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With roots in New York and Barcelona, Massagué has set out to solve problems of cancer metastasis in his U.S. lab and help his Spanish hometown build its research infrastructure.
When Joan (Joe-ahn) Massagué came here from his native Barcelona in 1979, it was supposed to be for two years, max. The plan: do a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University, publish one paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (literary mecca for young biochemists), have a great time, and go back to Spain. He had no intention of making a career of science. That, he says, was not really a possibility in the Spain of 30 years ago, where the handful of science positions were occupied by older scientists who didn't make room for the next generation.
Instead, when he returned, he would likely settle down at a pharmacy, perhaps the one owned by his parents, both pharmacists. He'd get his science “fix” other ways—studying geology, for instance, collecting rocks and crystals, a favorite hobby since his father bought him his first rock collection for his 13th birthday.
In 1970s Spain, says Massagué, a bachelor's degree was considered the career-defining degree. Few bothered to pursue an education further. “The Ph.D. was extra,” he says. “It was an activity almost to self-cultivate.”
And the postdoc in the United States? “I did it because I liked the Ph.D. so much, I said, 'What the heck? Let's enjoy another two years.'” After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Barcelona, he searched out a postdoc position overseas and signed on in the lab of a young investigator named Mike Czech at Brown University, who was studying insulin receptors.
Two years in the United States came and went and over the next decade Massagué's drive took over (“I am determined and intense by nature”), and two things happened. He became known as the man who cracked the TGF-beta pathway—a complex molecular “conversation” by which cells tell their neighbors to stop dividing, among other things. And Massagué began to realize just how critical that message might be in cancer, a disease in which cells' primary mission is to divide and divide and divide.
The cancer community realized the importance of these signals, too. By 1989, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center had installed Massagué as chair of its cell biology program. In 1990, he became an HHMI investigator. When the Cancer Center created a cancer biology and genetics program in 2003, Massagué became its chair. Just before, in 2000, as a run-up to his 50th birthday, Massagué and his lab had switched their focus to metastasis and quickly began electrifying that field, identifying different sets of genes that drive the spread of breast cancer cells to the bone or the lungs. That work, says Larry Norton, Memorial Sloan-Kettering deputy physician-in-chief for breast cancer programs, “is hot as a pistol.”
Photo: Mark Mahaney