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Final report on the Assessment of Physical Sciences and Engineering Advances in Life Sciences and Oncology (APHELION) Europe study

Overview | Outcomes | Study Panel | Advisors


meeting report

Download Aphelion Report

The NCI and NSF commissioned the international Assessment of Physical sciences and Engineering advances in Life sciences and Oncology (APHELION) in order to determine the status and trends of applying physical sciences and engineering principles to oncology research and development in leading laboratories and organizations in Europe via an on-site peer review process. The panel members made visits to laboratories in France, Italy, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, typically meeting with representatives of multiple institutions at each stop.

The final APHELION report can be downloaded here

Presentations of the finding can be viewed here.

The Goals of the APHELION Study

  • Compare the United States research and development activities related to the interface between physics and oncology, or more generally between physical science and biomedicine, with similar work being done in Europe.
  • Identify the gaps and barriers for research groups and clinicians in the United States by working with leading European institutions.
  • Identify major innovations that are emerging abroad.
  • Identify opportunities for cooperation and collaboration with research groups and industry in Europe.
  • Guide U.S. research investments at the physics/oncology interface.



The clearest conclusion of this study is that research at the interface of physical and biological sciences, and the engagement of physical scientists in biomedical research directed at cancer, is a highly active and expanding undertaking throughout Europe. This research effort has attracted both senior professors at the most elite institutions and young scientists throughout the research community. It is driven both by policy makers and funding opportunities and by the students and young researchers who are attracted to new and promising areas of study. One point that was raised by several of the hosts as well as in the final workshop was that although scientific research is now a global enterprise where international collaboration is often essential, science funding remains an almost exclusively national undertaking. Creation or expansion of funding mechanisms that facilitate international research projects would help drive discovery and avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts. In this regard, Europe currently appears to have an advantage in facilitating multi-group and multi-national research efforts directed at physical/biomedical collaborations. The relative merits of large, long-term commitments to big labs or consortia vs. substantial but shorter-term support for research projects in individual labs were also frequently discussed and appear to vary substantially in different countries. There was a consensus that both elements are needed, and several of the hosts cautioned against what they perceived as too much consolidation of science in fewer elite laboratories both within Europe and the United States.

Overall, there is a clear trend at multiple sites in Europe toward increasing involvement of physical sciences in studies of biology in general and cancer in particular. This trend is driven in part by initiatives and policy decisions at funding organizations, but also by the interests of students and young researchers and by increased support of interdisciplinary studies in academic centers. Many of these same trends are evident in the United States, and some of our hosts mentioned that programs such as the NCI PS-OC have influenced research initiatives in Europe, but the interdisciplinary approach to cancer research in Europe and its engagement of physical sciences has a long history and its own roots.

As discussed in the report, there are numerous recent discoveries from European laboratories and conditions related to the intellectual property rights of academic scientists and the relation of academic labs with industry that might serve as guides to new research directions or science policies in the United States. Investment in both pure and applied science has traditionally been important in Europe, and the interface of physical and biological research is a relatively new field for which commitments of both funding and educational programs are substantially increasing. Increased collaboration between the United States and European/Israeli laboratories with similar interests and continued growth in the support of transdisciplinary programs such as the NCI PS-OC and PLIER will be needed to keep pace with research abroad and to see how this research initiative evolves.


Study Panel

  • Paul Janmey, Ph.D. (study chair). Professor of Physiology, Physics, and Bioengineering at the Institute of Medicine and Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Daniel Fletcher, Ph.D., Professor of Bioengineering and Biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Sharon Gerecht, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Parag Mallick, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Radiology, Bio-X Program, at the Canary Center for Cancer Early Detection, Stanford University.
  • Owen McCarty, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Oregon Health and Science University.
  • Lance Munn, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.
  • Cynthia Reinhart-King, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University.


Expert Advisors to the Study Panel

  • Antonio Tito Fojo, M.D., Ph.D. Head, Experimental Therapeutics Section Medical Oncology Branch and Affiliates, National Institutes of Health.
  • Denis Wirtz, Ph.D. Theophilus H. Smoot Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Johns Hopkins University.