Eric Lander: The great amplifier
Audacious thinking may help crack the code of cancer
His bear-like handshake radiates strength; his patience is easily taxed by the pedestrian and the hesitant. But he is anything but intimidating. On the contrary, his sparkling blue eyes and easy smile convey a warmth and vitality that are often described as infectious.
A driving force behind the sequencing of the human genome, Lander is now tackling the “cancer genome.” He and his colleagues around the country are out to redefine tumors by the genetic changes that trigger their malignant growth, rather than by where in the body they strike.
Within 15 years, he predicts, “every patient in the clinic (will) have a complete genomic workup… for a couple of hundred dollars per patient.” Their doctors will be able to determine the precise genetic characteristics of their illnesses, and therefore which treatments are most likely to be successful.
“I don’t want to pretend that having such a comprehensive description of human disease automatically gives us therapies,” says Lander, the dynamic founding director of the Broad (pronounced “Brode”) Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. “There’s still a tremendous amount of work.
“But I can’t imagine how we’re ever going to make therapies for these diseases without actually knowing what’s wrong.”
In 2005 a panel led by Lander and Nobel laureate Leland Hartwell, Ph.D., president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, proposed a 10-year, $1.5 billion effort, called The Cancer Genome Atlas project, to identify the major mutations in human cancer. A three-year, $100 million pilot to test the project’s feasibility is currently underway.
While federal health officials hail the initiative as the beginning of a new era in cancer diagnosis and treatment, others complain that it will divert limited research funds from equally important cancer projects (See “Bonanza or boondoggle?”).
Those who know Lander, however, are hesitant to doubt him.
“People will say, ‘Oh well, Eric says this is going to happen, but you know… (it) doesn’t,’” says Oxford University geneticist Kay Davies, D.Phil., who has made key contributions to understanding Duchenne muscular dystrophy. “But then three years later, it does happen.”