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HONORARY DEGREE RECIPIENTS

Robert A. Weinberg

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2009

"I believe that nature is ultimately organized on very simple principles," says pioneering cancer researcher ROBERT A. WEINBERG, a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the director of the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Weinberg's search for a "small number of simple truths" changed the course of cancer research in the early 1980s, when he and his colleagues discovered the first human cancer-causing gene, known as the ras oncogene.

Weinberg's finding gave scientists the first glimpse into the biochemistry of cancer. In healthy cells, the ras gene helps regulate cell growth and division; a damaged copy of the gene can let growth and division run amok—the very hallmarks of cancer. Since ras mutations occur in about a quarter of all human cancer tumors, they—and the four dozen other oncogenes found to date—remain tantalizing targets for early-detection screening and drug therapies.

A decade after the ras breakthrough, Weinberg and his colleagues broke more new ground with the isolation of the first tumor suppressor gene, Rb, the retinoblastoma gene. The biochemical complement to oncogenes, healthy tumor suppressor genes put the brakes on cell growth. Mutated suppressor genes allow the unconstrained growth of cancer cells. The events leading up to the discovery of Rb are chronicled in Natalie Angier's 1988 book Natural Obsessions.

Weinberg himself is the author or editor of more than 350 articles and five books, including Racing to the Beginning of the Road: The Search for the Origin of Cancer and Genes and the Biology of Cancer, co-authored with Harold E. Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health. More recently, he has published a textbook The Biology of Cancer, which is intended for doctoral students learning about the disease.

Among Weinberg's honors are the Discover Magazine 1982 Scientist of the Year, the National Academy of Sciences/U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology and the 1997 National Medal of Science. He is an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The son of German immigrants, Weinberg received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in biology from MIT. He did postdoctoral research at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and then returned to MIT in 1972. In 1982, he was appointed professor of biology at MIT and also became one of the five founding members of the Whitehead Institute. He has been an American Cancer Society Research Professor at Whitehead and MIT since 1985.

Today Weinberg's research focuses on the interactions among cells that lead to carcinomas and the processes by which cancer cells invade and metastasize.

"Yes, I'm an optimist," he told Natalie Angier, "but I don't base my optimism on blind faith. The facts have borne out my optimism. . ."

Weinberg will receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree.


This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.