Guest Update by Dr. Anna Barker
Oncology and the Physical Sciences Converge
Last week marked the third in a series of NCI-sponsored "think tanks" that I believe hold tremendous promise for advancing cancer research. These landmark meetings, "Physical Sciences-Based Frontiers in Oncology," bring together top scientists from physics, physical chemistry, engineering, mathematics, cancer biology, and clinical oncology to collaboratively identify the most promising research questions and strategies at the intersection of these fields that could enable progress in cancer research.
Over the last three decades, cancer researchers have made significant progress in beginning to identify important molecular alterations in cancer, and some of these alterations are pointing to new approaches that capitalize on advances in areas ranging from specific genetic targets to biomarker-driven diagnostic tests. Cancer research, more than any other area of science, is producing unprecedented quantities of data and pushing back frontiers in areas such as systems biology and the use of nanotechnologies to interrogate and deliver drugs to cancer cells. It is becoming increasingly clear that we must begin to understand the complexity of cancer in terms of the interactive physics, mathematics, chemistry, and engineering of these systems at all scales.
These workshops represent the next logical step in the process of moving toward an understanding of cancer as an emergent and complex biological system. Addressing questions such as: "How do cancers develop and evolve in three-dimensional space over time?" and "What are the mechanics of metastatic disease?" are the domain of the physical sciences. Scientists from these disciplines have a great deal to offer in the ongoing effort to understand how tumors develop, evolve, metastasize, respond, and become resistant to our therapeutic and preventive interventions.
During the first of these workshops, held in February 2008 with approximately 100 attendees, four major themes emerged which represent important focus areas for NCI:
This last area was the subject of last week's think tank. A range of experts in information theory, physics, engineering, and mathematics considered the processes of information management across scales (from the molecular level to the organism) and developed a number of innovative research directions that provide opportunities to view cancer as an emergent information-driven system. Intriguing questions such as "How do cells decide?" created new views of information transfer and cell signaling in cancer.
All of these think tanks have engendered a real sense of excitement among attendees, surpassing anything I have experienced in a long time. I think this excitement derives from looking at cancer through a different prism and perhaps thinking new thoughts about how to attack this complex group of diseases. I doubt that so many experts from these disparate and important fields have ever gathered with a single focus - to enable the development of this new frontier in oncology.
I suspect that when NCI launches a systematic effort to support such work, we will see many transdisciplinary research teams evolve to write a new chapter in cancer research. The convergence of disparate areas of science has often produced true innovation, and I anticipate that the same will be true for these new emerging fields of study focused on understanding and controlling cancer.
We plan on holding more workshops in this series next year, with the hope of making them regular events to bring together individuals interested in pursuing and supporting science in these evolving fields. I am confident that these activities will help us to deconvolute the complexity of cancer in ways that we can only dream about now, and they will lead to new generations of more effective cancer interventions.
Dr. Anna Barker