An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Conquering Cancer: MIT’s 36 Years Bear Fruit

  • Nancy DuVergne Smith

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The MIT150 symposium on MIT efforts to understand, prevent, and cure cancer reviewed the key discoveries and pointed to new solutions that can arise from the convergence of biology and engineering tools working together.

This graphic illustrates the convergence of life, physical and engineering sciences to solve problems. Graphic: Christine Daniloff.

Titled Conquering Cancer through the Convergence of Science and Engineering, the March 16 session include a bit of history. Before President Richard Nixon declared the War on Cancer in the early 1970s, “we really knew nothing about human cells and what controls their division,” Professor Nancy Hopkins recalled. These were major new discoveries: 1. Older people are most likely to have cancer. 2. Lifestyle decisions, such as smoking, influence who gets cancer. 3. Cancer appears when a single cell begins to divide inappropriately, invades other cells, and metastasizes.

Here are a few symposium highlights:

  • MIT scientists have made critical discoveries that resulted in new cancer drugs such as Gleevec and Herceptin.
  • More than 200 distinct diseases have been identified as cancers.
  • Two-thirds of cancers are preventable and many more are curable or manageable.
  • MIT’s Center for Cancer Research, founded 36 years ago, has been home to faculty who won four Nobel Prizes in cancer-related research.
  • In 2000, before the human genome sequencing was completed, scientists knew of about 80 genes that could cause solid tumors but, by 2010, 240 were known.
  • An MIT lab is creating iron oxide nanoparticles that can be tagged with small protein fragments that bind to tumor cells, which could help deliver drugs more efficiently. Today only about 1 percent of administered drugs reach the tumor.
Get emerging research insights from the newly opened David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, which houses biologists, who are uncovering what goes wrong inside cancer cells, and engineers, who are turning basic-science discoveries into clinical treatments and diagnostics.

You can watch the full symposium on TechTV.

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