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DCB – National Science Foundation (NSF) Square Tables

Representative image for the NCI-NSF Square Tables with a square for Living Materials, a square for Windows on the Cell, a square for Emergent Properties, and a square showing people coming together

Cancer is a complex, multi-scale system and cancer researchers routinely collaborate with a broad range of experts in mathematics, computer science, engineering, chemistry and physics to design the tools, methods, and the intellectual approaches necessary to uncover cancer phenomena and design better intervention strategies. Physical scientists often take inspiration from the natural world to design new materials and methods for use in other fields. Gaining a better understanding of the physical properties and adaptive approaches that cancers use as they initiate, develop, and adapt to new locations or hostile environments within the body, opens new avenues for quantitative sciences research and development.  

Innovation often occurs at the intersection of different disciplines, but researchers in diverse fields may have little opportunity to encounter one another, to engage in valuable scientific discussions, and to find common ground to launch new collaborative efforts that bridge their disciplines. To facilitate and accelerate these cross-disciplinary interactions, DCB in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) led a series of “Square Table” workshops to identify research opportunities at the intersection of cancer biology research and advances in the physical sciences.  

The Square Table workshop concept invites researchers from different scientific communities, joined with observers from federal funding agencies, and engages them in small group discussions and guided brainstorming exercises. This structure is meant to enable self-facilitated, open-ended, interactions between researchers whose fields seldom overlap.  

The three DCB-NSF Square Tables were designed to take advantage of advances and opportunities for collaboration in different research areas:  living materials, windows on the cell, and emergent properties. Through these workshops, multidisciplinary groups of researchers identified new inter-disciplinary research avenues and critical questions to answer. 

Living Materials Square Table

Image of a tumor overlayed with a representative illustration of a graphene material

This workshop explored challenges and opportunities in living materials to better understand and treat cancer. Experts in biomaterials, cancer biology, and systems biology were brought together in a virtual space to define the field of living materials and provide a roadmap for future research. 

Cells respond to the entire context of their environment. Numerous environmental stimuli are integrated to maintain cell and tissue function. Cells can also be engineered to respond to medically relevant signals with therapeutic functions.

Acting in tandem with the right matrix, whether natural or engineered, adds functionality that can enable biosensing, wound healing, and drug delivery all from the same bioengineered construct. Such programmable, multi-functional living materials offer the potential to deliver precision, personalized medicine and diagnostics to cancer care.

Participants also captured how cancer can help develop living materials for non-medical applications. Cancer cells are capable of building their own blood vessels and other supporting structures and transitioning from benign to metastatic states. The ability of cells to encode information, self-organize over a hierarchy of structures, and evolve their properties may prove teachable to synthetic biology and materials science, and have broad applications beyond cancer. 

This workshop identified transformative research directions for new materials design and cancer research, as well as challenges and opportunities for the NCI and the NSF to use in developing future programs.

Windows on the Cell Square Table

Image of a "hurricane in a cell" overlayed with a microscope icon.

This workshop explored innovative research avenues in imaging that can accelerate cancer research by opening new windows on cells and cellular dynamics. Experts from cancer biology, physics, mathematics, and computer science came together to identify the challenges and opportunities that multiple disciplines can work together to address.

Traditional light microscopes have revolutionized our understanding of life. Technological advances since have enabled imaging at greater depth, higher resolution, and with specificity previously impossible. But modern microscopy is approaching the limits of studying life sciences.

Capturing some imaging data necessitates loss of function when there is a need to image intact tissue at high spatiotemporal resolution. Cancer cells must be images across time and length scales with high throughput in order to integrate molecular processes and biophysical compartmentalization with cell fate. 

Imaging technologies used outside of life sciences have the potential to be translated in ways that can shed new light on cellular dynamics and enable researchers to follow cell fate via imaging. Existing technologies like adaptive optics from astronomy and emerging technologies like quantum microscopy, along with mathematical modeling approaches, may potentially transform how we peer into the cell to develop a deeper understanding of cancer biology. 

Through vibrant exchange of ideas and expertise, participants from diverse disciplines synergistically worked together on big research questions and highlighted areas of study for novel probes and imaging technologies.

Emergent Properties Square Table

Image of colon cancer cells overlaid with a red box with a butterfly icon to represent "emergent properties"

The availability of large-scale high-resolution data could help predict emergent aggregate behavior in cancer, but future advances in the field will require new computational approaches and experimental system that can integrate large-scale datasets and to improve our understanding and prediction of emergent cellular behavior. 

At this workshop, researchers at the intersection of cancer biology, clinical oncology, mathematical modeling, and theoretical and applied physics explored critical questions related to emergent properties and discussed a roadmap for future research endeavors.

Though focus of the workshop was on how applications of mathematics and physics can drive our understanding of cancer biology, it also presents opportunities in mathematics and physics. Cancer is an evolving disease where many smaller interacting parts contribute to cell fate. The computational tools needed to better predict emergent behaviors may have applications in similarly complex systems outside the cancer context.

Unique to this workshop among the three in this series was participation from cancer patient advocates who shared their perspectives and supported integrating patient input into future cancer research programs. Additionally, working groups formed around promising research ideas during the workshop, raising interesting high-level questions and the antecedent research needed to answer them.

NSF Summary of the Square Tables

A summary of the event from the NSF perspective can be found at their Mathematical and Physical Sciences website.  

DCB Contacts for the Square Tables

For additional information about the DCB-NSF Square Tables, please contact Dr. Jennifer Couch ( 

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