr_e to Judah Folkman's Boston lab, where he participated in pioneering work showing that tumors grow by recruiting new blood vessels (angiogenesis), and that targeting this process could thwart the spread of cancer. Langer tested hundreds of materials that could be released slowly in the body to block the growth of tumor"related blood vessels without harming healthy tissue. But he notes it took 28 years from the time this work was first published in 1976 to FDA approval of an angiogenesis inhibitor drug.

The field is still young, says Langer, with new inhibitors emerging for different cancers, and bioengineering increasingly central to drug development. He is excited about Koch Institute work involving "nanoparticles decorated with different molecules" that attack tumor cells. The interface of engineering and biology also promises minute sensors, cancer vaccines, and ways of measuring changes in cells at "1 one"millionth the weight of a nanogram-the most sensitive scale in the world." Says Langer, "I hope these will change our future."

About the Speaker(s): Nancy Hopkins earned widespread recognition for cloning vertebrate developmental genes. Using a techniqe called insertional mutagenesis -- designed for such invertebrate animals as the fruit fly -- Hopkins's laboratory has cloned hundreds of genes that play a role in creating a viable fish embryo.

Hopkins' research earned her 1998 election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1999 election to the Institute of Medicine and 2004 election to the National Academy of Sciences. She speaks frequently about gender equity issues in science.

Hopkins obtained a B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1964 and a Ph.D. from the department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Harvard University in 1971.

Host(s): Office of the President, MIT150 Inventional Wisdom

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