Advocacy Honoree Phillip Sharp Takes a Bold Approach to Treating Cancer

Anna Hatch

This article is the fourth in a series highlighting the accomplishments of Research!America’s 2017 Advocacy Award honorees who will be saluted at a dinner in Washington, D.C., on March 15. More details can be found here.

Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp, Ph.D., is Research!America’s recipient of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Award for Sustained National Leadership, which honors medical and health research advocacy leaders who have been instrumental in developing and implementing a sustained advocacy program for medical and health research.

Prof. Sharp is an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and serves as Chair of Stand Up To Cancer’s (SU2C) Scientific Advisory Committee. SU2C is a non-profit organization formed in 2008 with the goal of increasing the pace of cancer research to save lives. SU2C reports that “one in two men and one in three women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.”

SU2C builds communication between cancer researchers and boosts collaboration by funding “Dream teams” made up of scientists from different institutions. "From the beginning, Stand Up To Cancer has striven to break down silos, encourage collaboration and bring together the best research that will benefit cancer patients,” Prof. Sharp explained.

A champion for innovative thinking, Prof. Sharp said “…Creativity is walking in a path that no one else has walked, with knowledge that if you can get to the end of that path, you will learn something that is very important for progress across a broad front of science.”

Prof. Sharp fundamentally changed the way scientists think about gene structure in 1977, when he discovered genetic information is edited before it is utilized. During this revision process, unnecessary information is deleted and the remaining pieces are “spliced” together creating a coherent message. In 1988, Prof. Sharp was honored with the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for this work, and in 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

This discovery is not Prof. Sharp’s only accomplishment. He was awarded the 2004 National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush for his role in understanding RNA interference, an RNA based process for silencing specific genes. Sharp applied this discovery to determine how specific genes function in mammalian cells.

Prof. Sharp promotes creative problem-solving by encouraging scientists across different disciplines to work with one another. He advocates for the “Convergence” model, which combines engineering, computation, physical sciences, and life sciences to solve complex problems. National Academy of Sciences President Dr. Marcia McNutt referred to him as the brainchild of this movement.

Prof. Sharp is often credited with the emergence of biotech companies in Cambridge, MA. He cofounded Biogen with Harvard scientist Dr. Wally Gilbert and others in 1978 to develop treatments for diseases like leukemia using recombinant DNA. Biogen’s success prompted other companies to locate to the Kendall Square area. Sharp also cofounded Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in 2002, which uses RNA interference to develop treatments for genetic disorders.

“When you think about it, RNA is the first step in the expression of information in cells,” he said at a research symposium. Now his research laboratory at MIT investigates the multiple ways RNA regulates gene expression.

Anna Hatch is a Research!America Communications Intern.

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