Robert Weinberg receives 2021 Japan Prize

The Japan Prize Foundation has named MIT Professor Robert Weinberg as one of the recipients of its 2021 awards in the category of Medical Science and Medicinal Science, citing Weinberg’s contributions to the development of a multi-step model of how cancer begins and progresses, and the application of that model to improve cancer treatments and outcomes.

Weinberg, along with co-recipient Bert Vogelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, will receive his award in April at a presentation ceremony attended by the emperor and empress of Japan.  “Dr. Weinberg’s work has led to the identification of critical genes for cancer development that have subsequently been approved as therapeutic targets, resulting in thousands of lives being saved,” writes the Japan Prize Foundation in their news release.

“This award is a tribute to the brilliant scientists who have worked alongside me during my time at the Whitehead Institute,” says Weinberg, a Whitehead Institute founding member who is the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at MIT, as well as an extramural member of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

In 1979, Weinberg and his lab discovered the first gene associated with tumor formation in humans, also known as an oncogene. In the decades since, he has devoted his career to studying not only the genetic basis of cancer, but also the ways in which cancerous cells spread and proliferate throughout the body. His work, along with Vogelstein’s, is credited with the development of new areas of cancer research, including the idea of targeted cancer therapies, and the broader field of precision medicine.

Weinberg joins a list of distinguished scientists from around the world who have received the prestigious Japan Prize, which is intended to express Japan’s gratitude to the international community. Each year, the Japan Prize Foundation selects two specialized fields of science and technology and solicits nominations from over a thousand scientists and engineers across Japan and abroad. This year, these scientists nominated 385 individuals, and three received a prize. In addition to Weinberg and Vogelstein, Martin A. Green, a professor at the University of New South Wales, was also honored this year, in the category of Resources, Energy, Environment, and Social Infrastructure.

“Weinberg’s work on oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes in cancer research has helped create the paradigm of cancer progression as we know it today, and has led the field of cancer biology in new and fruitful directions,” says Whitehead Institute director and MIT professor of biology Ruth Lehmann. “His research has laid the foundation for the development of new treatments that are improving the lives of cancer patients around the world.”

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