Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine.
Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Leaders in Oncophysics Link Physics With Cancer

Leaders in Oncophysics Link Physics with Cancer

HOUSTON (October 5, 2011) - The Methodist Hospital Research Institute President and CEO Mauro Ferrari joined a biostatistician, a biophysicist, and a molecular biologist to explain how cancer biologists might benefit from the input of physicists and other fields in their essay, "What does physics have to do with cancer?" in the September issue of Nature Reviews Cancer.

Ferrari's coauthors were Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard School of Public Health Associate Professor of Computational Biology Franziska Michor, University of California Berkeley Associate Professor of Physics Jan Liphardt, and Northwestern University Professor of Structural Biology, Biochemistry, and Biophysics Jonathan Widom.

While cancer may seem the strict provenance of biology and medicine, Ferrari and his coauthors point out that contributions from physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists have been integral to the cancer discovery process all along -- and those fields have much yet to offer.

Ferrari, an expert in nanomedicine, an interdisciplinary field that exists at the cusp of biology, biochemistry, and physics, has long argued medical scientists benefit from understanding things like the brownian motion of hormones, receptor complexes, and nanoparticles, or the ways in which electrochemical signals can be used to determine the character and behavior of cells and tissues.

In the Nature Reviews Cancer paper, the coauthors describe four areas where cancer science can benefit -- or is benefiting -- from the intrusion of other fields.

The physics of bubbles (an area of study with ramifications for materials science, beer making, and even airplane manufacture) is guided by certain rules, many of which govern the shapes of cells, cellular vesicles, as well as liposomes and other organelles. The bubbles we're more familiar with are shaped by internal and external pressures, by the substance of the bubbles, and by their distributions. Normality follows patterns. Abnormalities in the formation of biological cells are often visible under a simple light microscope, and unusual shapes cells take on as they grow and divide, all the while jostling against each another, may indicate the action of cancer or another disease.

Another novel point of view is to see cancer cells as individual, semi-independent entities governed by the rules of natural selection. Cancer cells often prosper because the environments they exist in are hospitable, and because cancer cells can grow and reproduce more quickly than cells whose replication and division processes are behaving normally. One approach to treating cancer might be to create environments inside human bodies that do not favor cancer cells; environments that do not reward cancer cells for growing out of control. Another possibility is to modify the mutation rates of cells whose cancer development hinges on the inability of DNA repair machinery to reach damaged targets.

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