Faculty Member

Robert A.

Robert Weinberg

Robert Weinberg

Member, Whitehead Institute

Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research, MIT


Weinberg Lab


We investigate three broad questions related to the origin and spread of cancer. First, how do cancer cells within a primary tumor acquire the ability to invade and metastasize? Second, how are the stem-cell state and the epithelial-mesenchymal transition interrelated? Third, how are the regulators of the epithelial-mesenchymal transition able to activate this profound change in cell phenotype?

A Founding Member of Whitehead Institute and a National Medal of Science recipient, Robert A. Weinberg is a pioneer in cancer research 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. His lab now primarily focuses on two areas: the interactions between epithelial and mesenchymal cells (the two major types of cells found in mammalian tissue) that produce carcinomas and the processes by which cancer cells invade and metastasize.

Epithelial and mesenchymal cells

Many mammalian tissues are formed from distinct epithelial and mesenchymal cell compartments. Invariably, a tumor that forms within an epithelial tissue layer must recruit mesenchymall cells of various types in order to become a carcinoma. Weinberg’s lab is exploring the molecular process by which this recruitment occurs.

Invasion and metastasis

Weinberg’s lab is focusing on a small group of transcription factors—master regulator proteins that control gene expression. These proteins, which are typically involved in embryogenesis, contribute to carcinoma cells’ ability to disseminate to distant sites in the body where they may form metastases. Weinberg and his team are examining mechanisms by which tumors can reactivate the properties of these proteins that are active during embryonic development and exploit these transcription factors to execute various steps of the “invasion-metastasis” cascade—the sequence of steps that enables primary tumor cells to spread throughout the body and seed metastatic colonies. 

Additionally, Weinberg lab scientists are studying the role of cancer stem cells—the self-renewing, tumor-seeding cells that have been found in a number of solid tumors in the past few years. In 2008, they reported a finding that brings together these two research themes: cancer cells induced to follow one of these embryonic pathways gain many of the properties of adult stem cells.

Weinberg, who received his PhD in biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, received post-doctoral training at the Weizmann Institute and the Salk Institute. In 1982, Weinberg helped found Whitehead Institute, joined the faculty as a Professor of Biology at MIT, and published his landmark paper "Mechanism of Activation of a Human Oncogene" in the journal Nature. In 1999, another major paper, "Creation of Human Tumor Cells with Defined Genetic Elements," was also published in the journal Nature.

Selected Achievements

  • Identified and characterized both the first oncogene and the first tumor suppressor gene
  • Demonstrated how certain gene regulators, or transcription factors, contribute to cancer metastasis
  • "Scientist of the Year" by Discover magazine (1982)
  • Bristol-Myers Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research (1984)
  • Member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
  • National Medal of Science (1997)
  • Wolf Prize in Medicine (2004)
  • Landon-AACR Prize for Cancer Research (2006)
  • Otto Warburg Medal (2007)
  • Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2013)
  • Salk Medal (2016)

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