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The Integration of Engineering and Cancer Biology


Xconomy Boston — 

This morning, MIT announced the creation of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. David Koch, a co-owner of Koch Industries with his brother Charles (both are graduates of MIT), made a very generous gift to the university to establish the new Institute. The word “Integrative” in the name of the Koch Institute is the key to the vision of its establishment. It speaks volumes about where cancer research is heading, and I’m really excited to be a part of it.

The Koch Institute is committed to integrating engineering and cancer research to create new methods to understand, diagnosis, and treat the disease of cancer. At MIT, as is the case in most of the country, engineering has not extensively interacted with the segment of cancer research that is focused at the cellular level. This is not to say that there has not been outstanding engineering at MIT and other places addressing cancer. For example, my MIT colleague Robert Langer has designed novel materials to allow the slow release of drugs for treatment of brain cancer and has fashioned nanoparticles that can carry drugs to specific tumor cells. Engineering researchers have also developed nanoparticles called quantum dots that are being used to image tumor cells. These exciting developments are but early indicators of a much larger range of possibilities if engineering becomes more closely aligned with research into the genetic, molecular, and cellular changes now known to cause human cancers.

All 12 current members of the Center for Cancer research at MIT, which is led by Tyler Jacks, will join an equal number of engineers, including Robert Langer, in a new building that will house the Koch Institute. In fact, engineers and cancer biologists will jointly occupy each floor in the building in order to maximally stimulate interactions. The most valuable collaborations arise when students and fellows in laboratories meet informally, frequently in the wee hours of the morning, waiting for experiments to end.

The Center for Cancer Research—of which I have been a member since 1974—has a great tradition of breakthrough discoveries about the molecular and cellular processes that cause cancer. Many of these discoveries have subsequently generated new treatments. For example, the first oncogene was isolated from a human cancer cell in the Center. A gene now targeted by the antibody Herceptin to treat breast cancer was identified as an oncogene in the Center. And Center researchers also discovered the leukemia-causing enzyme that is targeted by the drug Gleevec, one of the new generation of oncogene-specific cancer drugs. Over the short three decades of the Center’s existence, five of its associated faculty members have received Nobel Prizes.

The new Koch Institute represents what some have coined the “third revolution” in healthcare research—the combination of engineering technology and methods with rapidly expanding research on the molecular and cellular processes causing disease. The previous two revolutions are the development of molecular biology, beginning with the discovery by Watson and Crick of the structure of DNA, and the genome revolution capped by the completion of the sequence of the human genome. The promise of this third revolution is the rapid translation of new molecular and cellular knowledge into diagnosis and treatment through engineering approaches—and the more rapid advancement of cellular research through new nanoscale quantitative methods and measurements developed by engineers.

It is interesting to think about these two cultures, cell biology and engineering. Historically, the former has continued to seek new insights about the fundamental workings of normal and cancer cells. The search was focused on new knowledge because it offered new possibilities for disease prevention and treatment. The examples I cited above confirm the validity of this great tradition. In contrast, engineers commonly focus on more short-term objectives, often solving a problem with the knowledge at hand. Thus, they are comfortable working with partially defined systems and using empirical but quantitative models to design new means of modifying the system. The modern tools of engineering—including computation, nanoscale fabrication, high-resolution imaging methods, and an ever expanding set of materials—offer the promise of transforming the future of cancer research to both expand its power and shorten the time between discovery and new treatments. This is a major objective of the new Koch Institute. It is a worthy objective and will generate future generations of young scientists and engineers trained in the best tradition of cellular research and engineering.

The Koch Institute joins a number of other Institutes associated with MIT and located in Kendall Square. These include the Whitehead Institute, McGovern Institute, Picower Institute, and Broad Institute. The Koch Institute will be located immediately next to the Department of Biology in the Koch Building—named for the same generous alumnus—and across Main Street from the Broad Institute. The Koch Institute is another important commitment by MIT to the future of the vibrant environment in Kendall Square.

Dr. Phillip A. Sharp is an Institute Professor at MIT, and formerly the director of the Institute's Center for Cancer Research, the head of its Department of Biology, and the founding director of the McGovern Institute. Dr. Sharp won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on "discontinuous genes" in mammalian cells. Follow @

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  • When I think of what has kept us from encountering greater success in the understanding and management of cancers, I come up with a single word: complexity. In two words: staggering complexity.

    The myriad ways that a single cell does its business, normal or otherwise, are enormously complicated. Protons and electrons going here and there, receptors binding molecules and then being recycled, transcription factors coming on and off the DNA, lots and lots of “this or that” decisions (to divide or not, to move to a different location or not, even to die or not). Nature works via a series of nanomachines (ribosomes for example). It may well take other tiny machines to fix tissues when they fail.

    What’s certain is that as scientists have become better and better at describing these various biological states in isolation, we have also improved upon our ability to describe them in relation to one another. It has taken the invention of bioinformatics to permit the analysis of so many integrated data points at once. Presto, systems biology. If the trend continues, I feel that one day we will be able to describe an instantaneous “biological quantum state” for cells; the sum of all of its molecular components though it will take a hell of a hard drive to store such a heap of information… maybe we could borrow Seth Lloyd’s ideal laptop. I feel that understanding such molecular relationships will in turn permit a greater ability to direct them; it will be another revolution in biology where if the third as Prof. Sharp indicates is combining engineering and biology, describing biological quantum states may be the sixteenth or so.

    We’ve got a long ways to go before then, but I nevertheless get excited when I hear about projects like the Koch Institute because they prove that good things are happening in the development of more rational therapeutics. In my mind, the fields of cell biology and engineering are as distinct as the words “discovery” and “application”. A confluence of these two views brings new perspectives to the practice of each and that’s exactly how breakthroughs are made. The news about the Koch Institute tells me that we’re at a point where enough biology has been learned and key questions and/or hurdles identified to warrant getting some engineers on the phone. Having them in the same building is even better.