Finding New and Valuable Research Partners
That cancer is an immensely complex disease is not a new observation. It has the remarkable capacity to persist silently until it has advanced to a state of imminent lethality; to withstand powerful cytotoxic therapies; and to co-opt other tissue cytokines from the tumor microenvironment in order to proliferate, invade, and metastasize.
It's no wonder, then, that researchers using novel high-throughput technologies to delve further and further into the molecular machinery of tumors and their micro- and macro-environments are confronting serious issues with regard to managing and mining their research data. At this level of complexity, when researchers are, for instance, attempting to tease out from their data patterns of molecular behavior among many competing and cooperating genes, proteins, and cell signaling pathways, they are increasingly in need of new, advanced mathematical tools and a team approach.
A new program just getting off the ground at the NCI Center for Cancer Research (CCR) is attempting to help bridge this gap in what is called integrative systems biology. Led by Drs. David Levens and James McNally, the program will enlist the assistance of representatives from the University of Maryland's world-renowned physics and math departments to help CCR researchers find solutions to some of their most pressing computational biology challenges.
Like many advances in science, serendipity played a role in the emergence of this program. Dr. Levens had several conversations with his neighbor - Dr. Drew Baden, associate chair of the physics department at Maryland - about the sorts of problems he and others at CCR were facing in analyzing massive biological data sets. At the same time, Dr. McNally had been working with a mathematician, Dr. Bob Pego, in the University's Institute for Physical Sciences and Technology. From these interactions came the realization that the computational tools used by mathematicians and physicists, who often deal with studies involving trillions of data points, could be of assistance to CCR researchers.
The concept they developed - in concert with two others at the University of Maryland, Drs. Wolfgang Losert and Eitan Tadmor - was to find a simple way to link CCR investigators with computational and informational obstacles to the school's math and physics departments' faculty, graduate students, or advanced undergraduate students to gain assistance.
CCR investigators and university faculty and students held a workshop just a few weeks ago at which CCR investigators discussed the type of computational and systems biology challenges they are facing. The Maryland representatives, in turn, offered some thoughts regarding the type of solutions they might be able to provide. The program itself will, initially at least, use an Internet-based tool to connect CCR investigators with participating Maryland faculty and students.
Although this program in computational and systems biology is still in its formative stages, I believe it offers a number of lessons and opportunities for the entire cancer community. First, it is a demonstration that the rigorous application of physical principles to biological questions is becoming more and more possible. Second, it highlights the crosscutting nature of science and the fact that our efforts to make new and important advances against cancer will rely on collaboration with those outside the typical sphere of biomedical research.
Finally, this program provides a model for interactions between cancer researchers and researchers from other scientific disciplines at nearby universities whose expertise they may be able to tap.
Dr. John E. Niederhuber