The first director of the MIT Center for Cancer Research, the biologist and Nobel laureate Salvador Luria, believed that to make progress against a complex and intractable disease, we needed to understand cancer at its most basic level. This meant studying the normal cells that give rise to cancer as well as the many cellular processes that shape the origins, nature, and course of the disease.
At the time, the early 1970s, this cellular and molecular approach to cancer was still quite uncommon. Few other research enterprises had chosen it. Yet Luria and his colleagues had the vision and the courage to take cancer research in a new direction.
Time has validated the wisdom of this pioneering group many times over. Work at the MIT Cancer Center has led to Nobel prizes for four center members besides Luria. New cancer therapies based on the findings of cell and molecular biology play a growing role in treating the disease, with two of them owing their origins directly to work done at MIT. Meanwhile, basic ideas and strategies largely developed here have permeated not only the cancer research activities around the world but also the whole realm of experimental biology. Inevitably, our cancer work today looks very different from that pathbreaking program. One especially important and exciting change is the growing involvement of faculty and students from fields besides biology, particularly engineering.
Contributions to the cancer struggle by MIT engineers, of course, are not new. Starting at about the time the cancer center was founded, chemical engineer Robert Langer and his co-workers started laying the groundwork for a variety of innovative therapeutic strategies, including highly effective new technologies for delivering drugs to the sites of tumors.
Today, the various threads of MIT’s anti-cancer activities are knit together in a very thoughtful and productive way. A series of recent initiatives, including the MIT-Harvard Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, headed by Professor Langer and a Harvard colleague, and the multidisciplinary MIT Program in Integrative Cancer Biology, have given new support and structure to a confluence of fields that has been under way for years. The membership of the Cancer Center itself tells the story of our interdisciplinary approach. Tyler Jacks, whose contributions include vital discoveries about the tumor suppressor gene p53, and who now heads the Center, has made broadening its membership a key goal. As a result, the Center, once made up exclusively of biologists, now includes engineers and chemists, and encompasses 32 different labs.
We hope soon to create a new home for the center. The facilities in this building will let us take advantage of the truly impressive array of research tools available today. I have already mentioned nanotechnology; that subject area offers just one of many new opportunities for making strides against a dreaded antagonist. Importantly, the center’s new home will also promote the collaborations crucial to progress against cancer. At the same time, we will continue to expand our interactions with medical centers and hospitals, with drug and biotech firms — growing numbers of them located in the Kendall Square area — and with MIT-affiliated centers such as the Broad Institute, which works to realize the promise of genomics for medicine, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
Yet while many aspects of our cancer program are new, at its core is a continuing mission. Our cancer researchers are still motivated by a singular vision that innovative scientific research and technology development must lie at the heart of the fight against cancer. They remain willing to take risks to fulfill that vision. And they are committed to realizing the dream of overcoming a disease that is still very costly, tragically widespread, and, all too often, deadly.