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Physical scientists set to work with clinicians to tackle cancer

lung cancer
Lung cancer cells. (From Wellcome Images

The American Cancer Society reported that the state of Maryland saw 26,650 new cases of cancer in 2009. In that same year they report, 10,320 people died from cancer. That’s like losing the population of Bel Air or Cambridge every year.

Despite decades of research, a cure, or even effective treatment, for many types of cancer continues to elude medical researchers. Investigators in this field traditionally come from the biological sciences, medicine and biochemistry. To help solve the mysteries of this dread collection of diseases, perhaps it is time that researchers found a fresh approach to support and expand upon what scientists already know about cancer.

To that end, in the fall of 2009 the National Cancer Institute (NCI) launched a new initiative in the form the Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers (PS-OC) program, funding 12 sites at universities and research institutions across the country, including one at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. From April 5 to 7,  NCI hosted its first annual meeting for investigators from those centers at the National Harbor in Washington, D.C. I was able to attend a portion of that meeting.

According to a statement from the NCI, the mission of the PS-OCs is to “foster the development of innovative ideas and new fields of study that converge perspectives and approaches of physical sciences and engineering with cancer biology and clinical oncology.”

Simply put, the NCI is asking for collaboration between physical scientists (physicists, chemists and engineers for example) and medical professionals. Part of the challenge in bringing these groups together is that they use vastly different research languages to communicate, attend separate research meetings,  and function in diverse departments at universities. The same word has many different meanings for these researchers, for instance. As one presenter pointed out during the meeting, the word “vector” means one thing to a physicist or mathematician and quite another thing to a medical doctor or biologist.

Even so, the opportunity to put some new eyes on cancer research should yield interesting and exciting results. Several findings have started to emerge.

A chemist from the University of California, Berkeley for example is studying how controlling the spatial arrangement of receptors on cell surfaces affects the instructions those receptors can send to the cells. Mathematicians at New York University have developed a mathematical model to predict how the length of telomeres--the protective string of code at the ends of DNA strands--could be used to determine how long a normal (or cancerous) cell could live.

And researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s PS-OC, which they call the Engineering in Oncology Center, have described a bundled “cap” of fibers that sits atop healthy cells to control its shape, keeping it flat and disc-like. Cancer cells, on the other hand, lack this piece of cytoskeletal apparel, and become more rounded. A rounded cell is more likely to roll away from a tumor site to spread cancer to other organs. [ Watch the video about this cell cap below.]

How these intriguing findings inform the work of clinicians and oncologists to treat cancer remains to be seen. We cannot predict if physicists, mathematicians, engineers and chemists collaborating with medical doctors will shed any new light on the dreaded “C” word, but we will never know unless we try.

For more information: 

National Cancer Institute’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers

Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center