Tyler Jacks, founding director of MIT’s Koch Institute, to step down

Tyler Jacks, founding director of MIT’s Koch Institute, to step down

A search committee chaired by Institute Professor Phillip Sharp will work to identify a new director for the MIT’s pioneering cancer research center.

Bendta Schroeder | Koch Institute
October 26, 2020

The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center, has announced that Tyler Jacks will step down from his role as director, pending selection of his successor.

“An exceptionally creative scientist and a leader of great vision, Tyler also has a rare gift for launching and managing large, complex organizations, attracting exceptional talent and inspiring philanthropic support,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are profoundly grateful for all the ways he has served MIT, including most recently his leadership on the Research Ramp Up Lightning Committee, which made it possible for MIT’s research enterprise to resume in safe ways after the initial Covid shutdown. I offer warmest admiration and best wishes as Tyler steps down from leading the Koch and returns full time to the excitement of the lab.”

Jacks, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology, has served as director for more than 19 years, first for the MIT Center for Cancer Research (CCR) and then for its successor, the Koch Institute. The CCR was founded by Nobel laureate Salvador Luria in 1974, shortly after the federal government declared “war on cancer,” with the mission of unravelling the molecular core of cancer. Jacks became the center’s fourth director in 2001, following Luria, Nobel laureate and Institute Professor Phillip Sharp, and Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research Richard Hynes.

Aided by the championship of then-MIT President Susan Hockfield and a gift of $100 million from MIT alumnus David H. Koch ’62, SM ’63, Jacks oversaw the evolution of the Center for Cancer Research into the Koch Institute in 2007 as well as the construction of a new home in Building 76, completed in 2010. The Koch Institute expands the mission of its predecessor by bringing life scientists and engineers together to advance understanding of the basic biology of cancer, and to develop new tools to better diagnose, monitor, and treat the disease.

Under the direction of Jacks, the institute has become an engine of collaborative cancer research at MIT. “Tyler’s vision and execution of a convergent cancer research program has propelled the Koch Institute to the forefront of discovery,” notes Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research.

Bolstered by the Koch Institute’s associate directors Jacqueline Lees, Matthew Vander Heiden, Darrell Irvine, and Dane Wittrup, Jacks oversaw four successful renewals of the coveted NCI-designated cancer center stature, with the last two renewals garnering perfect scores. In 2015, Jacks was the recipient of the James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award, the highest honor the MIT faculty can bestow upon one of its members, for his leadership in cancer research and for his role in establishing the Koch Institute.

“Tyler Jacks turned the compelling idea to accelerate progress against cancer by bringing together fundamental biology, engineering know-how, and clinical expertise, into the intensively collaborative environment that is now the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research,” says Hockfield. “His extraordinary leadership has amplified the original idea into a paradigm-changing approach to cancer, which now serves as a model for research centers around the world.”

To support cross-disciplinary research in high-impact areas and expedite translation from the bench to the clinic, Jacks and his colleagues shepherded the creation of numerous centers and programs, among them the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology, the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, the MIT Center for Precision Cancer Medicine, the Swanson Biotechnology Center, the Lustgarten Lab for Pancreatic Cancer Research, and the MIT Stem Cell Initiative. In addition, Jacks has co-led the Bridge Project, a collaboration between the Koch Institute and Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center that brings bioengineers, cancer scientists, and clinical oncologists together to solve some of the most challenging problems in cancer research. Jacks has raised nearly $375 million in support of these efforts, as well as the building of the Koch Institute facility, the Koch Institute Frontier Research Program, and other activities.

Jacks first became interested in cancer as a Harvard University undergraduate while attending a lecture by Robert Weinberg, the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research and member of the Whitehead Institute, who is himself a pioneer in cancer genetics. After earning his PhD at the University of California at San Francisco under the direction of Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, Jacks joined Weinberg’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow. He joined the MIT faculty in 1992 with appointments in the Center for Cancer Research and the Department of Biology.

Jacks is widely considered a leader in the development of engineered mouse models of human cancers, and has pioneered the use of gene-targeting technology to construct mouse models and to study cancer-associated genes in mice. Strains of mice developed in his lab are used by researchers around the world, as well as by neighboring labs within the Koch Institute. Because these models closely resemble human forms of the disease, they have allowed researchers to track how tumors progress and to test new ways to detect and treat cancer. In more recent research, Jacks has been using mouse models to investigate how immune and tumor cells interact during cancer development and how tumors successfully evade immune recognition. This research is expected to lead to new immune-based therapies for human cancer.

Outside his research and MIT leadership, Jacks co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Panel for the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, chaired the National Cancer Advisory Board of the National Cancer Institute, and is a past president of the American Association for Cancer Research. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Jacks serves on the Board of Directors of Amgen and Thermo Fisher Scientific. He is also a co-founder of T2 Biosystems and Dragonfly Therapeutics, serves as an advisor to several other companies, and is a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers.

Sharp will lead the search for the next director of the Koch Institute, with guidance from noted leaders in MIT’s cancer research community, including Hockfield and Hynes, as well as Angela M. Belcher, head of the Department of Biological Engineering and Jason Mason Crafts Professor; Paula T. Hammond, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and David H. Koch Professor of Engineering; Amy Keating, professor of biology; Robert S. Langer, David H. Koch Institute Professor; and David M. Sabatini, Professor of Biology and member, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

“Jacks is a renowned scientist whose personal research has changed the prevention and treatment of cancer,” says Sharp. “His contributions to the creation of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and his leadership as its inaugural director have also transformed cancer research at MIT and nationally. By integrating engineers and cancer biologists into a community that shares knowledge and skills, and collaborates with clinical scientists and the private sector, this convergent institute represents the future of biological research in the MIT style.”

After Jacks steps down, he will continue his research in the areas of cancer genetics and immune-oncology and his teaching, while also stewarding the Bridge Project into its second decade.

“It has been a privilege for me to serve as director of the MIT Center for Cancer Research and the Koch Institute for the past two decades and to work alongside many of the brightest minds in cancer research,” says Jacks. “The Koch Institute is a powerhouse of research and innovation, and I look forward to the next generation of leadership in this very special place.”