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War on Cancer: Laudable Goal, Still Much to Do

By John Russell

June 8, 2011 | The Russell Transcript | This year MIT has been celebrating its 150th anniversary with what it’s calling MIT + 150—“150 days of exploring MIT’s revolutionary contributions, celebrating MIT’s ‘Inventional Wisdom,’ and imagining the frontiers we should set our sights on next.”

MIT is truly a remarkable institution. Here’s a bit of trivia you may not know. It was probably the first school to champion the term ‘technology’ over the more commonly used ‘mechanical arts’ when it was established in 1861 as the “Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Society of Natural History.” Its founder and first president William Barton Rogers also sought to establish a more “learn by doing” environment, which has since flourished at MIT.

A number of fascinating symposia have been organized as part of MIT + 150, including a day-long event in March, entitled Conquering Cancer through the Convergence of Science and Engineering, organized by the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

The symposium title could have been tempered somewhat. Many of us recall the War on Cancer, begun with much fanfare 40 years ago when then U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971. Certainly great strides have been made since in understanding cancer and a few types of the disease are quite manageable, but the war is far from won.

Nevertheless, it’s important to be optimistic and the meeting described solid progress and set ambitious goals without excessively inflating patient hopes. As one would expect from MIT, the roster of speakers was star-studded including, to name a few, Phillip Sharp, Robert Langer, Sangeeta Bhatia, Joseph DeSimone, Susan Lindquist, Douglas Lauffenburger, Eric Lander, Susan Hockfield, and Lee Hood. Their various affiliations and videos of their presentations are available at

Convergence of science and engineering in the attack on cancer was the broad theme for the symposium and session two, Engineering Solutions to the Problems of Cancer, had excellent talks on drug delivery technologies. Most broadly forward looking was session three, Paradigm Shifts: From Biology to Technology to Medical Applications, featuring Lindquist, Lander, and Hood.

Lindquist, a member and former director of the Whitehead Institute and an HHMI investigator, presented work showing how heat shock protein 90 (HSP 90) is part of an ancient survival pathway that cancer cells may use for survival and whose inhibition may represent a whole new and fruitful approach to cancer therapy. She noted wryly her suggestion this might be the case a decade ago was roundly dismissed.

Comprehensive Comparisons

Broad Institute director Eric Lander argued that taking a “comprehensive view” of cancer was necessary and that the declining cost of sequencing would soon permit comparing not merely hundreds but hundred of thousands of normal and disease tissue samples.

He noted the Broad sequenced 70 gigabases (GB) in 2006, 1,800 GB the next year, and 125,000 GB in 2010. The point, he emphasized, is not just to do sequencing but also to do the functional analysis, “The real goal is to map all this back onto pathways and a physician in the future [would] get a report that says, there’s a lesion here so it doesn’t make sense to use the drug here but it instead use the drug here.” Advancing technology and its declining cost is putting this goal within practical reach.

Unlike the War on Cancer, which turned out to be a blunt instrument often characterized by hyperbole, the modern view of cancer is more nuanced and cognizant of the challenges but still hopeful. Obstacles remain, noted Lauffenburger, head of MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering whose excellent work on the EGFR system has worked its way into promising therapeutic approaches, reminded the assembled, “Biology is very different in the following sense, not that it doesn’t follow the laws of physics and chemistry at its most mechanistic level but that we are still woefully ignorant of what the variables are… It is very different to develop an engineering, predictive design viewpoint when one knows that you don’t know what most of the variables are.”

Always optimistic, Lander said, “Cancer is not hopelessly complicated but we sure don’t know everything and we ought to be looking.” 

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