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How Did We Get Here?

06/24/2005 10:00 AM Kresge
Robert A. Weinberg, '64, PhD '69, Daniel K. Ludwig and American Cancer Society Professor for Cancer Research
Department of Biology

Description: Robert Weinberg plots the 200-year course of cancer research, finding neglected byways, wrong turns, and astonishing advances. He starts with Percival Pott, a London surgeon who noticed that chimney sweeps often developed a rare kind of cancer. In Europe, where people bathed more often, this cancer was much less evident, leading to "the first indication in public literature that there was a close correlation between one's experience in life and the incidence of rare cancer," says Weinberg. In 1910, Japanese scientist Katsusaburo Yamigiwa, painted coal tars onto the ears of rabbits and produced tumors, which "led to the realization that one can experimentally provoke cancer rather than wait for it to arise spontaneously." He was "overlooked by Nobel," Weinberg notes. Other similarly unrecognized scientists discovered that transferring leukemic tissue into healthy tissue could induce cancer, and that cancer could be caused by infectious disease. But there were major missteps, says Weinberg. In one notorious episode, a Danish Nobel Prize winner's cancer research was discovered to be in error. And when Howard M. Temin suggested that cancer originated through an atypical genetic process called reverse transcription, he "was shunned as a pariah."

In 1970, Temin was vindicated as he and David Baltimore separately discovered an enzyme central to such a process. Next came the Nixon Administration's 'war on cancer,' which was attacked as a fraudulent waste of taxpayers' money when seven years of searching for viruses in human tumors produced no results. Yet this dead end suddenly yielded scientific pay dirt in the 80s, when researchers found viral 'oncogenes' in the DNA of normal cells, which caused malignancies. Scientists then demonstrated that by altering normal genes, they too could create cancerous cells. Advances in biochemistry have led to "a rapidly evolving conceptualization of how cancer occurs," says Weinberg. "We're beginning to talk about cancer as aberrations of an integrated signaling circuit, which if we could only understand its design '.would lead us to be able to restore normalcy to a cancer cell or preferentially, kill it."

About the Speaker(s): Robert A. Weinberg has earned some of the top honors in his field. Most recently, he won the 2006 Landon-AACR Prize for Basic and Translational Cancer Research. He is also a 1997 National Medal of Science awardee. Weinberg's laboratory discovered the first human oncogene and the first tumor suppressor gene. Today, much of his research focuses on new models of breast cancer development including the stages of tumor invasiveness and metastasis. He earned his Ph.D. in biology from MIT in 1969, and was one of the Founding Members of the MIT Center for Cancer Research in 1973. He was appointed a professor at MIT in 1982, the same year he joined the Whitehead Institute. Weinberg was named American Cancer Society Research Professor in 1985 and received the Daniel K. Ludwig Professorship for Cancer Research in 1997. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

Host(s): School of Science, MIT Center for Cancer Research

Tape #: T20122.

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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