Recorded: 03 Jun 2016
The fact of the matter is: my focus has largely been on trying to understand the causative mechanism of cancer formation – rather than how to treat the disease. I often think of the comic Tom Lehrer, he was a musician and a comedian and he made wonderful songs and he talked once about the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who according to Tom Lehrer ‘Sent up the rockets – we don’t care where they come down.’ In old London town was the refrain. And that’s a bit the way I’ve operated – that is, I believed fundamentally that the only way to make good progress is to allow one’s curiosity to drive one’s research with the understanding that certain parts of what one discovers will prove useful and other parts will not prove so useful. With the understanding that people who are simply focused on the immediate clinical benefit of research are often not likely to discover new and innovative ways of treating cancer. That’s always been my approach. So if you ask me how I have researched findings of the sort that went on in my own lab and other similar labs – how have they been transmitted to the oncology clinic in terms of treatment. Some have and many haven’t. People say to me, implicitly sometimes, well we’ve been supporting your research now for thirty even forty years – what do you have to show for it. And the fact of the matter is we have some advances in cancer treatment to show for it – even though our understanding of the disease is a thousand times more elaborate and sophisticated than it was thirty or forty years ago. Thirty of forty years ago we were confronted with a [unintelligible] an empty blackboard and now we know enormous detail about how cancer cells thrive – how they proliferate and why they resist different kinds of treatment.
Implicit in what I’m saying is that people like me have a limited ability to generate clinical utility from our discoveries. On the other hand there are other people who are indeed very talented in translating basic discovery research findings into possible clinical consequences – applications. Clinically useful therapies and so there’s a bit of a division of labor and I wouldn’t claim to be able to participate in all steps of the drug discovery and development pipeline from the basic research bench all the way into the oncology clinic.
Robert "Bob" Weinberg is Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research and director of the Ludwig Cancer Center at MIT, an American Cancer Society Research Professor, and is a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
In 1982 he was one of the scientists to discover the first human oncogene, Ras, which causes normal cells to form tumors, and his lab also isolated the first known tumor suppressor gene, Rb.
He co-authored with Douglas Hanahan the landmark "Hallmarks of Cancer" paper in 2000, which laid out the six requirements for a healthy cell to become cancerous.