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Cancer research pioneer Dr. Robert A. Weinberg is one of this year's nine recipients of the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor. Dr. Weinberg is the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research in the Department of Biology and an American Cancer Society Research Professor, and a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
In announcing the awards, the Presidential selection committee cited Professor Weinberg's pioneering work in understanding the genetic basis of human cancer--work that has laid the foundation for finding better treatment strategies and eventually a cure for cancer. Professor Weinberg and the other Medal recipients, including Professor James Watson, who co-discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, will receive their medals from President Clinton in a ceremony at the White House later this year.
Professor Weinberg's selection for the honor brings to 18 the number of MIT faculty who have received the Medal of Science over the years. Others so recognized are Manson Benedict, Morris Cohen, Charles S. Draper, Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Harold E. Edgerton, Herman Feshbach, Hermann A. Haus, Har Gobind Khorana, Warren K. Lewis, Salvador E. Luria, Alexander Rich, Bruno B. Rossi, Paul Samuelson, Claude E. Shannon, John G. Trump, Victor F. Weisskopf and Norbert Wiener.
"We are all delighted. It's very well deserved," said Professor Richard O. Hynes, director of the MIT Center for Cancer Research, where Dr. Weinberg started his MIT career. "Bob has been the leading cancer researcher for decades, starting from when he was in the Cancer Center and isolated the first oncogene. He continues to be affiliated with the Cancer Center, and he is an excellent and committed teacher in the MIT biology department, where he currently teaches 7.012 (Introductory Biology)."
"We are extremely pleased that the President's Committee has chosen Professor Weinberg for this honor. Professor Weinberg has made remarkable contributions to the field of cancer research and has enhanced our ability to tackle the roots of this disease, which strikes down almost half a million Americans each year," said Professor Gerald R. Fink, director of the Whitehead Institute.
"I am truly honored to receive this award," Professor Weinberg said. "Today, the origin of cancer is no longer a mystery because of the basic research carried out in many laboratories over the past two decades. The cancer cell used to be a veritable black box. Now we view its inner workings with great clarity."
Professor Weinberg led the groups that isolated the first human cancer-causing gene, the ras oncogene, and the first known tumor-suppressor gene, the retinoblastoma gene. The discovery of oncogenes and tumor-suppressor genes, often called the accelerators and brakes of cell growth, revolutionized the way scientists think about the origins of cancer and laid the groundwork for the notion that cancer is the result of genetic machinery gone awry.
The novel paradigm of cancer as a genetic disease has also offered new hope for the development of novel cures based on the rationale that if the cancer cell is nothing more than a machine gone awry, it must be possible to fix it.
"Such development would require a precise understanding of the control circuitry governing normal cell proliferation and how it malfunctions in the cancer cell. Therein lies the key to really understanding the heart and mind of the cancer cell and the hope of finding ways to combat it," said Professor Weinberg, who received the PhD in biology from MIT in 1969.
In the late 1970s, working at the Center for Cancer Research, his group found a single fragment--one gene--that turned the normal cell cancerous. This gene was found to belong to a family of related genes, called ras, that was later found to play a role in causing bladder, lung and colon cancer in both rats and humans. In 1982, his students showed that a single glitch in this oncogene topples the delicate balance between a bladder cell's normal and cancerous states. Since then, more than 100 other oncogenes have been isolated. Also in 1982, Professor Weinberg was appointed professor of biology at MIT and became one of the five original members of the Whitehead Institute.
Researchers in Professor Wein-berg's group have also isolated Rb, or the retinoblastoma gene, the first known growth-suppressor gene. Since 1990, their research has focused on creating a clearer picture of how oncogenes, tumor-suppressor genes and other elements act on a cell's normal life cycle. Using "knock-out" mice that lack some of the components which regulate this cycle, they have found proteins that appear to play important roles in development and tumors in breast, ovarian and testicular cells.
Professor Weinberg has written or edited five books and more than 250 articles. His two most recent volumes, intended for a lay audience, are the critically acclaimed Racing to the Beginning of the Road: The Search for the Origin of Cancer and Genes and the Biology of Cancer, co-authored with Professor Harold E. Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health. Professor Weinberg is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Among his many honors and awards are the Discover Magazine 1982 Scientist of the Year, the National Academy of Sciences/US Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology, the Sloan Prize of the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, the Bristol-Myers Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research, the Harvey Prize from the American Society for Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 1997.