Cancer Advances – Something old and Something New

by Bradley Miller on December 30, 2009

Image of healthy tissue on the lower right (notice the orderly ring structure - in this case it's a healthy gland within the breast), while the large image is one of breast cancer. The image illustrates the chaotic nature of cancer.  Courtesy Vincent Cryns, MD at Northwestern http://www.nucats.northwestern.edu/investigators/iprofiles/cryns.html

Image of healthy tissue on the lower right (notice the orderly ring structure - in this case it's a healthy gland within the breast), while the large image is one of breast cancer. The image illustrates the chaotic nature of cancer - disorder where there was once order. Courtesy Vincent Cryns, MD at Northwestern

An interesting article appeared on NYTimes.com today that deals with “new” old approaches to the cancer thought and research paradigm. In essence, the article points to research that indicates cancer is more than just a group of genetic mutations – it’s also caused by the tiny interactions of proteins and other parts of the cell that are sometimes not genetically based.  Physical entities inside cells like proteins and other environmental aspects clearly play an important role in cancer, its prognosis and will eventually inform its treatments and cures.  At an even higher level that means that cancer is even more of a multifactorial disease – it’s far more complex than we ever thought.

The implications are that research will have to focus not only on genetics, but proteomics and cellular metabolism and physics.  An interdisciplinary approach.  However, one of the biggest problems here is that often each of these areas tend to be researched in silos – there’s not much overlap or intercommunications between research groups.  This has to change.

Thought about another way, often research can focus on specific areas for years while neglecting other important areas of research that are simply not as trendy (yes, even researchers can be petty at times).  For example, antibiotic research took a backseat to HIV/AIDS research starting in the mid 90’s, which extended up until a couple years ago.  The result is that we now have fewer new antibiotics to treat drug resistant bacteria.  We neglected one area in order to make advances in another – it’s a classic resource allotment problem as well.  Where do you place scare resources?  In this case, specifically, what research do you fund?

For cancer it’s my sincere hope that none of the individual disciplines are neglected – they all need to grow in unison and in turn inform and help each other to advance.  For example – one genetic mutation could in turn affect many different cellular processes on a metabolic level.  Understanding not only what the individual metabolic disturbances do, but how they link back to mutations and other cellular processes will be absolutely critical in understanding the disease.  These seemingly disparate areas of research will have to collaborate in order to make more breakthroughs.

Romanesco - a cross between broccoli and cauliflower.  The result is a pattern that is a naturally occurring fractal - a pattern that repeats itself as you look closer and closer.

Romanesco - a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. The result is a pattern that is a naturally occurring fractal - a pattern that repeats itself as you look closer and closer.

What makes it difficult now is the chaotic nature of all those cellular processes.  The cellular processes, while seeming complex today, may seem relatively simple once we gain the ‘right’ perspective, which may be many many years in the future.  It reminds me of fractals – chaos on top of chaos but from a certain perspective a pattern emerges.  And, as you go deeper you discover more and more previously unknown patterns.  If you look too closely you only see one aspect of the fractal.   If you look from too far away you might see the overall large pattern,  you’ll miss the intricacy of the smaller, repeating pattern.  An approach from both perspectives is necessary to understand the fractal.  I think the same can be said for not only cancer research, but all biological research in general.

An up close perspective of romanesco.  Pretty amazing pattern if you ask me.

An up close perspective of romanesco. Pretty amazing pattern if you ask me.

For biology the deeper perspective will be gained through not only new technologies but collaborations between disparate fields within biology (and potentially other sciences) that bring novel perspectives to these findings.  Tools like whole genome sequencing, biophysics modeling and the interplay between all of the fields will help transform how we view biology, which in turn will yield new insights.  Not only that, but if these currently disparate or silo’ed fields begin to collaborate my bet is that we will continue to not only make new discoveries, but continue to make them faster and faster.  And it’s not only the hard core, more quantifiable aspects of scientific research – qualitative field like clinical medicine and information from medical informatics systems will need to be included as well. But, as we know from the fractal example, the closer we look, the more we find, the more we have to discover.

Beautiful artful image of chaos - reminds me a bit of DNA.  Courtesy David Nightingale @ Chromasia - http://www.chromasia.com

Beautiful artful image of chaos - reminds me a bit of DNA. Courtesy David Nightingale @ Chromasia - http://www.chromasia.com

To get to this type of collaboration we’ll need not only advanced technologies, but collaboration tools and a willingness between researchers, corporations and other players to begin to cooperate and collaborate.  That might actually be the bigger challenge and require a whole blog post to itself (or many many posts!).  There are many perspectives in the fight against cancer and in the push to eliminate other diseases they should work harder to influence each other and promote novel ideas and create new discoveries.  I bet that approach would radically accelerate the pace of new discoveries and breakthroughs.

The bottom line for me is that I’m happy to see that these ‘old’ ideas in cancer research continue to stick around and that we have researchers and experts who continue to push the field along despite the nay-sayers.  I’m looking forward to more and more collaboration between disciplines and research groups.  And that’s no small feat.

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