Tyler Jacks, the long-tenured director of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, said months ago that he’d step away from the helm after finding a successor. On Thursday, that day finally came.
After more than 19 years leading the institute, Jacks is handing the reins to Matthew Vander Heiden, an MIT biology professor and cancer cell metabolism researcher. The longtime director isn’t going far: MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in October that Jacks will return “full time to the excitement of the lab.”
In addition to teaching, mentoring and running labs at the Koch, Jacks is now president at Break Through Cancer, a foundation launched earlier this year with $250 million from the William H. Goodwin family. The foundation, on a mission to unite researchers from leading US cancer centers, has already forged partnerships with the Koch Institute, Dana-Farber, Johns Hopkins’ Sydney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“Jacks is a renowned scientist whose personal research has changed the prevention and treatment of cancer,” said Phillip Sharp, a former director of MIT’s Center for Cancer Research before it was the Koch Institute.
The Harvard University graduate pioneered the use of gene-targeting technology to construct mouse models, which are used today in labs around the world. And because the models so closely resemble human forms of cancer, they’ve allowed researchers to track tumor progression and test new ways of detecting and treating the disease, MIT said.
Jacks oversaw the CCR’s transformation into the Koch Institute in 2007. The center was originally founded by Nobel laureate Salvador Luria in 1974, shortly after the Nixon administration declared a “war on cancer.” Jacks was the fourth director of the CCR.
In 2015, he co-founded Dragonfly Therapeutics with entrepreneur and filmmaker Bill Haney and David Raulet, an expert in natural killer cell biology. Looking to build on cell therapy 1.0, the team got to work on tri-specific NK cell engager therapies. Back in July, the biotech struck the third in a series of deals with Bristol Myers Squibb, and announced plans to add a facility in Copenhagen.
Vander Heiden plans on steering the Koch Institute toward the way of the future, with a focus on machine learning and AI.
“With the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing coming online, there’s tremendous opportunity in using the rapid advances in machine learning and computer science for health care,” he said in a statement. “I think that’s something MIT absolutely should be a leader on, especially as it applies to cancer.”
The Wisconsin native earned his bachelor’s, MD and PhD all from the University of Chicago, then pursued his postdoc at Harvard Medical School. While there, he worked on research that paved the way for drugs that target cancer cells with a mutation in the IDH gene — the first modern FDA-approved drugs to target metabolism, according to MIT.
In 2010, he became one of the first new hires to the Koch Institute after its transformation from the CCR. The director will continue personal research on cell metabolism and cancer, and his work treating prostate cancer patients at Dana-Farber.