Challenge of a Lifetime

A determined cancer survivor and a diverse team of experts are making progress together in the pursuit of a cure.

March 20, 2015

When cancer started a fight with David Koch in 1991, the disease had no idea who it was up against. Two decades after his initial diagnosis, the executive vice president of Koch Industries is still standing tall and has donated more than $200 million to help combat the epidemic.

Nearly half of David’s financial contributions in this endeavor have been directed to his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which opened the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research in 2011. At the time of the institute’s dedication, its namesake was quoted as saying that he hoped millions of lives would be saved within a decade as a result of therapies originating at MIT.

The institute’s director, Tyler Jacks, was recently reminded of this lofty vision. “I forgot that David had said that,” Jacks replied with a smile.

Although he is not quite willing to guarantee a specific timeline for a cure, Jacks is optimistic of near-term success based on the Koch Institute’s initial progress. “We’re currently working with new nanotechnology-based systems for chemotherapy that allow for better targeted delivery to cancer cells. This new approach is not only proving to be more effective, but it’s also reducing toxicity. And that’s not just in a lab, but with actual patients.”

The battle against cancer is not a new initiative at MIT, which has operated a cancer institute since 1974. Today, the biggest difference is how the university approaches one of the world’s greatest challenges.

“We realized there was a need to better understand cancer before treating it,” said Jacks. “In addition to the biological focus, there was value to bringing in engineering expertise. And we had it available through the excellent MIT engineering programs that were already conducting their own research related to cancer.”

Tyler Jacks, director of the David H. Koch Institute

Tyler Jacks, director of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, has served on the Board of Scientific Advisors of the National Cancer Institute and as president of the American Association of Cancer Research.

Like Koch companies’ Market-Based Management® business philosophy, the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research is specifically structured for collaboration and sharing a wide range of expertise. The facility houses scientists specializing in genetics, and cell and molecular biology. It also includes chemical, biological and mechanical engineers as well as practicing clinicians.        

Rather than segmenting the various research disciplines, the institute places these complementary roles within shared work spaces and meeting areas. Through the natural course of daily conversations, new projects are developing across multiple disciplines between students and post-doctorate fellows.

Through it all, David Koch has closely followed the institute’s progress without attempting to guide the direction of its research. Those decisions remain in the hands of a well-rounded team of experts. “We don’t have a cancer hospital here,” said Jacks. “Through the successes that we’ve had in the lab, we are now able to collaborate in Boston and beyond to do clinical implementation.”

  • The Koch Institute at MIT is designed to facilitate daily interaction between researchers with different disciplines and levels of experience. The goal is to inspire collaborations that lead to new discoveries more quickly.

  • In addition to his contributions toward the research facility, David Koch has assisted its workers by donating $20 million for a childcare center at MIT. There was previously a three-year waiting list of more than 300 people who desired on-campus childcare. The new 14,000 square-foot center made it possible to accommodate everyone on the list and offer numerous scholarships.

  • Scientists, engineers and clinicians work together at the Koch Institute to explore nanotechnology development, detection and monitoring, metastasis, personalized medicine and the immune system.

  • Five current and former faculty members have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Today, the Koch Institute is part of a community that includes hundreds of researchers with one shared goal of defeating cancer.

This commitment to teamwork includes the Bridge Project, a partnership between MIT and Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. Clinical investigators from the Koch Institute are also splitting the time they spend at MIT with appointments at area hospitals to achieve a different perspective toward managing the disease.

“Patients are already benefiting,” Jacks stated with confidence. That is welcome news considering that cancer currently accounts for nearly one of every four deaths in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. For a disease that affects so many, it seems fitting that one of the world’s most diverse teams is working together for a cure.