Turning Cancer Into a Mathematical Formula

What do computer engineers, physicists and mathematicians have to offer in the fight against cancer? As it turns out, quite a lot. In a new collaboration that finds these non-medical professionals teaming up with oncologists, these new enlistees in the war on cancer have been tasked with turning the disease into a mathematical formula.

Working at twelve locations set up by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), several small teams of oncologists and computer engineers are working together to mathematically define how cancer grows and spreads throughout the body.

At one such worksite located at the University of Southern California, computer architect Danny Hillis and oncologist David Agus are collaborating to create a comprehensive model of lymphoma. The ultimate goal of their work is to create a series of interlocking computational models that successfully predict various aspects of the disease and allow for personalized therapy.

In other words, the team is working to create a ‘theory of lymphoma,’ much in the same way that Newton created the theory of gravity. With these hard-set facts in place, the USC team hopes to produce a model that allows doctors to predict patient response rate to various combinations of therapy based on such parameters as age, sex, blood pressure and specific genetic sequences.

This formulaic approach is intended to fine-tune personalized therapy so that each individual patient receives the treatment most likely to deliver positive results.

The burgeoning technique is similar to previous personalized medical research practices. However, instead of simply looking at one gene or antibody, the computer model is intended to take everything about a disease into account. Within five years, the USC team hopes to have a thorough computational model of mouse lymphoma. The insights learned from this model will then be extended towards human applications.