Physics, math provide clues to unraveling cancer

January 30, 2009

Biology exists in a physical world. That's a fact cancer researchers are beginning to recognize as they look to include concepts of physics and mathematics in their efforts to understand how cancer develops -- and how to stop it.

The movement, led by researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, has come to a head with a new section in one of the top cancer research journals and a new grant program from the National Cancer Institute.

Traditional cancer biology involves taking a sample of cells and holding them in time so they can be studied. Then the researchers look at that slice of cells to understand what signals and pathways are involved. But that doesn't capture the full picture, says Sofia Merajver, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the Breast Oncology Program at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"The living cell is really a dynamic process. We need to consider the properties of physics to help us understand these data. In order to develop a drug directed against a given molecule that has real hope of treating cancer, we need to understand how that molecule is sitting in the cell, interacting with other molecules," says Merajver, professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School.

Merajver and her team have developed a sophisticated mathematical model to help researchers apply these concepts to cancer. The mathematical model is designed to help give researchers a complete picture of how a cell interacts with its surrounding environment. By understanding the full complexity of signaling pathways, researchers can better target treatments and identify the most promising potential new drugs.

Researchers have learned from this modeling that a well-known and major type of signaling pathway naturally transmits information not just in a forward direction, but also backwards. That implies new considerations for developing drugs to inhibit major growth and metastasis pathways in cancer.

This crosstalk was missed by conventional methods. Typically, when scientists begin to look at a cell, they must make assumptions to simplify the picture of what is happening in cells.

"When you make simplifying assumptions, you always run the risk of eliminating critical aspects of your system, but you have no way of knowing what was discarded. When you simplify, you don't know exactly what you're throwing away because you never looked at the complex case," Merajver says. Mathematical modeling allows researchers to look at the complex case more thoroughly.

"To understand how the laws of physics can be applied to biological systems is a new frontier," she says.

Merajver and her colleagues were successful in getting the journal Cancer Research to add a new regular section to the twice-monthly journal precisely focused on mathematical modeling. The journal has also added new editors to its board who have expertise in this discipline. Merajver and Trachette Jackson, Ph.D., professor of mathematics at U-M, will lead this effort as senior editors.

Reference: Cancer Research, Vol. 69, No. 2, pp. 400-402

Source: University of Michigan

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5 comments

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googleplex
4.7 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2009
We know virtually nothing about the cell when you consider how much there is to know. IMHO mapping the cell should be the next global scientific milestone now we have mapped DNA. We don't even have tools to do this yet.
One can think of DNA as the executable file for windows in machine code. We can change it and observe how it affects the running of the OS. However without any knowledge of the processor and other motherboard components it is of minimal use. We really don't understand how works until we map the entire system.
superhuman
5 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2009
Well we've been hard at work with mapping the cell since the first microscopes were developed. It's not easy.

The living cell is really a dynamic process. We need to consider the properties of physics to help us understand these data. In order to develop a drug directed against a given molecule that has real hope of treating cancer, we need to understand how that molecule is sitting in the cell, interacting with other molecules


Well that's exactly what biology is doing, while it's nice if they managed to discover something new, it's silly to try to imply that biology ignores physics or that their own model is not a simplification. It certainly is.

Every model of a cell has to simplify many aspects to be at all usable. The reasons are many: lack of knowledge, lack of data, lack of processing power, lack of tractable models and even lack of proper understanding of physics at molecular scale.
E_L_Earnhardt
4 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2009
Math models MUST include TEMPERATURE! It determines rate of mitosis, timing of mitosis, litterly everything happening in an operational cell and its RATE! ENERGY=ELECTRON SPEED, SPIN, ARC, FREQUENCY, etc. Mitochondria loses control when free elec.enter!
QubitTamer
5 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2009
I've been singing this same song of integrated research for a long time. Would like to see preeminent computer scientists also involved in genetic research... All of the data in DNA is comprised of 4 base pairs of amino acids, Adenine Guanine Cytosine and Thymine. To date i doubt that anyone has done comparative analysis of code sequences from a programming perspective.

It would be nice if we could discover the rosetta stone of the universe's biological assembly language.
E_L_Earnhardt
not rated yet Feb 02, 2009
DERMATOLOGISTS all over the world are curing SKIN cancer with a squirt of liquid nitrogen! COOL the cell and you slow or STOP MITOSIS! The PROFIT MOTIVE must be switched from the pharmaceudical companies to the SURGEON if we are to slow this carnage!!!!

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