After years of attacking cancer with treatments akin to throwing wild punches, researchers are moving toward the ability to target villainous cells with precisely aimed bullets.
"We are finally moving definitively into transforming our approach to cancer by a deep understanding of its underlying biology," Dr. Richard D. Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute, told an MIT audience in Rm 10-250 on Friday. "We've been looking at the disease from too far away. We need insight into the molecular machinery of cancer."
Dr. Klausner spoke as part of events celebrating the naming of the biology building in honor of David H. Koch (SB 1962, SM).
To help the one and a half million Americans who every year become cancer patients, Klausner said the NCI is targeting molecular classification schemes of all human cancers.
At the end of the 20th century, cancer research is poised to move to a new level of molecular diagnosis and treatment. At the moment, physicians look at a mass or abnormality and don't know which cancers will grow and which will not. Researchers need a means of detecting and characterizing cancer at a molecular level, which will allow physicians to tailor therapies to a real diagnosis, Dr. Klausner said. He likened current treatment to giving penicillin to everyone with a lung infection, regardless of whether the infection was likely to respond to an antibiotic.
Those afflicted by a similar-looking cancer called diffuse large cell lymphoma, for instance, actually fall into three major subgroups that all respond very differently to chemotherapy. And while chemotherapy is particularly effective with some cancers, it is less effective with others. "We do not know why our successes work, so we sure as hell don't know why our failures fail," Dr. Klausner said.
"Tailoring is the most immediate application of the new molecular approach, but what we really want to get to is targeting," he said. The key is to "pick out one of many molecular targets as most likely to be effective in molecular treatments."
Chemistry and biology will forge a stronger relationship as chemistry leads toward an ever-growing set of chemical probes. These probes, Dr. Klauser said, are just as important as the drive to identify genetic links to cancer. Chemistry also is pivotal in drug discovery.
Meanwhile, the race is on to identify the molecular mechanics that turn a normal cell into a cancer cell. If researchers knew how to read and decipher the series of genetic changes that cause this transformation, they could move from guesswork to a real level of understanding, Dr. Klausner said.
BUILDING NAMED FOR ALUM
Koch, executive vice president and member of the board of Koch Industries, Inc., the nation's second-largest privately held firm, has pledged $25 million to support cancer research at the Institute. The lecture and building naming commemorated the 25th anniversary of the MIT Center for Cancer Research (CCR).
Mr. Koch has committed $2.5 million per year for 10 years to support cancer research in MIT's Department of Biology, which is home to the CCR. The lecture was followed by a naming celebration and reception at the David H. Koch Biology Building (Building 68) on Ames Street.
MIT has made and continues to make major contributions to basic cancer research. The CCR at MIT opened in 1974. Scientists from the CCR have made major discoveries, including cloning of the first oncogene from a human tumor and isolating several disease genes, including those for Huntington's disease, myotonic dystrophy and Wilm's tumor.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 6, 1999.