Whitehead Member Robert Weinberg honored for cancer genetics research

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) reported today that Whitehead Institute Founding Member Robert Weinberg is the 2012 Recipient of the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award for Cancer Research. Following is the text of the AACR announcement:

Robert A. Weinberg, Ph.D., is the recipient of the 2012 Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award for Cancer Research for his outstanding work in the fields of cell and molecular biology, and cancer genetics.

The Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award, now in its 15th year, recognizes an individual scientist of international renown who has made a major scientific discovery in basic or translational cancer research.

Weinberg will give an award lecture during the AACR Annual Meeting 2012 on Monday, April 4 at 5:00 p.m. CT in the Skyline Ballroom of McCormick Place.

“Dr. Weinberg is a true pioneer of cancer research and an authority on the genetics of human cancer,” said Margaret Foti, Ph.D., M.D. (h.c.), chief executive officer of the AACR. “His work has had a profound impact on our understanding of the role of oncogenes and suppressor genes in cancer research, and among his major findings has demonstrated how certain gene regulators contribute to metastasis.”

“The Pezcoller-AACR award is a singular honor and in receiving it, I join the ranks of a select few who have been recognized in this way over the past 15 years,” Weinberg said. “This represents a tribute to the truly extraordinary people whom I have been able to attract to my laboratory over the past three decades and more. Their qualities and achievements make it abundantly clear that the most important thing a scientist like myself can do is to recruit talented young people to his or her scientific workshop.”

Weinberg is a founding member of the Whitehead Institute and a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His most notable accomplishments to date include his discoveries of the first human oncogene, ras, capable of initiating cancer formation in normal cells and his isolation of the first tumor suppressor gene, Rb.

The Weinberg laboratory made a seminal discovery in 1979, when Weinberg and colleagues isolated DNA from mouse cells that had been transformed into tumor cells by exposure to chemical carcinogens. The researchers subsequently introduced this DNA into normal mouse fibroblasts, which proceeded to transform into tumor cells. This observation indicated that a factor existed within the isolated tumor cell DNA that was capable of causing cancer in otherwise normal cells. This factor was later discovered to be a mutated form of a cellular gene (also referred to as an oncogene or cancer-causing gene). These results laid the groundwork for subsequent research conducted by his group and helped pave the way for future biomedical research and landmark cancer discoveries.

Weinberg’s early research demonstrated that the neoplastic behavior of cancer cells can be traced to their inherent genetic material. This led to the discovery of somatic mutations, or small changes in the cell’s genetic material, that result in the formation, activation or establishment of cancer-causing genes and proteins.

The Weinberg lab is currently focusing on the molecular biology of tumorigenesis. More specifically, it is investigating how interactions between different cell types in various areas of the body lead to cancer formation, progression, invasiveness and metastasis. By understanding these fundamental processes that govern the ability of cancer to form and survive, researchers will be better able to investigate how to specifically target a patient’s cancer.

Weinberg received his doctorate in biology from MIT in 1969, and has since held research positions at the Weizmann Institute and the Salk Institute. He was one of the founding members of the MIT Center for Cancer Research in 1973. In 1982, he was appointed a professor of biology at MIT, cofounded the Whitehead Institute and published his landmark paper “Mechanism of Activation of a Human Oncogene” in the journal Nature.

He has received numerous awards including, but not limited to: Discover magazine’s Scientist of the Year award (1982); U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Microbiology (1984); Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research (1984); AACR G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award (1996); National Medal of Science (1997); Wolf Prize in Medicine (2004); Landon-AACR Prize for Basic and Translational Cancer Research (2006); Otto Warburg Medal (2007); Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s Jill Rose Award (2008); and Science of Oncology Award from ASCO (2011).

He is also an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a member of the Institute of Medicine and the American Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Weinberg has authored or edited six books and more than 350 articles.