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Despite decades of research, cancer remains a major killer worldwide. So could progress in understanding and controlling malignancy be made by scientists from outside the established cancer research community? That fresh approach is behind a new research center at ASU – one of 12 Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers nationwide established by the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute.

Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers Network Center Locations

Each center is committed to using insights from the physical sciences and engineering to bring a radical new approach to cancer research with the goal of developing new methods of arresting tumor growth and combating metastasis.

The Center for Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology at ASU is receiving about $1.7 million in funding for each of the first two years of a five-year proposal to tackle the root causes of cancer on a conceptual level by asking questions such as:

  • How do cancer cells behave as physical objects?
  • How do the physical properties of cells change as a function of cancer progression?
  • Can cancer provide insights into the nature of life in general?
  • How do cancer cells relate to cells in their surrounding environment?
  • Can we find new ways of controlling cancer based on the forces in their microenvironment?
  • Does quantum mechanics play a role in cancer?
  • Can cancer biologists learn anything from astrobiology?

“A more subtle approach to really understand cancer cells is to regard them as physical objects rather than as enemies to be destroyed. Cancer is a fascinating manifestation of an endlessly fascinating subject, namely life. The traditional approach to cancer is it is a disease to be cured,” says Principal Investigator Paul Davies. “But we don’t have to cure cancer. All we have to do is to find ways of preventing it from taking over and destroying the body of the host. Most cancer researchers are taking a ‘follow the genes’ approach. We want to complement that by a ‘follow the physics’ approach. The living cell is at once a bag of complex chemicals, a rich information processing network, and an elaborate system of pulleys, strings, pumps and other paraphernalia familiar to physicists and engineers. We want to know how to bring all three very different aspects into convergence.”

The centerpiece of ASU’s program is a Cancer Forum, a sort of think tank for new ideas, and a key part of the Beyond Center’s agenda. The Forum hosts regular workshops, seminars and visits by distinguished researchers from across the sciences.

There is also a major experimental program hosted by the Biodesign Institute, the Department of Physics and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Projects include:

  • The study of the mechanical properties of healthy and cancer cells using atomic force microscopy and confocal microscopy in combination, under the direction of Robert Ros, Associate Professor of Physics.
  • The analysis of cancer cell chromatin structure using atomic force microscopy, under the direction of Stuart Lindsay, Regents’ Professor of Physics and Chemistry and Director of the Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, and Peiming Zhang, Associate Research Professor in the Biodesign Institute.
  • Microfluidic studies and three-dimensional imaging of single cancer cells under the direction of Deidre Meldrum, Dean of Engineering and Director of the Center for Biosignatures Discovery Automation, and Roger Johnson, a research scientist and laboratory manager in the Center for Biosignatures Discovery Automation.

To carry out this work, ASU has teamed up with distinguished oncologists and cancer biologists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Mayo Clinic Arizona. William Grady, who is co principal Investigator, and Steven Henikoff, will respectively be responsible for providing characterized cancer cells and chromatin samples, and Joseph Mikhael will provide tissue samples.

The experimental program is being closely coordinated with a tumor modeling program under the direction of Timothy Newman, Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Biological Physics. The computer model is adapted from the highly successful sub-cellar element model of embryogenesis developed by Newman.

The research is complemented by an outreach program under the direction of Pauline Davies, Professor of Practice in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. Outreach includes public lectures and debates, seminars for scientists and oncologists, broadcast-quality edited podcasts, and webcasts of lectures and workshops.