The development of nanotechnologies is a vital new direction for MIT engineers, but it’s not alone. In fact, the role of engineers in cancer is changing as never before.

Douglas Lauffenburger, professor of biological engineering and head of the MIT division by that name, is at the leading edge of this transition, and says it probably couldn’t have happened much if any sooner than it has. “I trained as a chemical engineer in the ‘70s,” he notes, “and at that time, there was no such thing as biological engineering, because biology wasn’t mechanistic or quantitative. Since you couldn’t quantify the properties of the field’s parts and pieces, you couldn’t manipulate them very well.”

Case in point: drug development. The reason most new drugs fail, says Lauffenburger, is simply that “they haven’t been engineered in a designed way.” But various factors have combined to change this picture. The decoding of the human genome, and a new understanding of how proteins work, are key examples. “If we can describe those parts and pieces,” says Lauffenburger, “we can quantify them and manipulate them.”

Lauffenburger’s division, focused on educating engineers who are also steeped in biology, is one MIT response to this changed environment. Another is making Lauffenburger and others with engineering backgrounds members of the cancer center. Still another is the MIT Center for Integrative Cancer Biology, which is headed by Richard Hynes, professor of biology and former cancer center director, and funded with an initial federal grant of $12.6 million.

Lauffenburger notes that one key to biological engineering strategies in medicine is being able to measure: for example, knowing the exact levels of key proteins in tumor cells, and he says engineers have already made key contributions here: “We’re now measuring things much faster and more effectively than before.” But that’s not their only focus.