Lewis Cantley, Ph.D. ’75, Chemistry

Lewis Cantley
Lewis Cantley, image courtesy of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Lewis Cantley, a renowned cancer researcher and the current director of the cancer center at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, has spent much of his career doing biological research—but he didn’t train as a biologist, and he’s not sorry about that. “My background in organic chemistry and biochemistry was far more useful in preparing me for the complexity of biology than anything I would have learned in a biology class forty years ago.”

Biologists may disagree with his assertions, but no one could deny that he’s put his biophysical chemistry to good use. He put himself on the map in 1985, with his discovery of the enzyme PI-3-kinase and its targets and regulators. Cantley and his team knew that they were on to something big, but not everyone did, at least not at first.

“We sent the paper to Nature,” Cantley says. “And I got a response saying they weren’t interested in another phosphorylated form of inositol.” Cantley wasn’t about to take a polite form letter rejection for his discovery. When he pointed out that a new enzyme of this kind actually hadn’t been discovered for thirty years, Nature took another look, apologized, and published the paper to great fanfare in 1988.

Cantley and his lab have spent subsequent decades unraveling the workings of PI-3-kinase. Further research has implicated the enzyme in the development of cancer and diabetes mellitus, and Cantley’s research has added to our understanding of how these diseases develop, and how they can be stopped. For his work, he has been recognized with many awards, including an election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also the recipient of one of the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2013, the largest monetary award in the sciences.

Cantley’s successes have not had the effect of making him afraid of failure—on the contrary, he advocates the idea of science as a process, where even the best practitioners will be wrong more often than they are right. “I think we need to train scientists to be more comfortable with proving themselves wrong,” he says. “Because if your hypothesis is wrong, it’s best if you prove it wrong before somebody else does.”