The Man Who Uncovered a New (Old) Way to Fight Cancer

The Man Who Uncovered a New (Old) Way to Fight Cancer

Matthew Vander Heiden helped revive the forgotten— but critical—study of cancer metabolism.

Sam Apple | MIT Technology Review
February 21, 2018

Person in plaid shirt by windowOne day last October, MIT biology professor Matthew Vander Heiden showed up in one of his trademark plaid shirts to teach his undergraduate course on cancer biology. As usual, he peppered his lecture with questions, filling six sliding chalkboards with arrows mapping cellular pathways; he had to erase the boards halfway through class to make room for more notations. But what might have seemed like an ordinary lecture was far from ordinary in one respect: although Vander Heiden was explaining some of the most fundamental aspects of how tumors grow, most of what he was teaching his students would have been absent from nearly every introductory course on cancer biology a decade ago. The science Vander Heiden discussed that afternoon amounted to a once-lost but recently rediscovered chapter in the history of cancer research.

What he didn’t mention in class is that he’d played as large a role as anyone in bringing it back.

That lost chapter focuses on metabolism, and how cancers use nutrients for energy and as building blocks for new cancer cells. It began with a discovery in the early 1920s that most cancers stuff themselves with glucose and then use it in an unusual way. Whereas normal cells typically break down glucose by burning it with oxygen, cancer cells extract much of its energy through fermentation—essentially the same process microorganisms use to make yogurt, beer, and other foods. Indeed, early-20th-century researchers noticed that cancer cells seemed to behave more like yeast than the cells of an animal. But though it would briefly become a major school of cancer research, metabolism fell by the wayside in the 1960s as researchers turned their attention to how cancer-causing genes signal cells to divide.

Cancer metabolism research appeared to be dead, until Vander Heiden helped launch its revival around two decades ago. Today it’s among the hottest areas of the field, spawning conferences, journals, and promising new therapies. And it has fundamentally changed the way many researchers understand cancer and its origins.

Modest revolutionary

Metabolism’s downfall as a research area in the late 20th century was largely a reflection of the faddish nature of science. It didn’t help that Otto Warburg, the German scientist who discovered the unusual metabolism of cancer cells, was so arrogant that much of the scientific community disliked him. So it’s probably a good thing that Vander Heiden, a down-to-earth type who’s been known to downplay his own role on research papers to give his students and postdocs first-author billing, has been so central to the metabolism revival.

Vander Heiden, 45, grew up in Port Washington, Wisconsin, a small town on Lake Michigan once known for its lawnmower factories, and he lives up to every stereotype of his background. “He carries his Midwestern sensibilities with him everywhere he goes,” says his wife, Brooke Bevis, a biologist and the operations manager for Vander Heiden’s lab at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “I finally made him give up my old 1995 Honda Civic just a few years ago.”

When Vander Heiden enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1990, medicine was already on his mind. His younger brother had suffered from a rare blood disorder as a child, and Vander Heiden spent much of his own childhood hanging around children’s hospitals. But he had little thought of becoming an academic scientist until he began a work-study job washing out equipment in a University of Chicago biology lab. The work was not glamorous but came with a perk: the graduate students in the lab would let Vander Heiden make solutions for them and show him how they did their experiments.

After graduating, he enrolled in Chicago’s MD-PhD program and landed in the lab of Craig B. Thompson. Today Thompson is the president and CEO of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, but at the time he was studying immunology, looking at how the body eliminated huge numbers of immune cells once they were no longer needed.

When Vander Heiden arrived in Thompson’s lab in 1996, part of the explanation was already understood. Those cells would simply commit suicide, a process known as apoptosis. It was also known that a family of proteins named Bcl-2 could stop a cell from committing suicide—and that they appeared to do so through their impact on mitochondria, tiny organelles known as the powerhouses of the cell for their role in energy production.

Vander Heiden had just joined a cutting–edge immunology lab interested in protein signaling. Yet he had been asked to investigate how Bcl-2 proteins affect mitochondria, a relic of the old, outdated metabolism research. When it became clear that no one in the lab knew much about metabolism, Vander Heiden reread the relevant sections of his undergraduate biochemistry textbook. He also teamed up with Navdeep Chandel, a metabolism researcher at Northwestern University who was then a graduate student in a University of Chicago cellular physiology lab.

When another lab showed that proteins released from the mitochondria could trigger apoptosis, Vander Heiden and -Chandel got an important clue: the decision to commit suicide could now be traced directly to the mitochondria. And yet the deeper question of what was happening inside them remained mysterious until the two researchers arrived at an answer, thanks to a series of elegant experiments designed by Vander Heiden (whom Chandel calls “a world-class experimentalist”) to study how molecules moved through the mitochondrial membrane. They discovered that the release of the mitochondrial proteins was a sign of a failing powerhouse, a notice to the cell that a brownout was under way so it was time to abort. But brownouts weren’t inevitable; the Bcl-2 proteins, like emergency workers called to the scene of an imminent disaster, could resuscitate the metabolic function of the mitochondria and keep things from getting to that point. The suicide signal, in turn, would never be released.

Person pipets in lab hood
Daniel Schmidt, a postdoc in Vander Heiden’s lab, prepares cells to study how metabolism affects cancer cell proliferation. Credit: BUCK SQUIBB
Daniel Schmidt, a postdoc in Vander Heiden’s lab, prepares cells to study how metabolism affects cancer cell proliferation.


For Vander Heiden, this was a “watershed moment.” Among other things, it meant that metabolic enzymes weren’t merely supplying energy from food. Metabolism was governing the most fundamental decision a cell has to make—whether to live or die. That meant it had to be interwoven into the signaling cascades that molecular biologists studied. His feeling at the time, he recalls, was “Oh my goodness. We don’t really understand metabolism.”

Vander Heiden might not have envisioned himself delving into research areas that had been discarded decades earlier, but what was more surprising was how little research was then being done in an area that was “as fundamental as you get in terms of how biology works,” he says. “I looked around and no one was studying it.”

Thompson, recognizing the opportunity, shifted the focus of his lab to metabolism. Vander Heiden, meanwhile, continued to pursue Thompson’s broader question of how the body eliminates unwanted immune cells. He already knew that growth factors, messages sent from one cell to the next, kept cells from committing suicide, but how the signals delivered their survival message remained unclear. What he discovered in a series of studies carried out in the late ’90s followed perfectly from his previous research. Growth factors kept cells alive by giving them permission to eat. Without that permission, a cell soon faced an energy crisis, and the mitochondria released their death signals.

The takeaway was clear: our bodies eliminate unwanted cells by starving them to death.

Solving the metabolism mystery

As Vander Heiden’s MD-PhD program was coming to an end, he hadn’t yet begun to focus on cancer, but its possible links with his research on cell suicide were intriguing. Cancer cells were the other side of the coin—cells that were resistant to suicide, that no longer cared about instructions from other cells. So in 2004, after completing a residency in oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, he was anxious to investigate cancer metabolism for his postdoc research.

Finding the right lab wasn’t easy. At the time, telling leading researchers he wanted to study how cancer cells consumed glucose was like approaching a high-tech manufacturer and announcing you wanted to study the trucks that brought fuel to the factory. It sounded, Vander Heiden says, “like a really ridiculous thing.”

Vander Heiden eventually found a home in the Harvard lab of Lewis Cantley, who now directs the Meyer Cancer Center at Weil Cornell. His research in Cantley’s lab would help solve one of the central riddles of cancer metabolism: why cancer cells are so ravenous for glucose. Researchers had once assumed that cancer cells were turning to fermentation because they’d lost the ability to use oxygen properly and needed some other way to produce energy. But Vander Heiden’s research on a mutated form of the enzyme pyruvate kinase showed something else. Rather than being used for energy, much of the glucose was being shunted into pathways used to build new molecules. What a growing cancer needs most of all from its food, the research suggested, is more spare parts—raw materials for making new DNA, membranes, and proteins.

Rethinking chemotherapy

Vander Heiden’s research with Cantley would also lead to his involvement with Agios Pharmaceuticals, the company behind one of the most promising new drugs to emerge from the metabolism revival. (Cantley says he played a major role in building the company’s science in its early days.) The drug, AG-221, treats acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It works by blocking the product of a mutated form of the mitochondrial enzyme IDH-2. Approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in August, it has been hailed as the first real advance for the disease in 30 years.

The approval of AG-221 isn’t the only thing generating excitement in the cancer world. Unlike almost all other cancer drugs, AG-221 doesn’t kill the cancer cells but, rather, allows them to develop out of their deranged state into noncancerous, mature, functioning cells. That a single metabolic enzyme could have such profound effects on which genes are expressed in a cell is now one of the many signs that changes in metabolism are not just a response to the needs of a growing cancer. Often, they may actually be causing the cancer itself. It represents a major shift in thought: many cancer-causing genes long known for their ability to signal cells to keep dividing have now been shown to have additional roles in signaling cells to keep eating. Some researchers now believe the overeating typically comes first, driving the transformations that follow.

Since his arrival at MIT and the opening of his lab at the Koch Institute in 2009, Vander Heiden has treated cancer patients and continued to search for better therapies. In recent years he has focused on improving understanding of chemotherapy. Though typically thought of as general poisons, most chemotherapy drugs work because they disrupt metabolic functions. That much has long been known, but less clear is why a particular drug works for some cancers and not for others, even when two cancers carry the same mutations.

It was while explaining to his undergrad cancer biology students how targeted drugs work that Vander Heiden first thought of an answer. As a cancer doctor, he knew that chemotherapies are often chosen on the basis of where in the body a tumor first arose, but what was it about this location that made the difference?

Vander Heiden’s research in mice now suggests that the answer may lie in which foods are available to the cancer as it forms. Melanoma and colon cancer, for example, often have the same mutations, and yet, as he explains, because the two cancers “grow in very different places in the body,” they likely “have access to different nutrients.” He adds, “It has nothing to do with the genetics.” If he turns out to be right, it could lead to a fundamental change in how oncologists think about which drugs to give their patients.

As Vander Heiden turns his attention to old chemotherapy drugs, rethinking why and how they work, he is once again looking to the past for new insights on cancer. It might be more than a coincidence. As Bevis, his wife, says, the outdated Honda Civic isn’t the only item he has struggled to let go of. “The list goes on and on,” she says. “He hates waste and will use items long after someone else would have replaced them with a newer, shinier model.”