The Daily Californian Online

Scientists From Different Fields Work Together to Research Cancer

By Kate Randle
Daily Cal Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Category: News > University > Research and Ideas

Cancer research is normally conducted in a single field without collaboration. This approach has changed with the Bay Area Physical Sciences-Oncology center, which studies cancer across interdisciplinary fields.

The center started in 2009 after Mina Bissell, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and her colleagues wrote a grant to the National Cancer Institute requesting funding for a program that would specifically explore how tissue cells develop deformities in relation to physical and biological events - research that could be used to better understand the development of cancer.

"Biology is the frontier of the 21st century the way physics was in the 20th," Bissell said. "In order to be able to understand the complexity of how cells become cancerous, we need biologists, engineers and physicists. We argued that we needed to bring different disciplines together, and they needed to work with each other."

Jan Liphardt, an associate professor of physics at UC Berkeley, and Valerie Weaver, an associate professor in the Departments of Surgery and Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences at UC San Francisco, head the program. Bissell brought the two together - despite their separate backgrounds - because of their experience in their respective fields.

"This is the kind of team that we want," Bissell said. "Valerie is a biologist trained with me, and Jan is a physicist who understands molecular biology."

The different scientists involved in the program conduct separate research and then meet to share their findings.

Hana El-Samad, a contributing scientist and assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UC San Francisco, investigates the basic mechanical properties of tissues. When the homeostasis of the tissue cells becomes disturbed, diseases such as cancer can develop.

El-Samad said that this type of exploration that focuses on tissues is different from most cancer research that focuses mainly on deformed - or oncogenic - cells.

"It may start with an oncogene, but whether it develops or not into full-blown cancer is dependent on the micro environment that these cells and tissues are present in," El-Samad said. "We're not taking a cell-centric approach but a tissue-centric one."

The collaborative method utilized between scientists can help those involved to make their work more accurate, according to contributing scientist Sylvain Costes, who works in the life sciences division of the Berkeley Lab.

"I believe it's the future to have a large center where a bunch of people work together," Costes said. "It's better usage of the resources and better usage of our ability to think."

Costes is currently working with a computer program that mimics breast cell interaction. He and his team are able to direct the virtual program to follow the rules of natural cell development with the goal of pinpointing which environment will cause the cells to become deformed. In tracking cancer cell development, the hope is that eventually scientists can come up with new types of treatment.

"It's kind of like a Pixar movie or any animation thing," Costes said. "When you look at those movies, you see other physics behind it. Gravity is in there. Property of lights is in there. In a very similar way, without the beautiful visual tools that Pixar has, we try to visualize and understand the properties of a biological system."

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