International Authority on Cancer Genetics to Receive Science of Oncology Award
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a national war on cancer. By the end of the decade, Robert A. Weinberg, PhD, had won one of this war’s first major battles.
Dr. Weinberg discovered the first human cancer-causing gene, the ras oncogene, in the early 1980s. By 1986, he and his team also had isolated the first known tumor suppressor gene, the retinoblastoma gene. By identifying a genetic basis for cancer cell growth, these discoveries gave scientists and clinicians a new understanding of the causes of cancer and revolutionized ideas about how oncologists could treat the disease.
For his outstanding contributions to the field, ASCO is pleased to present Dr. Weinberg with the 2011 Science of Oncology Award. Dr. Weinberg will accept the award and deliver his accompanying lecture in the Plenary Session, to be held tomorrow 1:00 PM — 4:00 PM. The Science of Oncology Award was created in 2005 to honor the contributions of innovative basic and translational scientists in cancer research. Dr. Weinberg told ASCO Daily News he was "enormously gratified and surprised" to be named as this year’s recipient.
"My work is usually much closer to bench research than it is to the oncology clinic," he said. "It was especially gratifying to realize that people in the world of clinical oncology knew of my existence."
|Robert A. Weinberg, PhD
Many scientists around the world have known of Dr. Weinberg’s work for several decades. He is an international authority on the genetic causes of cancer. Dr. Weinberg is a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the first director of the Ludwig Cancer Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also is the Daniel K. Ludwig and American Cancer Society Professor for Cancer Research at MIT. Dr. Weinberg is the author or editor of six books and has published more than 350 articles.
Dr. Weinberg has been honored many times for his contributions to science and medicine. Discover Magazine named him "Scientist of the Year" in 1982, and he has been awarded the National Medal of Science (1997), the Wolf Prize in Medicine (2004), the Landon-AACR Prize for Cancer Research (2006), and the Otto Warburg Medal (2007). He is a Member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
After earning his doctorate in biology from MIT in 1969, Dr. Weinberg began investigating the ways in which a normal cell turns into a cancer cell. He began by studying two cancer-causing agents known to scientists at that time — viruses and chemical carcinogens. By the late 1970s, he had learned how carcinogens work — by invading a cell, mutating its DNA, thereby converting a normal cellular gene into a cancer-promoting oncogene. This research, Dr. Weinberg said, led to his discovery of the ras oncogene in 1980.
"For the first time, one could begin to understand with great precision the molecular basis of chemical carcinogenesis, which in turn reflected the molecular basis by which many human tumors arise," Dr. Weinberg said.
After his team’s 1986 discovery of the retinoblastoma tumor suppressor gene, Dr. Weinberg began investigating what he calls the most challenging part of understanding tumor development: how cancer cells invade and metastasize. In 2002, he began looking for genes that are involved in these processes, and in 2004, he found them.
"We found that some of the earliest embryonic genes that are involved in allowing cells to move from one part of the embryo to the next are also appropriated opportunistically by cancer cells, in order to enable them to acquire the ability to move around, to invade, and ultimately to disseminate to different parts to the body," Dr. Weinberg said.
This process of movement and invasion is called the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and Dr. Weinberg continues to study how this process allows carcinoma cells to become aggressive and metastasize. He will discuss this work in his lecture tomorrow.
Dr. Weinberg’s research contributions have been invaluable to advancing the scientific understanding of cancer. However, researchers face many more challenges in improving their understanding of the disease and enabling clinicians to treat it more effectively. Chief among these challenges, Dr. Weinberg said, is investigating how primary disseminated tumor cells survive and thrive in distant tissues.
"These cancer cells have grown up in one organ with which they are familiar and well adapted, and then they land in a distant organ with which they’re unfamiliar and for which they’re poorly adapted. It remains unclear how cancer cells figure out a way of making a living in this alien territory," he said. "I think that this represents a major gap in our knowledge of how life-threatening cancers develop."