For this MIT family, cancer research is a family business

Organic chemistry studies can remember all colors, but few are as permanent and meaningful as Alfred Singer ’68 and Dinah (Schiffer) Singer ’69. Since their encounter when they took 5.41 in 1965 – and graduated from MIT with a degree in biology (Dina) and philosophy with a young child in biology (Al) – they have built a lasting family and great careers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), supporting significant advances in understanding and treating cancer.

Singers fight cancer from a variety of angles. Al’s research on how the human body differentiates external molecules is what led him to become the head of the Experimental Immunology Branch of the NCI Research Center for Cancer Research, while Dina researched and management skills that established his leadership of a number of key elements.

After the pair joined NCI in 1975, Dina researched genetic and verbal records, and established her own lab and served for 20 years as director of the Division of Cancer Biology, which supports numerous cancer research in the US.

This put him in charge for seven years, $ 1.8 billion Cancer Moonshot program, which seeks to increase access to services and improve prevention and early detection through scientific research, collaboration, and data sharing. Through 70 new organizations and programs, the program (launched in 2016) has made great strides in immunotherapy, childhood cancer research, mapping, and many other areas.

Dinah’s appointment in 2019 as deputy director of the NCI for science and development prior to the epidemic 2020, which required her expertise in a new way: when Congress called on NCI to conduct preliminary and clinical research on the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and its methods they are impossible. vaccine, he led the effort.

“The idea is to continue to take emergency measures and learn more about the response to pathogens that we have never seen before,” he says. “It happened at lightning speed on a major program. We have allocated 21 funds and set up four testing centers. We receive funding for five years, because we do not know how long it will take to eradicate the epidemic.”

Al, meanwhile, got into photography that caught his attention in the early 1970s, when newlyweds were pursuing a doctorate degree at Columbia University (Dinah PhD, Al an MD). “What we were taught as the basis for the disease did not seem to be based on what we saw in patients,” he recalls. “Bacteria cause pneumonia, but pneumonia is not the result of bacterial infections — the disease is mainly due to the body’s response to the germs we are exposed to.”

The momentous occasion came when, as a gift for the first year, Dinah bought Al a copy of Macfarlane Burnet, a Nobel laureate. Selfish and Unselfish. “It was thought to be a philosophical book, but it was actually a book on immunity that sparked my interest in immunology studies and encouraged them for years,” says Al.

Burnet’s purpose is the mechanisms by which the body distinguishes its own substance (“itself”) from external factors such as bacteria, viruses, or toxins (“not self”). When scientists first started research, scientists believed that white blood cells, or T cells, performed this function, but their exact mechanism of action was unknown. Early Al activity showed that the thymus plays a key role, and later research in his laboratory found that the ability of T cells to recognize body cells is obtained rather than simply predicting genes.

“I am very proud to have found the foundation for this type of immune system, called the major inhibition of the histocompatibility complex (MHC), which leads to a variety of T cell functions, such as helper cells and killer cells,” says Al. Some have used it and used it effectively for cancer.

Dina and Al have two sons and enjoy traveling, performing, and collecting the work of local experts, but the “family business” of cancer research is not far off. “We probably talk more than we think,” says Al. “It’s the most important part of our lives – I don’t think we’re different.”

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