Pulling together in cancer fight

In new facility, MIT and philanthropist unite diverse specialists in common quest

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — The magnificent mile of science in Kendall Square greets its newest tenant today: A $211 million, glass-enveloped cancer research hub built with a major gift from David H. Koch — the billionaire MIT alum, prostate cancer survivor, and noted backer of conservative causes.

Sharing a block with other temples of science erected by deep-pocketed philanthropists, the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT is a bold statement that a university with no medical school intends to remain at the vanguard of fighting cancer. The premium address reflects a universitywide commitment, staked out by MIT president Susan Hockfield, to make cancer exploration a cornerstone of the school in this century.

The seven-story building brings together oncologists, engineers, and biologists — previously scattered across campus — out of the conviction that a collection of diseases as relentlessly cunning as cancer can be silenced only by combining the expertise of 630 people from different disciplines. In doing that, the new center illustrates a growing recognition that single labs working on their own can’t turn back a disease as bedeviling as cancer, expected to claim 7.5 million lives glob ally this year.

“It’s not enough to provide the money for research,’’ said Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute. “If you define the right questions and create an atmosphere in which people are encouraged to work together, good things can happen.’’

The Koch, along with a consortium of Harvard-affiliated institutions led by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, is among a select group of centers nationally that the NCI has designated as leaders in the field and, thus, eligible for special funds.

The questions being tackled at the Koch — amid the hum and gurgle of scientific machinery and white gusts billowing from a liquid nitrogen tub set to minus 123 degrees Celsius — range across broad terrain. They include five major subject areas: cancer detection and monitoring, metastasis, personalized medicine, cancer immunology, and the use of tiny particles to deliver drugs directly to tumors.

Koch, 70, was diagnosed with prostate cancer 19 years ago, and since then cancer research has become one of his major causes. He gave $100 million for construction of the new building.

“Of all of the things that I’ve done philanthropically,’’ Koch said in an interview at MIT yesterday, “playing a major role in the creation of this brilliant cancer institute is the one I’m most proud of and have been most emotional about.’’

Koch said that a decade from now, he hopes this will be the mark that the institute has made: “That tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives will be saved around the world because of therapies that originated here.’’

Alice Shaw and Daniel Anderson embody the strategies and hopes built into the new home of the Koch Institute.

She is a cancer doctor who spends much of her time on the other side of the Charles River treating patients with lung tumors. He is a specialist in engineering and genetics who wants to ferry cancer treatments into cells on drug-delivery ships far smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. They work a floor apart at the Koch, a dash up or down a flight of stairs and a world apart from how science traditionally was conducted.

“In the past, you had your engineers in a separate building, your chemists in a separate building, your biologists in a separate building,’’ Shaw said. “Now, by having them all in the same building, it’s very natural to build these collaborations.

“And in the end, the goal is the same: to find better ways to care for patients,’’ said Shaw, who treats lung cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital.

MIT has a nearly four-decade-long history in exploring the roots of cancer, work that laid the scientific groundwork for life-saving drugs such as Herceptin and Gleevec.

Now it is looking to establish itself as a more direct pipeline leading from the laboratory to the cancer ward.

The man who presides over this campaign is Tyler Jacks, who in neither bearing nor speech evokes the Hollywood archetype of the perpetually disheveled Cambridge scientist. He grew up visiting Kendall Square, where his father was a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He remembers what Kendall Square was like back then, with sooty engines of industry churning. And he remembers how research used to be conducted, when he was a newly minted scientist.

As director of the Koch Institute, he has overseen the creation of a building where each of the five research floors has one wing devoted to biology, one wing devoted to engineering. In the middle sit faculty offices, a tea room, elevators, and, yes, even the restrooms — all designed to foster interaction.

“I sometimes refer to it as the Main Street of the building, where you bump into your neighbor and that sparks the new idea that takes you on the new road,’’ Jacks said.

The Koch (pronounced “coke’’) isn’t alone.

When a major AIDS vaccine research center was founded two years ago in Boston, a similar approach was trumpeted. And at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, scientists from divergent backgrounds toil together in buildings across the campus.

“When you jam them all together and you can orchestrate this in the right way, it really does lead to solutions,’’ said Dr. Raymond DuBois, executive vice president and provost at MD Anderson, where such collaboration yielded a way to potentially arm the immune system to do battle with cancer.

Much of the heaviest lifting at these institutes is conducted by younger scientists — and that’s a good thing, in an era when researchers are increasingly expected to be fluent in several fields.

It is in that spirit that the MIT cancer institute has used some of the millions of dollars donated since its cancer research enterprise was reborn as the Koch in 2007 to establish a clinical investigator program that liberates junior physician-scientists from the constraints of the traditional grant-seeking process.

Historically, grant-making agencies rewarded scientists whose proposals were highly likely to generate advances. “We want them to be as bold and as brave and as creative as they can be,’’ said Robert G. Urban, the Koch’s executive director.

The Koch program provides $250,000 in unfettered funding for six to eight researchers over a three- to five-year period to encourage novel thinking. Recipients are required to be doctors who continue seeing patients and promise to bring new technologies swiftly to the bedside.

Shaw, the Mass. General oncologist, is one of the recipients. She is collaborating with Anderson, who has been at MIT for 11 years.

They are exploring a genetic mutation called KRAS that is a pivotal — and lethal — actor in 20 percent of lung cancers, hoping to find a way to turn it off. She brings her experience treating patients and previously working in Jacks’s lab. He brings his work in developing nanoparticles, cancer weapons made tiny enough to pierce cancerous cells and smart enough to spare healthy ones.

Together, they are investigating the feasibility of developing nanoparticles from fat-like material and packing them with bits of RNA that could shut down the mutant KRAS gene. One day, these nanoparticles, which have not yet reached studies in lung cancer patients, could be delivered via an intravenous line or even inhaled.

“I would love to cure all of cancer,’’ Anderson said. “But realistically, I will be very happy if we can have an impact that helps people, whether that means making chemo more tolerable, making it more effective.

“It’s a tough problem.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at