MIT 150

MIT's contributions to health

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Globe Staff Writers Sam Allis, Hiawatha Bray, Scott Helman, And Carolyn Johnson, And Globe Contributors Scott Kirsner, Karen Weintraub, And Michael Blanding / May 15, 2011

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Mapping the body

Remember the Human Genome Project – the first-ever map of our genetic code – in 2000? J. Craig Venter claimed the glory. But a squad led by MIT’s Eric Lander sequenced one-third of it. While most geneticists hunted for each gene they thought was involved in a disease, Lander used fast computers to search for dozens of abnormal genes in a diseased cell. This process has led to the discovery of a whole set of clues to disease. Lander also helped create the Broad Institute, a consortium of MIT, Harvard, and other scientists, now on the cutting edge of genomics research.

Birth of biotech

If we have anyone to thank for helping take advanced medical research into our lives, it’s probably Phillip A. Sharp. A leader in cancer research at MIT for three decades, he helped found Biogen (now Biogen Idec), one of the first and now the oldest independent biotech firm in the world. Biogen has developed treatments for hepatitis, multiple sclerosis, and cancer, among other diseases.

Father of biology

Salvador Luria (1912-1991) is considered one of the fathers of modern biology. He also founded the MIT Center for Cancer Research in 1974, now the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Luria received the Nobel Prize for research on viruses that infect bacteria, showing that viruses are subject to Darwinian theories of evolution. He was also a mentor and leader in the scientific community, hiring and training James Watson (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA).

Understanding AIDS

David Baltimore received a Nobel Prize in 1975 for his discovery of reverse transcription. That’s the process that certain viruses – notably the one that causes AIDS – use to hijack people’s cells. His discovery upended the central dogma of molecular biology and laid the groundwork for the first drugs 20 years later that transformed AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable disease.

Understanding cancer

Scientists long believed there was a link between human cancer and genes, but biologist Robert Weinberg, who in 1982 cofounded the Whitehead Institute at MIT, proved it by showing that bladder cancer in people was caused by the same genetic process as a genetically triggered cancer in rats. He also discovered the first gene known to turn off cancer, and he outlined the six hallmarks of all cancers, effectively establishing a common definition that could be shared by scientists across the world.

Got (pasteurized) milk?

William Thompson Sedgwick (1855-1921) is considered the “architect of public health and sanitary engineering in America.” A professor at MIT for more than 30 years, he helped establish sanitary engineering as a profession in the United States by helping to launch the nation’s first public-health school, a Harvard-MIT effort that is now the Harvard School of Public Health. He was an early advocate of the need to pasteurize milk and to add chlorine to drinking water to kill bacteria.


As a teenager, MIT professor Hugh Herr was caught in a blizzard while climbing Mount Washington. He lost both legs below the knee to frostbite. His Cambridge start-up, iWalk, has spent the last five years developing the world’s most advanced prosthetic foot. iWalk’s PowerFoot BiOM device requires less effort to walk on than a traditional prosthetic, by storing energy as you walk and releasing it at the right point in your stride. The first devices were shipped to Walter Reed Army Medical Center earlier this year, and a wide release is planned for 2012.

Genentech is born

Robert A. Swanson, a 1969 MIT graduate, cofounded biotech giant Genentech Inc. in 1976 at age 29 and helped launch the biotech revolution.


Katharine Dexter McCormick, one of the earliest women to graduate from MIT, in 1904, was a biologist who funded research for "The Pill" in the early 1900s.

PET scans

A 7-year-old daughter of a chicken farmer is an unlikely candidate to contribute to the history of medicine, but in 1953, when Holly Jane Hyde showed problems reading and understanding speech, her Massachusetts General Hospital neurosurgeon tried a newfangled device invented by MIT physicist Gordon Brownell. Injecting radioactive arsenic into her brain, her doctor discovered a previously unknown tumor. After surgery, the girl recovered – and the positron emission tomography scan, now a standard procedure in neuroscience, was born.

Chief engineer

Robert S. Langer Jr. holds more than 750 patents and pending patents and is the most cited engineer in history. MIT’s David H. Koch Institute Professor profoundly changed the way drugs are delivered to our system and how tissue is made.

Cellular suicide

Every cell carries the genetic equivalent of a suicide pill and can kill itself if it is not needed or is potentially dangerous. By identifying the genes involved in this process, known as apoptosis, MIT biologist H. Robert Horvitz, who received the Nobel Prize, offered insights into basic animal biology and many human diseases. Too much programmed cell death, for example, can destroy key heart cells, triggering a heart attack, while too little allows cancerous tumors to grow out of control.

The value of stem cells

Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute was the first to show that cells crucial in embryonic development could be used to treat disease. He used stem cells – versatile cells that can transform into virtually any other cell in the body – to “fix” genetic mistakes in Parkinson’s disease and sickle cell anemia. He also explained scientifically why clones are not as healthy or long-lived as their “mothers.”

Why folding matters

Nothing good comes from misfolding a blanket. But Susan Lindquist showed that misfolding proteins can be productive, and could one day help scientists understand what causes certain diseases, and ultimately how to treat them. While folding molecular proteins can cause terrible neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, Lindquist, a Whitehead Institute biologist, National Medal of Science winner, and longtime advocate for women in science, has shown that folding mistakes can also promote the evolution of new traits.

If I only had a brain!

Marvin Minsky was a cofounder of MIT’s artificial intelligence lab. He imagined a new way to re-create a mind. Instead of trying to make a single, centralized “thinking engine,” his insight was that the human brain is composed of a large number of specialized parts that represent knowledge in multiple ways. These “agents” interact to produce what we call sensations, emotions, plans, and thoughts.


Mriganka Sur demonstrated the brain’s remarkable ability to change and rewire itself. He showed that hearing centers of the brain can “see” if given visual input, by connecting the eyes to the brain’s hearing regions, which then were used to interpret visual information. Sur heads a department at MIT – Brain and Cognitive Sciences – that includes an impressive roster of scientists who are transforming our understanding of Parkinson’s disease, how the brain works during sleep, and what anesthesia does to the brain.

Growing young?

Biology professor Lenny Guarente and MIT alum Cynthia Kenyon found the first genes linked to aging. These discoveries were critical because they proved that aging is regulated by key genes and, therefore, is something science may be able to manipulate. The question is, should we?

Baby talk

Deb Roy, director of the Cognitive Machines Group at MIT, turned his house into a video- and sound-recording lab after his baby was born, and he launched an ambitious study of how children learn to speak.

Watching your language

Noam Chomsky forever changed the field of linguistics – along with many other disciplines – with his groundbreaking work on the development of language. In the late 1950s, the prolific author, political activist, and longtime MIT professor challenged the conventional view in linguistics, psychology, and other cognitive fields that environment played an outsized role in shaping the human mind. Chomsky’s revolutionary work stirred controversy but changed our understanding of how humans develop language, showing that regardless of where we are born, we share common biological bases for the words we form.

But can you spell it?

Penny Chisholm, an MIT biology professor, discovered a marine micro-organism called cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus. It’s the most abundant microbe in the ocean. “Every fifth breath you take – thank Prochlorococcus for that oxygen,” Chisholm has said.


Susumu Tonegawa received a 1987 Nobel Prize for his insights into explaining how our immune system wards off so much disease. He founded the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.