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What Physics Can Teach Us About Cancer

The National Cancer Institute launched 12 physical science-oncology centers.

Today the National Cancer Institute announced that it has awarded grants to twelve institutions to apply the tools and methods of the physical sciences to cancer research. The Physical Science-Oncology Centers will be at sites including MIT, Cornell, Arizona State, and Johns Hopkins. A full list of the centers with links to explain the research focus of each is available here.

This approach to cancer biology is one that TR has been following. One of the primary approaches being pursued by these centers involves applying the measurement tools of engineering and materials science to the study of cancer cells. In recent years, researchers have pulled on cells with the tips of atomic-force microscopes, squeezed them between plates, and applied other physical methods, and found, for example, that cancer cells have a different stiffness than healthy ones. They have also discovered that a cell’s physical environment can affect its behavior just as much as its chemical environment.

According to the Institute, another main line of research will be “Information Coding-Decoding-Transfer and Translation in Cancer.” This is a bit convoluted but essentially refers to systems biology. As I wrote in this article about the field’s founder:

Systems biology takes a cue from engineering and treats organisms as complex systems. Systems biologists, often using computer models, try to understand how genes, proteins, cells, and tissues interact to create complex organisms. By mapping out, rather than reducing, biological complexity, systems biologists hope to reach a new understanding of the fundamental processes of life, from embryonic development to normal metabolism to the emergence of diseases like cancer.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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