For this MIT couple, cancer research is the family business

Organic chemistry classes can create all sorts of memories, but are less durable and meaningful as those of Alfred Singer ’68 and Dinah (Schiffer) Singer ’69. Since meeting while earning 5.41 in 1965 — and graduating from MIT with a degree in biology (Dinah) and philosophy with a minor in biology (Al) — they have built a lasting marriage and influential National careers. Cancer Institute (NCI), which has contributed to major advances in the understanding and treatment of cancer.

Singers are fighting cancer from different angles. Al’s research into how the human body differentiates foreign molecules from itself led him to become chief of the Experimental Immunology Branch at NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, while Dinah’s research background and management skills set the stage. for his leadership of many major strategic initiatives.

After the pair joined NCI in 1975, Dinah studied gene transcription and expression and molecular immunology, founded her own lab and served for 20 years as director of the Division of Cancer Biology, which funded most of the cancer research in the US.

That’s what led to his seven -year tenure, $ 1.8 billion Moonshot Cancer Program, which seeks to increase the availability of therapies and improve prevention and early detection through scientific discovery, collaboration, and data sharing. Through more than 70 new consortiums and programs, the program (launched in 2016) logs advances in immunotherapy, childhood cancer research, tumor mapping, and more. place.

Dinah’s appointment in 2019 as NCI deputy director for scientific strategy and development preceded the 2020 pandemic, calling for her abilities in a new way: when Congress asked NCI to conduct a basic and clinical research into immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 and potential approaches to vaccines, he led the effort.

“The idea is to go beyond responding to emergencies and learn more about responding to future pathogens that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “It happened in lightning fast for a major program. We issued 21 grants and established four centers to conduct clinical assays. We were funded for up to five years, because we didn’t know how long it would take to cure the pandemic. ”

Al, on the other hand, got into a puzzle that first intrigued him in the early 1970s, when the newly married Singers were pursuing doctoral degrees at Columbia University (Dinah a PhD, Al an MD). “What we were taught as a basis for the disease did not seem to be based at all on what we saw in patients,” he recalls. “Bacteria cause pneumonia, but pneumonia is not caused by bacteria — diseases are due to the body’s response to pathogens they encounter.”

An important moment came when, as a gift on the first anniversary, Dinah bought Al and a copy of Nobel laureate Macfarlane Burnet. Self and Not Self. “He thought it was a book on philosophy, but it was a book on immunology that sparked my interest in immunology and inspired it for decades,” Al said.

Burnet’s focus is on the mechanisms used by a body to distinguish between self-elements (“self”) and foreign entities such as bacteria, viruses, or toxins (“non-self”). ). When he began his research, scientists believed that white blood cells known as T cells did this job, but how they acquired that ability is unknown. Al’s early work showed that the thymus played a major role, and later studies in his laboratory found that the ability of T cells to recognize the body’s own cells was acquired more than previously determined.

“I am especially proud that we know the molecular basis of this crazy recognition system that the immune system has, called major histocompatibility complex (MHC) inhibition, which leads to the functions of various T cells, such as helper cells and killer cells, “said Al. “Others have used it and have successfully used it in cancer.”

Dinah and Al have two sons and enjoy traveling, theater, and collecting works by local artists, but the “family business” of cancer research is never far away. “Maybe we’ll talk more than we know,” Al said. “It’s an important part of our lives — I don’t think we’re making a difference.”

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