Recorded: 03 Jun 2016
An amusing paradox that I’ve come across during my many years in cancer research is that often people who dedicate their lives to curing cancer and curing this terrible disease are often the people who are least likely to make truly innovative and original discoveries. On the contrary, in my experience, the people who really move the thinking forward, whom move the research forward are people who are motivated instead, not by wishing to save the world, but instead motivated by curiosity. Without any consideration as to whether their discoveries will actually prove useful in the oncology clinic. And to give you some example: in 1980-81, we discovered an oncogene that was present in the DNA of a rat neuroblastoma. And this oncogene was very potent, it was clearly unrelated to the oncogene that we had discovered in the bladder carcinoma and we could even figure out what size of a protein it made and it really was a really interesting story but by 1984-85 my lab had given it up because we didn’t know what to do about it next. That year or the next year people found the human counterpart of this gene we call the gene in the context of rats NEU, n-e-u, for neuroblastoma but people elsewhere in California called it HER-2 Human EGF receptor – type 2 and so this HER-2 NEU oncogene as it’s known was found already within four, five years to be present in excess copy number in the DNA of a certain subset of breast cancer patients and that led ultimately to the ability of the Genentech Corporation to make an antibody against that protein and that protein and the antibody eventually came to be the very useful therapeutic antibody called Herceptin, which has saved many women’s lives. Do I claim credit for that? Well of course not. But I’m just telling you that because of our curiosity as to how a rat neuroblastoma arose, that facilitated and expedited the understanding of how the HER-2 oncogene worked – that is the direct human counterpart of what we had studied previously in the context of a rat brain tumor. If I had, had thought this through and I had been more interested in human clinical cancer, maybe today I would be a rich man wearing a silk suit because the Genentech Corporation makes billions of dollars every year by selling this antibody. Whereas, I’m still wearing cotton shirts and old wool jackets --- but no regrets.
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.