While much of MIT’s cancer work focuses on its basic biology or on new approaches to treatment, prevention’s also a priority — and one where new strategies are emerging just as they are in other realms.
Today’s work builds on a rich tradition. A lot of MIT’s early life sciences research had a public health focus. Over the past several decades, meanwhile, Gerald Wogan, a biological engineering professor emeritus, has done pioneering studies on the cancer-causing agent aflatoxin. This work, carried out with John Essigmann, professor of chemistry and biological engineering, yielded acutely sensitive techniques for measuring aflatoxin in human samples.
In a related effort, one of the first-ever internationally focused molecular epidemiology studies has been carried out through a collaborative network among scientists, epidemiologists, and public health officials in the U.S., China, and Thailand. This work not only validated a research strategy that links environmental exposures to specific diseases but also offered compelling evidence that aflatoxin can cause liver cancer, especially in hepatitis sufferers.
Wogan’s work earned him the General Motors Foundation’s prestigious Charles Stewart Mott award. It also inspired a research project that’s part of the Global Enterprise for Micro-Mechanics and Molecular Medicine (GEM4), headed by former science and engineering chair Subra Suresh.
Conceived by Essigmann and Ram Sasisekharan, also of biological engineering, GEM4 has one arm focused on micromechanics and another on global environmental health. The latter component, builds on a longstanding collaboration among MIT, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Thailand’s Chulaborn Research Institute.
MIT’s Bevin Engelward, associate professor of biological engineering, recently traveled to a conference in Thailand focused on a range of global health issues, including aflatoxin. “The Thai government has asked us to collaborate with their investigators on ways to prevent cancer and other illnesses related to environmental exposures,” she says. Guided by Essigmann, Sasisekharan, and Leona Samson, professor of biological engineering, MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences is taking the lead in organizing this project.