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Workshop: Theoretical Foundations of Drug and Immune Resistance in Cancer

November 12-14, 2012 at the Westin-Gateway in Arlington, VA

The Need for Physics Style Theories of Cancer

By The Physics and Cancer Website Organizers  |  Thursday, October 25th, 2012

While reading Bob Weinberg’s cancer textbook, it’s striking that this beautifully written book lacks any mathematical formulas. Can we really understand and cure cancer without developing quantitative theories that relate different observations to each other? If the answer is yes, then how do we know that our understanding of one aspect of cancer is logically consistent with other aspects of the disease. For example, how can we be sure that the scenarios described in textbooks on cancer development through successive mutations and clonal expansions, the mechanisms of DNA damage and repair, the kinetics of cell division in tissue, etc. are not in logical contradiction with each other. These questions are also true with regard to biology as a whole, but some parts of biology have become very quantitative (and successful), so we will focus on cancer. Mathematics is the only tool known of that comes close to a guarantee that our theories are logically consistent.

Cancer is a complicated disease that develops in space and time. It engulfs all aspects of biology, from development to aging, from single cellular organisms to complicated multi-cellular organisms. It is likely that there are multiple routes to cancer. As such, it has common characteristics with complex systems that we encounter in physics, like high temperature superconductors, liquid crystals, sand, systems with several competing order parameters, and stochastic nonlinear dynamical systems to name a few. Approaching these phenomena has not been easy, but we have made substantial progress and there is no reason to believe that the same approach cannot be helpful in cancer.

The physics community interested in cancer needs to know what has been established in cancer with certainty, what are the important observations that give insights into further questions and what are anecdotal stories, which although entertaining are distractions on the way to the real important facts. I believe that to be able to distinguish between the important and unimportant we will need to discover mathematical relationships between different observable parameters, devise and perform experiments to check their validity, and establish when these relationships break. We will need to ask the BIG questions of universality and build theoretical foundations at each significant spatial and temporal scale. Our goal is to have a predictive understanding of cancer initiation and progression, which will help us to devise treatment strategies.

We hope that this website and our effort to bring theory to cancer will play a vital role in our understanding and cure of this devastating disease.

The Physics and Cancer Website Organizers

Eshel Ben-Jacob, Tel Aviv University

Krastan B. Blagoev, National Science Foundation

Herbert Levine, Rice University