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Beyond Biology
Over the past decades, biomedical researchers have amassed a heap of data about the different parts of a cell and how they function individually. The next step is figure out how they work as a system. “The more we do, the more we realize the complexity of the situation,” says Jacks. There are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 genes in a normal cell, many of which can contribute in one way or another to cancer. Determining the combination of biochemical signals that renders a cell malignant requires tools beyond those that biologists usually have in their labs. “Bringing in other disciplines is important because the biological perspective, while critical, is not sufficient,” says Jacks.

Since coming on board as the center’s director in 2001, Jacks has been working to increase collaboration among its members and to recruit new members from disciplines outside biology, including computer science, chemistry, and materials science. Scientists become members by invitation. They are asked to give presentations on their work, which is discussed first among a large group of members and then again among Jacks, Sharp, associate director Jacqueline Lees, and former cancer center director Richard Hynes, PhD ‘71. “There is tremendous talent across this campus in a wide variety of disciplines, many of which impact on cancer or cancer research,” says Jacks.

A recent initiative marks a big step in the direction of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Last October, the National Cancer Institute awarded MIT $12.6 million to unite cancer biologists with computational scientists in an attempt to explain at the systemic level how cancer develops and spreads. “MIT is a great place to do this because the pieces are there,” says Hynes. Thirteen investigators, including principal investigators Hynes and Doug Lauffenburger, will contribute to the so-called integrative cancer biology program. They will focus on three areas of research: cell proliferation, DNA repair, and cell migration. The goal of the program is to “try to monitor many events simultaneously in the same type of cancer so that we get a much bigger picture of how this information is flowing,” says Yaffe, who is one of the 13 investigators. The program has just gotten under way, but as the groups begin collecting data, they will make it available on local websites connected to a shared database managed by the National Cancer Institute.

For all its past successes and future promise, the cancer center lacks one thing: an adequate facility. Buildings E17 and E18 are overcrowded and out of date. “We need a new building,” says Amon. “This place is falling apart.” When it rains hard, puddles accumulate on her windowsill. “Water drips into my fancy, expensive microscopes. I’m not happy,” she says. Though it’s been a home to cutting-edge research for 30 years, E18, where part of the center resides, was originally a chocolate factory. “The cancer center clearly needs new physical facilities,” agrees Weinberg.

It may soon get them. Last year, the MIT Building Committee designated a site for a new facility–the empty lot and parking area adjacent to the biology building and across Main Street from both the Whitehead Institute and the Broad Institute, which is still under construction. The site is also only a stone’s throw from the brain and cognitive-sciences center now being built on Vassar Street. “This is a tremendous corridor of bioscience here,” says Jacks. No date has been set yet for breaking ground, nor have fund-raising goals been determined. “We hope to get to these milestones in the coming months,” says Provost Robert Brown, a member of the building committee. But Jacks and his colleagues are looking forward to the day when they can carry out their world-renowned cancer research under one roof. Not only will it solidify the new collaborations they’re now working to establish, but it will anchor the cancer center within the MIT community.

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