Society Grantee from MIT Wins Breakthrough Prize

Robert A. Weinberg, PhD, of the Whitehead Institute

It was with great pride that we learned last week that former American Cancer Society Research Professor Robert Weinberg, PhD, of MIT's Whitehead Institute is among 11 scientists worldwide to receive the new Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences established by four Internet titans.

While Weinberg is the New England Division’s "hometown hero," seven of the 11 winners are, in fact, former Society research grantees, underscoring the Society's knack for putting money where the most promise is. One of the Society's greatest points of pride is that we funded 46 future Nobel Laureates early in their careers, when few others would.

Each Breakthrough Prize recipient will get $3 million, more than double the amount of the $1.1 million Nobel Prize.

Weinberg became an ACS Research Professor in 1985. He is most widely known for his discoveries of the first human oncogene — a gene that causes normal cells to form tumors — and the first tumor suppressor gene.

He told a reporter that he was stunned by the news of his award. “How can one respond when someone calls you up and says that suddenly you are being recognized in this way?”  Weinberg said. “It's unreal, and I'm still processing it all.”

The MIT biology professor also was in the news last week for his involvement in a Cambridge, MA, startup called Verastem, which has just begun recruiting patients with ovarian cancer for a clinical trial in which it will test its new drug, VS-6063.

Chemotherapy and other traditional cancer therapies shrink most tumors, but some cancer cells manage to escape and seed new tumor growth.  Weinberg and his colleagues at Verastem are hoping VS-6063 will target those persistent cancer cells, producing a more complete and effective treatment in tandem with the conventional chemotherapy drug, paclitaxel.

In an interview with The Boston Globe, Weinberg said he has become convinced that the principle of attacking normal and resistant cells with a combination of drugs will work against many types of cancers. “This general scheme is likely going to apply to a whole variety of solid tumors,” he said. “Of that I have significant confidence.”

The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was established by Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur, along with Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google;  Anne Wojcicki, the founder of the genetics company 23andMe and Mr. Brin’s wife; and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. 

Ms. Wojcicki said the prize was meant to reward scientists “who think big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives . . . These scientists should be household names and heroes in society."

The other 10 recipients are:

- Cornelia I. Bargmann, PhD, who investigates the nervous system and behavior at Rockefeller University. She trained under Weinberg in the 1980s and received the first of four ACS research grants in 1991.
- David Botstein, PhD, of Princeton University, who maps disease markers in the human genome. He was awarded ACS grants in 1969 and 1977, very early in his career.
- Lewis C. Cantley, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medical College, who discovered a family of enzymes related to cell growth and cancer. He received the first of two ACS grants in 1994.
- Hans Clevers, MD, PhD, of the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, who has studied how processes in adult stem cells can go wrong and cause cancer
- Napoleone Ferrara, MD, of the University of California, San Diego, whose work on tumor growth has led to therapies for some kinds of cancer and eye disease.
- Titia de Lange, PhD, who works on telomeres, the protective tips on the ends of chromosomes, at Rockefeller University.  She became an ACS Research Professor in 2010.
- Eric S. Lander, PhD, of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leader of the Human Genome Project
- Charles L. Sawyers, MD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who has investigated the signaling pathways that drive a cell to cancer.  He received the first of two ACS grants in 1994.
- Bert Vogelstein, MD, of Johns Hopkins University, who discovered a protein that suppresses the growth of tumors and devised a model for the progression of colon cancer that is widely used in colonoscopy. He became an ACS Research Professor in 1993.
- Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, who has done groundbreaking work in developing stem cells.