Is cancer finally in retreat?

For Tyler Jacks, director of the MIT Center for Cancer Research, the question’s not theoretical. His organization is at the core of an expanding program that each year spends tens of millions to defeat a frustratingly resilient disease. He also knows how hopes have been raised in the past. Nearly a decade ago, for instance, a major newsweekly described a tumor suppressor gene — one on which Jacks happened to be among the world’s experts — as a “cancer killer.”

And, too, Jacks is frequently reminded of cancer’s human toll: as head of a major cancer center, he often hears from patients or members of their families. (“People are always looking for something new,” he notes. “It can be very difficult.”)

So, in answering the question, the cancer researcher chooses his words carefully: truly major inroads against the disease, says Jacks, a professor of biology, “won’t be easy; but I do think we’re turning a corner.”

Why? It’s partly recent progress. “For the first time,” he says, “we have approved drugs that are targeted toward molecular alterations in the cell” — for example, proteins on tumor cells that promote the disease. He adds that MIT, with its pioneering approach of exploring cancer at the level of the cells and molecules involved in the disease, directly set the stage for some of these therapies.

Partly it’s because of emerging tools against cancer: new ways to shut down cancer-linked genes, improved methods for figuring out which patients will benefit from a specific therapy, and the rapid growth of cancer nanotechnology — a realm where submicroscopic nanoparticles may before long be targeting and destroying cancerous cells.

And partly, it’s because the MIT environment itself inspires optimism. Given the breadth of MIT’s expertise, notes Jacks, “we can do things that would be hard for other places to attempt.”

Here’s a look at some of the Institute’s cancer work.