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Susan Hockfield
Susan Hockfield
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Susan Hockfield Interview

President Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

July 5, 2008
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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  Susan Hockfield

Which do you think was more significant about your selection as President of MIT, that you were the first biologist or the first woman?

Susan Hockfield: An interesting question. The first biologist or the first woman?

I can tell you two histories of MIT -- parallel histories -- and I can tell you the history of women at MIT, the history of the life sciences at MIT, taking place almost over the same period of time, both of which made it possible that the person who became president in December of 2004 could have been a woman, could have been a biologist. No one was anticipating that it would be either, or frankly, both. But my appointment represents where MIT is. I hope it also represents where MIT will be. But if it weren't the case that MIT undergraduate body is 45 percent women, it might've been... Let's say when I ask people, "Well, what do you guess the percentage of women at MIT is?" people go, "What is that, 15 percent?" It's not 15 percent, it's 45 percent; and it's been well over 40 percent for many years. You know, it makes it possible that a woman could be President of MIT. Similarly, while historically most of MIT's federal research support, if we just use this as a measure of the kind of research that's going on on campus, historically the major funders of research at MIT have been the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Well, for the last many years NIH has been by far the larger supporter, the largest supporter of research at MIT. Now about 30 percent of our federal funds come from the NIH and those funds are more than our funding from the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy combined.

It speaks to the federal investments in the life sciences through the NIH which have been magnificent. They're not magnificent now. I would say there's a crisis in underfunding of the physical sciences, so that the research budgets from the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have not been sufficient to continue the rate of growth in research in the physical sciences. Nonetheless, MIT has a very robust research program in the life sciences and has had for decades. Actually, the Department of Biology has a long history. I don't know off the top of my head when it began, but certainly by the beginning of the 20th century.

Before you became involved in administration, you had a very distinguished career as a neuroscientist. We'd like to discuss your research on the brain. To start with, can you tell us about glioma cells and their properties?

Susan Hockfield: Glioma cells have an extraordinary ability. They are tumor cells that we believe arise from the glial cells in the brain.

There are two kinds of cells in the brain, two major classes of cells. There are the neurons or the nerve cells that we believe are largely responsible for conducting the messages. They are the circuit, if you will, the components of the circuits of the brain. The glial cells have the function that we don't yet clearly understand, but we consider them to be supporting cells. Neurons are terminally differentiated cells. That means once a nerve cell is born, it will not divide again, but will continue to develop into this incredibly beautiful structure that nerve cells have that allow them to communicate with other cells and send signals all over the body and through the brain. But they don't divide. Glial cells, on the other hand, are not terminally differentiated cells and can continue to divide. So it's no surprise that a primary brain tumor, meaning a tumor that arises in the brain, arises almost invariably from glial cells, and that's what glioma represents. When you get a brain metastasis of some other kind of tumor, breast cancer for example, those cells will lodge in the brain and multiply. That's what cancer cells do. But they multiply without being able to move outside where they're growing. So they grow as small balls of cells, I would say golf balls. Let's hope it's a pea, because if it's a pea size it's small, but a golf ball... But you know, as a single mass. Glioma is very different. Glioma has the uncanny ability to crawl through normal brain tissue. It makes them very difficult to treat.

Susan Hockfield Interview Photo
If a surgeon removes what looks to be a glioma -- and there have been any number of observations and experiments going back to the early part of the 20th century and the late 19th century -- that the glioma cells will have spread beyond what looks to be the tumor, because they invade as single cells and can set up a new tumor locus somewhere else. It's one of the cancers for which we have very limited therapeutic approaches. We've made fantastic progress on a number of cancers, childhood leukemia for one. Look at the extraordinary advances with the new targeted cancer therapies, Gleevec and Herceptin. Gleevec against a kind of leukemia and Herceptin against a particular kind of breast cancer. We don't yet have tools like that for glioma, and it is a very difficult disease that so far has proved almost refractory to therapy. Now I got to glioma not because I was primarily interested in brain tumor.

I got to glioma by a bit of an experimental accident and by a certain amount of luck, fortuitousness. My husband's a neuro-oncologist, and I remember one Saturday afternoon we were sitting around around lunchtime and he had been reviewing, I think, the galleys of a review paper he was writing that included some fabulous images of real gliomas in real patients, and I in the meantime, was puzzling over some work that had just come out of my lab. We were trying to get our hands on the gene for a protein that I can describe in detail, but, in any case, we had found a gene. My post-doc, Diane Jaworski, had actually found a gene that we were pretty sure wasn't the gene we were looking for, but had some very interesting properties. And one of its interesting properties was that it was expressed when the glial cells in the brain were just beginning to develop. They were dividing and beginning to move to their adult positions. And my husband was working on his glioma review paper, and I was looking at this peculiar data, and we were talking to one another in the midst of this, and he looked at me and he said, "Well, you should look at that gene in glioma." Which we then did, and discovered that this gene is expressed by every glioma, virtually every glioma sample that we tested, and we went on to provide good evidence that this particular gene is part of the mechanism that allows glioma to do this terrible thing, which is invade normal tissue. The gene produces several different protein forms, one that's expressed on the glial cells as they're developing, but in a different form that is very selective for glioma. And so the last project in my lab, while I was in the lab, was exploring this particular gene and its protein products as a possible diagnostic and therapeutic target for glioma.

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