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Introduction to Cancer Genetics

06/07/2006 8:30 AM 46-3002
Robert A. Weinberg, '64, PhD '69, Daniel K. Ludwig and American Cancer Society Professor for Cancer Research
Department of Biology

Description: During the human lifetime, there are 10 million billion cell divisions and each division represents, as Robert Weinberg puts it, -an opportunity for disaster, for chaos to occur.” The longer-lived the organism, the more likely it is that one cell eventually -will lose the ability to collaborate with its neighbors” in maintaining structure and function, and just start multiplying uncontrollably. Weinberg and other researchers are delving at the molecular and genetic level to understand why and how this single cell begins to proliferate, leading over years and through different stages, to cancer. Weinberg offers a primer on the process of cancer formation, which he likens to Darwinian evolution but within the microcosm of human tissue. Healthy organisms carry tumor suppressor genes, and proto-oncogenes. If these genes become corrupted somehow or prevented from functioning, the result may be cell proliferation. There are, unfortunately, lots of ways these genes become damaged: via a virus, or chromosomes changing places, or by chemical carcinogens, for instance. Weinberg describes how high rates of liver cancer in China were traced to a DNA-mutating mold found in damp rice, grain and fruit. Given the number of ways genetic alternations can come about, it's a relief that as many as five changes are required to convert a normal human cell into a malignant one. -If single mutations sufficed, we would all be covered by tumors by age three. Our cells are wired to be highly resistant,” says Weinberg. The latest cancer therapies attempt to capitalize on advancing knowledge of genetic and cellular networks. Weinberg points to two drugs that shut down growth stimulatory signals: Herceptin, which has proven very successful in a specific class of breast cancers, and Gleevec, for chronic myelogenous leukemia.

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, School of Science

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