National Cancer Institute
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Integrating and Leveraging the Physical Sciences to Open a New Frontier in Oncology

Overview | Meeting Objectives | Agenda | Readings

Overview

meeting report

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Cancer is a devastating disease with an almost unfathomable impact individually on its victims and on populations worldwide. Cancer will take the life of 25 percent of the U.S. population; one in two men and one in three women will die from cancer. The potential impact of the aging of the baby boomers and other demographic effects will produce a significant increase in the numbers of new cancer cases (estimates range from 30 to 40 percent) in the next 10-20 years - at an ever increasing cost to our citizens. The NCI estimates that the economic impact of cancer in the United States is currently approximately $200 billion and we do not yet have a clear picture of how the increases in new cancer cases will translate into health care costs, but the potential is daunting. On the positive side, the cancer research communities, perhaps the largest group of scientists ever engaged in studying a specific disease, are generating data on many levels about cancer at an unprecedented pace.

Knowledge about cancer, hard won over the last few decades, is providing an ever increasing but fragmented picture of this complex of diseases at the genetic, molecular, and cellular levels. Translation of this knowledge into new cancer interventions has been, and remains, slow for a number of reasons, ranging from lack of U.S. infrastructure for translational research to the under-resourced development of science-based regulatory processes. Despite substantial progress in the biomolecular science of cancer, mortality rates have not improved much over the last several decades.

Cancer is classically defined as a disease of genetic alterations (inherited and acquired) and described as cells growing out of normal regulatory control. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of genetic changes in the over 200 diseases comprising cancer. Some of these mutations are critical to the cancer process (driver mutations) while others apparently are not (passenger mutations). These changes in the genome are translated into new messenger molecules and proteins that populate the intricate networks and signaling pathways that drive the function of both normal and cancerous cells, tissues, organs, and organisms. Describing and ultimately predictably understanding these integrated, often redundant, networks in normal and cancer cells represent two of the greatest interrelated scientific challenges of our time. It should also be noted that although cancer cells proliferate outside the realm of normal cellular regulation, they have the ability to control much of their own destiny on many levels - including occupying new biological spaces within the human host - growing uncontrollably, and eventually killing the host.

Adding to the complexity picture is the astounding pace of technology in biomedicine overall and particularly in cancer. Through the power of advanced technologies, the DNA of cancers is being sequenced, biomarkers of cancer are being explored, "signaling" pathways are under construction, and nanomedicine is developing quickly, to name a few advances. So if knowledge about cancer is accumulating on so many fronts, why was it important to hold a meeting where the intent was to explore how to best engage scientists from physics, mathematics, physical chemistry, and engineering in our national effort to conquer this horrific disease? Are there still problems left to solve that will benefit from these new fields? The answer to the question is a resounding yes. There are seminal questions that represent major barriers in cancer research today that will undoubtedly require new ideas, strategies, and approaches from the physical sciences to solve. In many ways, the more we know - the more complex the whole question of cancer and its control becomes - understanding this complexity will undoubtedly require significant knowledge and expertise from the physical sciences.

Currently cancer research overall does not broadly embrace physics, mathematics, physical chemistry, and critical fields of engineering through transdisciplinary efforts. These areas are often viewed as tangential to cancer research, and training in physics and mathematics is rarely available to career cancer biologists. In this regard, attempting to redirect well-trained cancer experts to achieve the goal of convergence of these fields is likely not a realistic approach.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, as we drill down into the molecular level of cancer, that addressing key basic questions surrounding areas such as energy and energy flows, short-range forces, cellular mechanics, and cell shape and tensegrity, as well as larger questions such as the physics of the metastatic process, is critical to understanding and controlling cancer. Cancer research needs new ideas, deep innovation, and new and unprecedented transdisciplinary teams of scientists to address these and other key questions. We have arrived at a point where understanding and controlling cancer will increasingly depend on the convergence of cancer research with the disciplines that comprise the physical sciences. We believe that the time is at hand to open this new frontier.

The first NCI-sponsored meeting to tackle this complex undertaking, "Integrating and Leveraging the Physical Sciences to Open a New Frontier in Oncology, was held in Washington, D.C., February 26-28, 2008. It was the beginning of a process of working with thought leaders from physics, mathematics, chemistry, nanotechnology, and engineering to achieve this audacious, but achievable, goal.

The meeting was, to say the least, interesting and provocative; participants challenged assumptions and offered innovative ideas and approaches, and many initiated dialogue on how to accomplish the integration of the physical sciences into the "fabric" of cancer research in the most effective manner, through new scientific collaborations.

Through the creation of this Web site, we have attempted to bring together in one place all of the various presentations, discussions, and emerging scientific focus areas that constituted the substance and output of the think tank. The site and meeting report will allow you to visit the very interesting opening presentation by Dr. Paul Davies and further explore the two intense days of keynote presentations, panel discussions, brainstorming sessions, and working group meetings. We encourage you to revisit the sessions and review the graphics for the various activities and the input from the working groups. Finally, we hope that you will visit the Forum noted as a tab at the top of the opening page of the Web site and participate fully in our discussions beyond the meeting.

The meeting was rich with innovative thinking, but a few areas of consensus emerged that are highlighted in the Forum: cancer's complexity; tumor cell evolution; information transfer in cancer; and a selected number of fundamental principles and laws of physics that have significant relevance in cancer. Many other innovative ideas were offered, and some of these should represent new areas of conversation to be opened in the Forum. We encourage you to be bold in expanding on the consensus areas and equally visionary in posing new questions for discussion. We have summarized what we currently see as next steps from the meeting in a separate section on this Web site, but these followup actions will continue to evolve in the next 6-8 weeks. So visit the Web site often to stay engaged and participate with us in opening this new frontier. Our special thanks go to all of our speakers, our facilitators, Robert Mittman and Thomas Benthin (graphics), and most especially to all of you who gave so freely of your time and shared your ideas.

John E. Niederhuber, M.D.
John E. Niederhuber, M.D.
Director
National Cancer Institute
Anna D. Barker, Ph.D.
Anna D. Barker, Ph.D.
Deputy Director
National Cancer Institute

 

Meeting Objectives


  • Identify major barriers in cancer research that impede progress today
  • Identify major areas of the physical sciences that are critical to understanding cancer at the molecular and atomic levels, with consideration to the dimensions of space and time
  • Assess current "state of the art" in terms of the application of the physical sciences to problems in cancer research/oncology
  • Explore physical sciences solutions to problems solved in other fields that may bear on similar barriers in oncology
  • Develop guidance for the development of a new generation of centers of excellence that integrate and leverage physics, chemistry, and mathematics to accelerate progress in cancer research and the conquest of cancer
Outcomes
  • A meeting report that captures the major ideas and consensus suggestions and input from the participants
  • A white paper (perhaps a publication) that can serve to inform the NCI in achieving its goal to enable the convergence of the physical sciences and cancer biology
  • Beyond this meeting, further define the focus scientific areas and ideas that will shape a new generation of physical sciences-oncology centers

 

Agenda


February 26, 2008
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. Registration
6:00 p.m. - 7:15 p.m. Reception and Buffet Dinner Grand Ballroom
Salon III
7:15 p.m. - 7:25 p.m. Welcome and Introductions
Anna D. Barker, Ph.D.
Deputy Director
National Cancer Institute, NIH
Grand Ballroom
Salons I and II
7:25 p.m. - 7:45 p.m. Background and Introduction of Keynote
Speaker
John E. Niederhuber, M.D.
Director
National Cancer Institute, NIH
7:45 p.m. - 8:45 p.m. Keynote Presentation
Confronting Complexity: Cancer at the Intersection of Physics and Biology
Paul Davies, Ph.D.
Professor of Physics
Director, Beyond Institute
Arizona State University
  Questions and Discussion
8:45 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. The Why, What, and How of the Think Tank-Introduction of Robert J. Mittman
Anna D. Barker, Ph.D.
Deputy Director
National Cancer Institute, NIH
9:00 p.m. - 9:10 p.m. Expectations
Facilitator: Robert J. Mittman, M.S., M.P.P.
Founder/President
Facilitation, Foresight, Strategy
February 27, 2007
7:00 a.m. - 8:00 a.m. Continental Breakfast
8:00 a.m. - 8:30 a.m. Introductions and Welcome
Anna D. Barker, Ph.D.
Deputy Director
National Cancer Institute, NIH
Grand Ballroom
Salons I and II
  Process and Flow for the Think Tank
Facilitator: Robert J. Mittman, M.S., M.P.P.
Founder/President
Facilitation, Foresight, Strategy
Introduction-Keynote Presentation
8:30 a.m. - 9:15 a.m. Keynote Presentation
"State of the Science" in Cancer Research: Potential for the Physical Sciences to Remove Major Barriers
John E. Niederhuber, M.D.
Director
National Cancer Institute, NIH
9:15 a.m. - 10:15 a.m. Brainstorming Session and Group Discussion: Relevant Scientific Barriers Blocking Progress in Cancer Research
Facilitator: Robert J. Mittman, M.S., M.P.P.
Founder/President
Facilitation, Foresight, Strategy
10:15 a.m. - 10:30 a.m. Break
10:30 a.m. - 11:15 a.m. Keynote Presentation
21st Century Physics-Relevant Intersections With Barriers in Oncology
Robert H. Austin, Ph.D.
Professor of Biophysics
Department of Physics
Princeton University
11:15 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. Brainstorming Session and Group Discussion: Ideas/Concepts From the Physical Sciences That Represent Important Strategies to Address and Remove Barriers in Oncology (including solutions to nonbiologic problems that may be relevant)
Facilitator: Robert J. Mittman, M.S., M.P.P.
Founder/President
Facilitation, Foresight, Strategy
12:15 p.m. - 1:15 p.m. Lunch
1:15 p.m. - 2:15 p.m. Brainstorming Session and Group Discussion: Integrating Physical Chemistry, Mathematics, and Systems Models Into a Transdisciplinary Approach to Cancer Research

Emmanuele DiBenedetto, Ph.D.
Centennial Professor of Mathematics
Vanderbilt University

James R. Heath, Ph.D.
Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor
California Institute of Technology

Mina J. Bissell, Ph.D.
Distinguished Scientist
Life Sciences Division
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
2:15 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. Keynote Presentation
The Integration of Systems Thinking, Emerging Technologies, and the Biological, Physical, and Computational Sciences to Attack the Challenges of Cancer
Leroy Hood, M.D., Ph.D.
President
Institute for Systems Biology
3:00 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. Discussion: Role of Advanced Technologies in Enabling the Convergence of the Physical Sciences and Cancer Biology
3:30 p.m. - 3:45 p.m. Break
3:45 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. Framing and Prioritizing the Most Relevant Barriers in Cancer Research as Viewed From the Physical Sciences

Table Discussions: Finalizing and Prioritizing Key Barriers and Identifying Key Areas of Physics, Mathematics, and Chemistry to Meet Challenges Through Transdisciplinary Centers
Facilitator: Robert J. Mittman, M.S., M.P.P.
Founder/President
Facilitation, Foresight, Strategy
5:00 p.m. - 5:15 p.m. Perspective on Today's Discussions
Discussant TBA
5:15 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. Plan for Tomorrow
6:30 p.m. Reception and Dinner Ristorante Murali
Pentagon City
February 28, 2008
7:00 a.m. - 8:00 a.m. Continental Breakfast
8:00 a.m. - 8:15 a.m. Review of Day 1
Facilitator: Robert J. Mittman, M.S., M.P.P.
Founder/President
Facilitation, Foresight, Strategy
Grand Ballroom
Salons I and II
8:15 a.m. - 9:00 a.m. Keynote Presentation
The Physical Sciences and Cancer Biology-Early Glimpses Across the Frontier
Donald S. Coffey, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Urology
Johns Hopkins University
9:00 a.m. - 10:30 a.m. Brainstorming Session and Panel Discussion: Current Examples of Contributions of the Physical
Sciences to Contemporary Oncology


Nanotechnology: Capitalizing on the Physical Properties of Cancer Cells for New Intervention Strategies
Scott R. Manalis, Ph.D.
Professor
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Questions and Answers

Interrogating Cancer: The Mechanics of Metastasis
Ann F. Chambers, Ph.D.
Professor
University of Western Ontario

Questions and Answers

Information Theoretic Approaches to the Dissection of Oncogenic Pathways
Andrea Califano, Ph.D., Laureate in Physics
Professor
Columbia University

10:30 a.m. - 10:45 a.m. Break
10:45 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. Converging on the Major Areas of the Physical Sciences Critical to Addressing the Identified Barriers

Group Discussions: Concept Development Group Input and Recommendations
12:30 p.m. - 1:30 p.m. Working Lunch
Work groups continue and prepare to report out.
1:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. Brainstorming Session-Bringing It All Together: Input/Recommendations, Specific Scientific Focus and Problem Areas, Disciplines, Personnel and Other Resource Needs, and Key Specific Challenges for Transdisciplinary Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers
3:00 p.m. - 3:15 p.m. Break
3:15 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. Summary of Our Collective Thinking
Anna D. Barker, Ph.D. (Discussant)
Deputy Director
National Cancer Institute, NIH
3:30 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. Summary and Next Steps
John E. Niederhuber, M.D.
Director
National Cancer Institute, NIH

 

Readings


  1. Bao, G. and S. Suresh, Cell and molecular mechanics of biological materials. Nat Mater, 2003. 2(11): p. 715-25.
  2. Chambers, A.F., A.C. Groom, and I.C. MacDonald, Dissemination and growth of cancer cells in metastatic sites. Nat Rev Cancer, 2002. 2(8): p. 563-72.
  3. Coffey, D.S., Self-organization, complexity and chaos: the new biology for medicine. Nat Med, 1998. 4(8): p. 882-5.
  4. Coffey, D.S., R.H. Getzenberg, and T.L. DeWeese, Hyperthermic biology and cancer therapies: a hypothesis for the "Lance Armstrong effect". JAMA, 2006. 296(4): p. 445-8.
  5. Ferrari, M., The mathematical engines of nanomedicine. Small, 2008. 4(1): p. 20-5.
  6. Hauptmann, S., A thermodynamic interpretation of malignancy: do the genes come later? Med Hypotheses, 2002. 58(2): p. 144-7.
  7. Hood, L., A personal view of molecular technology and how it has changed biology. J Proteome Res, 2002. 1(5): p. 399-409.
  8. Hood, L., A personal journey of discovery: developing technology and changing biology. Annu Rev Anal Chem, 2008. 1: p. 1-43.
  9. Kirschner, M., J. Gerhart, and T. Mitchison, Molecular "vitalism". Cell, 2000. 100(1): p. 79-88.
  10. Lindsay, S., Nanobiology, in Introduction to Nanoscience. 2009, Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
  11. Nelson, C.M. and M.J. Bissell, Of extracellular matrix, scaffolds, and signaling: tissue architecture regulates development, homeostasis, and cancer. Annu Rev Cell Dev Biol, 2006. 22: p. 287-309.
  12. Radisky, D.C., et al., Rac1b and reactive oxygen species mediate MMP-3-induced EMT and genomic instability. Nature, 2005. 436(7047): p. 123-7.
  13. Solomon, A.K., Physics and cancer. Phys Today, 1948. 1(1): p. 18-21.
  14. Symons, M.C., Electron movement through proteins and DNA. Free Radic Biol Med, 1997. 22(7): p. 1271-6.
  15. Varmus, H. The impact of physics on biology & medicine. in Plenary Talk, Centenial Meeting of the American Physical Society. March 22, 1999. Atlanta, GA.