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MIT Better World

Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp says MIT’s new cancer center will blend science and engineering to find new treatments for cancer.


By Deborah Halber

A nanotech “smart bomb” that targets only cancer cells — reducing or eliminating chemo’s side effects — is just one of the innovations expected to emerge from a new approach to cancer research at MIT.

The David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research — made possible through a $100 million gift from MIT alumnus David H. Koch — “will blend the fabulous strengths of science and engineering to bring the best from both to the understanding and treatment of cancer,” said Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp, a member since 1974 of the MIT Center for Cancer Research and pioneer of a breakthrough gene-silencing method that may lead to innovative new treatments for cancer and other diseases.

“The new Koch Institute represents what some have coined the ‘third revolution’ in healthcare research,” Sharp wrote recently for a business and technology website. “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 sequence of the human genome.”

In the three decades since Sharp entered the field, cell biology has undergone several revolutions, he said. “Thirty-three years ago, there was almost no interaction among cellular, molecular and genetic approaches and engineering activities at MIT. There was not enough known to engage engineering techniques at the level of specific cells,” he said.

“Today, there are enormous databases of information on how specific cells function, move and change in cancer and how cancer occurs within the context of tissues, blood cells, immune cells and micro-capillaries. The principles of engineering are giving us new tools and quantitative ways to intervene in the cancer process by delivering new and old therapies to cells better,” he said.


Integrating engineering and cancer biology could lead to breakthroughs in animal models for the disease; diagnostic techniques for early detection of precancerous cells, tumors and metastatic growths; new methods of drug delivery; diagnostic analysis of immune system responses to tumors; new ways of analyzing which of the hundreds of thousands of proteins within cells change in tumor cells; highly sensitive assays for genetic changes within cells that could lead to cancer; and new agents to direct therapy to cancer stem cells, the few cells within tumors capable of reproducing.

The nanotech “smart bomb” designed by MIT Institute Professor Robert S. Langer and colleagues is one example of what can emerge from the unique integration of engineering and cancer biology at MIT. Langer is a powerhouse in biomedical engineering whose contributions to medicine and biotechnology are recognized and respected around the world.

“In general, most cancer treatments are based on cytotoxics — chemicals that kill cancer cells more rapidly than others. The challenge is to direct those cytotoxic agents to cancer cells and spare normal cells, thus eliminating the side effects of chemotherapy,” Sharp said. “Directing treatment (straight to cancer cells) is something we all dream of, and it’s becoming more possible through methods of engineering and computation.”


Sharp’s work at the Koch Institute will focus on fabricating small nanoparticles to carry bits of tumor-killing RNA directly into tumor cells. “This has never been done,” Sharp said. “We’re trying to do it for ovarian cancer and glioblastomas, which have no current treatment. It’s a big challenge, yet things are happening faster today than ever before. The period between discovery and treatment is collapsing.” Today’s laboratory breakthroughs could emerge in clinics in as little as one to two years, he said.

About a dozen members of the Center for Cancer Research will join an equal number of engineers, including Langer, in a new building that will house the Koch Institute, slated to open in 2010.

“MIT is a place of singular excellence in cell and molecular biology and engineering,” Sharp said. “We are the ideal place to take these two great traditions and form a community in which we can sustain ourselves over decades and train the next generation of people to take this philosophy and change the world.”