Phillip Sharp

Cancer, Biology & Genetics Research

Self Exam

  • Occupation: Academician, Institute Professor (highest Academic Rank at MIT)
  • Alternative career choice: Farmer in Kentucky
  • What do rock stars and scienctists have in common: Both engage in creative work, enjoy audiences, and the have strange objects in their hands.
  • Musical Instrument I Play: None
  • I tend to approach life: Believing tomorrow will bring the best day of my life.
  • Biggest misconceptions about me or my work: That I do not have a lot of pleasure in my life.
  • Worst part-time job ever: Cleaning manure from a barn
  • Longest med school study session: N/A
  • Best moment in medicine/research: N/A

About My Research

Disease Area: Changes in cancer cells

Research Area: The molecular biology of gene expression relevant to cancer and the mechanisms of expression of split genes.

Science Impact/Accomplishments or Goal: The discovery of split genes has been of fundamental importance for research both in biology as well as in medicine. Split genes contain nonsense segments that are removed by an ""editing"" process called RNA splicing in the course of expression of the genetic information. Before this discovery, a gene was conceived as a continuous segment within the long double-stranded DNA molecules. The discovery that informational sequences within a gene could be discontinuous, that is, present in the genetic material (DNA) as several well-separated segments was unanticipated and fundamental for understanding the genetic causes of cancer and other diseases.

Research Description: Cancer cells differ from normal cells by changes in the expression of genes that stimulate cell growth and malignant characteristics such as cell migration. Mutation-like alterations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes in cancer cells promote these changes. I investigate the chemical mechanisms by which the factors encoded by oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes regulate the expression of genes that control the growth and malignancy. The split gene structure allows variation in how a gene is translated into function protein. Various parts of the gene can be assembled in different cells by alternative RNA splicing. Further we are now studying how small RNAs encoded by newly discovered genes control cell growth, cell death and malignant properties."


Much of my scientific work has been conducted at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research (now the Koch Institute), which I joined in 1974 and directed from 1985 to 1991. I subsequently led the Department of Biology from 1991 to 1999 before assuming the directorship of the McGovern Institute from 2000 to 2004. My research interests have centered on the molecular biology of gene expression relevant to cancer and the mechanisms of RNA splicing. Our landmark achievement was the discovery of RNA splicing in 1977. This work provided one of the first indications of the startling phenomenon of “discontinuous genes” in mammalian cells and fundamentally changed scientists’ understanding of the structure of genes. For this work I was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Studies in my lab are now focused in understanding how RNA molecules act as switches to turn genes on and off (RNA interference). These newly discovered processes have revolutionized cell biology and could potentially generate a new class of therapeutics.

Our research over the years has culminated into over 370 scientific papers. I have received numerous awards and honorary degrees, and served on many advisory boards for the government, academic institutions, scientific societies, and companies. These awards include the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the National Medal of Science and the inaugural Double Helix Medal from CSHL. I am elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

I was born, raised, and educated through K-12 in Pendleton County, Kentucky. I received my B.A. degree in 1966 from Union College in Barbourville, Ky., and a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1969 from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Ill. I did my postdoctoral training at the California Institute of Technology, where I studied the molecular biology of plasmids from bacteria in Professor Norman Davidson’s laboratory. Prior to joining MIT, I was Senior Scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

In 1978 a few colleagues and I founded Biogen (now Biogen Idec) and in 2002 I co-founded Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, an early-stage therapeutics company