MIT Reports to the President 1995-96


The Center for Cancer Research was established in 1973 to study fundamental biological processes related to cancer. The goals of the Center's research can be generally stated as developing an understanding of (1) the genetic and molecular basis of cancer, (2) how alterations in cellular processes affect cell growth and behavior, and (3) how the immune system develops and recognizes antigens. These goals are related to the Center's major research programs in oncogenes and mammalian genetics, molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and immunology. Approximately 245 people work in the Center, distributed among the research laboratories of 13 faculty. In addition, four faculty members in the Whitehead Institute, one in Biology, and one in Chemistry are Affiliate Members of the CCR.

Financial support for research in the Center comes from many sources. The core of this support, which provides much of the funds for administration, partial faculty salary support, and central research facilities (i.e. glass washing facility, specialized laboratories and partial support for new faculty), is a Center Core grant from the National Cancer Institute. The current term extends to April 30, 2000. In addition to the core grant, the Center's faculty have a total of 46 fully funded projects (plus over half a million dollars of competitive support in fellowships for postgraduate studies). This support comes largely from the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and from a variety of foundations supporting research in particular disease areas (American Cancer Society, Hereditary Disease Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy Association, National Neurofibromatosis Foundation, etc.). This latter type of support is particularly valuable for starting projects which later mature into federally funded grants. The Center's success in attracting grant support is a reflection of the excellence of the research and educational activities of its faculty members. The FY96 research volume was approximately $12 million, which does not include $3 million in support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Several groups in the Center study the identity of oncogenes. This work includes the recent identification of the Wilm's tumor oncogene as well as basic molecular studies on other oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes that regulate gene expression controlling the cell cycle and tumor growth. Another focus is on the biochemical mechanisms controlling RNA transcription and splicing, including studies of genes of the AIDS virus, HIV.

The immunologists in the Center study the development of cytotoxic and helper T lymphocytes, their antigen-specific receptors, and the molecular mechanisms of antigen presentation. Since the immune response to tumors is poorly understood, these basic studies are crucial to a more profound analysis of tumor rejection. Immune cells can destroy cancer cells and it may be possible to stimulate this process.

The cell biologists study cell surface proteins involved in cellular adhesion and migration, as well as cytoskeletal proteins involved in cell motility and shape. Alterations in cell adhesion proteins contribute to the malignant phenotype of tumor cells. These proteins as well as cytoskeletal proteins are important targets for antitumor drugs, and deeper understanding of their structure and function should contribute to better therapeutic agents.

Since the cellular processes of development and cancer have much in common, useful insights into the behavior of tumor cells can be obtained from studies of normal embryos; several projects in the Center focus on developmental processes. Recent advances in the generation of transgenic mice and mice with mutations in targeted genes are being exploited to investigate the roles of a variety of proteins important in tumorigenesis, including oncogene proteins, tumor suppressor genes, cell adhesion receptors, T-cell receptors and protein kinases.

Major research advances in the past year include:

The discovery and isolation by the Housman laboratory of genes causing acute myeloid leukemia. Two such genes were identified by sophisticated genomic analyses. Both represent fusions of other genes and their structures provide fascinating insights into the mechanisms for initiation of leukemia.

The discovery by the Ploegh laboratory of novel mechanisms by which viruses subvert the immune systems to evade immunological rejection and allow viral latency.

The discovery by the Lees laboratory of a novel level of regulation of gene transcription factors important in control of the cell cycle, which is altered in cancer cells.

The generation by the Hynes laboratory of strains of mice lacking vital cell adhesion molecules leading to failures in protection against bacterial infections; these mice provide models for human immunodeficiency diseases.

In addition to its strengths in basic research, the CCR performs an important role in training future researchers in biomedical science, including undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral and clinical fellows. The faculty of the Center fulfill critical roles in the educational programs of the Department of Biology. Our colleague, Dr. Phillip Sharp, has served as Head of the Department for the past five years. Dr. Frank Solomon serves as Chairman of the Department's Graduate Program. Extensive collaborations exist with medical schools, hospitals and the biotechnology/pharmaceutical industries. Thus, the research in the CCR has a major impact both on the fundamental understanding of cancer and on translation to and from the clinical arena.

A major strength of the Center remains its attractiveness as an environment for the training of young scientists. The Center has 58 graduate and undergraduate students and 93 postdoctoral fellows/associates. The Center also benefited from a number of international faculty-rank visitors during the past year.

Major honors received by faculty of the Center during this past year were:

Nancy Hopkins was named a Fellow of the Class of 1960 in recognition of outstanding teaching and course development.

David Housman was named Ciba-Geigy Professor of Biology.

Richard Hynes was elected to National Institute of Medicine in the fall of 1995 and to the National Academy of Sciences in the Spring of 1996.

Jacqueline Lees was named the first holder of the Irwin and Helen Sizer Career Development Professorship in Biology.

Phillip Sharp received the Lord Foundation Award for Leadership in Advancing the Application of Science and Technology, and also received honorary degrees from Bowdoin College, the Unviersity of Tel Aviv, and Albright College.

Richard O. Hynes

MIT Reports to the President 1995-96