Recorded: 03 Jun 2016
And so, in the years following that, starting 19 – 2001, we began for example, to make human breast cancer cells through this five-gene technique. Human breast cancer cells that we use to this day. In 2002, I became interested in the following question: it’s not so subtle, but at least that’s my historical evolution. We kind of had a way, we understood how to take a normal human cell and make it into a cancer cell. The five genes would do it – but the resulting cancer cells would form a primary tumor – a localized tumor – but those cancer cells would not spread from the primary tumor to distant sites in the body. They would not metastasize and so for me, the last great frontier, at least in my own mind, was understanding, how metastasize operated – how cancer cells from a primary tumor acquire these skills, the traits, the power, to go from one site in the body to a distant site in the body. That is more than just a minor curiosity in the context of human clinical cancer because 90% of cancer associated mortality comes from metastases, not from the primary tumors. So in 2004, Gene Young who was a postdoc in my lab, discovered that a certain gene that had previously been studied in the context of drosophila embryo formation, specifically gastrulation –the gene being called twist – this gene actually was highly active in highly metastatic breast cancer cells – which would metastasize from a site of implantation, let’s say under the skin, all the way to the lungs and form metastases there – secondary colonies. And so her work demonstrated, in the years before 2004, that if you shut down this gene called twist – cancer cells would no longer disseminate – they would not longer spread from the primary tumor to a distant tissue. At the same time, the primary tumor didn’t mind at all losing twist. Actually the cells in the primary tumor grew more rapidly and so here for the first time was a gene that could empower cancer cells in the primary tumor to travel to make the journey to this site and that represented the basis of my research in the years since 2004. That is a dozen years ago.
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.