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

Overview | Outcomes | Study Panel | Advisors


meeting report

Download Aphelion Report

The second phase of APHELION was initiated in June 2013 with visits to laboratories in Asia working at the interface of physics and biomedical sciences. These visits involved sites in Singapore, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. A third phase of the project included visits from a subset of the committee to laboratories in England and Scotland in October 2013. Reports on the activities at sites visited in Asia and the United Kingdom are in Appendices C and D, respectively. Site visit reports were also prepared for two sites in Brazil and they are found in Appendix E. A final workshop to summarize findings in Asia and the United Kingdom and to discuss the findings with reference to research efforts in Europe took place at Fishers Lane Conference Center, Rockville, MD, on 21 November 2013. Details and documents presented at this workshop are available at

The final APHELION report can be downloaded here

Presentations of the finding can be viewed here.

The Goals of the APHELION Study

  • Compare the U.S. 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 and Asia.
  • Identify the gaps and barriers for research groups and clinicians in the United States by working with leading European and Asian institutions.
  • Identify major innovations that are emerging abroad.
  • Identify opportunities for cooperation and collaboration with research groups and industry in Europe and Asia.
  • Guide U.S. research investments at the physics/oncology interface.



The purpose of our visits was focused on learning about new scientific advances and plans for future studies. We also examined each institution’s facilities, traditions, advantages, and challenges related to performing interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary work. There was a clear perception among the investigators at every site that the interface of physical and biomedical sciences is a growth area with potential for both scientific discovery and medical applications. In the context of cancer research there is also a clearly evident trend to engage physicists in roles beyond those of traditional “medical physics” focused on radiation physics, or diagnostic instrumentation. New research programs throughout the world increasingly engage scientists to consider cancer as a physical process that, despite its complexity and heterogeneity, nonetheless has limits imposed by physical laws that can be addressed by thermodynamics, information theory, mechanics, hydrodynamics, and other fields in which physicists and engineers can act as partners with biologists.

It is impossible to generate a comprehensive analysis of the relative strengths of research efforts throughout Europe and Asia from the limited sites that were visited and the personnel constraints of this project, but several consensus views emerged from the study group. It is also evident that, especially in multidisciplinary projects, national boundaries are blurred and nearly all large groups include partners from other countries, and very often collaborators in North America or other important research centers in India, Australasia, South America, and other sites to which visits could not be arranged.

At several sites, new research programs were explicitly motivated by the initiatives taken by OPSO, and in some cases have involved researchers in the United States as advisors. More frequently, the initiatives started by the NCI have guided funding and scientific policy agencies in other countries to facilitate related efforts tailored to the expertise and traditions of existing research institutions. In other cases, for example at the Institut Curie in France, integrated physics/biology programs have a long tradition and have become part of the established curriculum and research programs. At institutions in Heidelberg and Munich, Germany, there was even a sense that a critical mass of researchers at this interface might already have been reached. In most institutions we visited, interdisciplinary studies at the physics/biomedicine interface were highly attractive to graduate students and young faculty and were often increasingly supported by granting agencies. The funding mechanisms that support these efforts vary widely, ranging from support of individual researchers or groups by focused interdisciplinary grants (common in many countries) to massive investments in infrastructure, instrumentation, and new hiring in rapidly developing academic systems in Singapore and China, Many of our hosts told us that interdisciplinarity cannot be optimized without a firm basic grounding in a specific physical or biological science in the education of students and young researchers.

Throughout Europe and Asia there is evidence that the vision of NCI and NSF to engage physics more deeply in cancer research coincided with initiatives based on similar beliefs that engagement of not only physicists, but the concepts and methods of physics research could benefit cancer research. One example of this type of initiative is the document, “Progress in the Domain of Physics Applications in Life Science with an Invention for Substantial Reduction of Premature Cancer Deaths: The Need for a Paradigm Change in Oncology Research” (, which received nearly 1,000 signatures between 29-31 January 2010. The document argues for the need to engage new ways of thinking in cancer research, including using physical science to combat cancer. This study surveyed World Health Organization data to conclude that “Despite annual cancer costs of $741 billion/yr ($750/citizen), the 38 most industrialized nations had only a 5% reduction in cancer deaths over the past 50 yrs (heart disease was reduced by 64%).”

Such considerations have led to many new conferences and funding initiatives. For example, in 2012, the Cancer ITMOs and Health technologies ITMOs of the French National Alliance for Life and Health Sciences, in partnership with the French National Cancer Institute, initiated a call for research projects in physics, mathematics, or engineering sciences related to cancer ( New laboratories of excellence have also been funded in France, including CELTISPHYBIO, initiated in 2012 at the Institut Curie to establish a center for physics in cell biology. In Sweden, the Science for Life Laboratory (, which integrates research across multiple intuitions to enable collaborations between technical universities, medicals schools, and basic science research, is one of the largest scientific investments in Swedish history. New funding programs for interdisciplinary projects at the physical science/biomedicine interface funded by the German Science Foundation and the Max-Planck-Society are almost too numerous to list. Overall, despite the many funding constraints for science throughout the world, this area of research appears to be robust and in some cases even growing. An expanded list of recent conferences focused on the interface of physics and biomedical research is provided in Appendix F.

Investments in new research efforts that combine physical and biological science are especially strong in Asia, in particular in Singapore and parts of China. A significant part of the research programs established by Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research in 2002 have helped foster collaboration between biological and physical scientists and have helped provide momentum for more recent large programs such as the Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Mechanobiology Institute at the National University of Singapore, where collaboration of physical and biological scientists is integral to the future of these new facilities. State-of-the-art imaging by both light and electron microscopy, adapted to problems in cancer biology and other fields of biomedicine, appears to be especially active in Asia, with world class imaging facilities also developed in Japan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. An integrated approach involving a wide range of expertise in experimental as well as theoretical work to study specific problems in biology has long been developed in Japan with groundbreaking results, some examples are detailed in Appendix C. Taiwan also has active and highly productive collaborations among scientists at the biology/physics interface, with research groups in physics making important advances in improved methods for diagnostics, imaging, and design of new materials for biomedical research. In Asia as well as Europe, the integration of researchers with clinicians, as well as access of clinical specimens and data for laboratory research depends on traditions of training clinical investigators or the existence of M.D./Ph.D. training programs, which vary widely from one country to another.

In summary, the vision of the NCI to bring fresh ideas and expertise from physicists and engineers to the study of cancer biology is now actively pursued in major research and clinical centers throughout the world. Some new or growing programs have been directly influenced by the initiatives of the PS-OC, whereas in other centers such work has a long and independent history that provides opportunities for collaboration and new perspectives. The potential of physics and engineering approaches to contribute to cancer biology is in many places no longer a novel idea, but an established practice that is increasingly becoming a mainstream interest of young researchers. The following chapters in this volume provide some examples of the scientific directions where this field is now heading.


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., D.Phil. Professor of Bioengineering and Biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Sharon Gerecht, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Ross Levine, M.D. Laurence Joseph Dineen Chair in Leukemia Research, Human Oncology & Pathogenesis Program, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
  • 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. Associate 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 at the National Institutes of Health.
  • Denis Wirtz, Ph.D. Theophilus H. Smoot Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.