Using non-traditional, physical sciences-based approaches to better understand the molecular changes leading to cancer, the Northwestern University Physical Sciences-Oncology Center represents a new strategy in the quest to overcome one of mankind’s leading killers. Animated by a mission that emphasizes discovery, innovation, multi-disciplinary collaboration, and education, the Center seeks both to generate new bodies of knowledge and to train the next generation of researchers working at the intersection of the physical sciences and cancer biology.

The Physical Sciences-Oncology Center (PS-OC) is funded through a five-year, $13.6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, which has established a  network of twelve such centers at some of the country’s leading research institutions. These initiatives are expected to foster a new understanding of cancer development by identifying critical aspects of physics, chemistry, and engineering that govern the emergence and behavior of cancer at all scales.

The product of a partnership between the Northwestern Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, the PS-OC was established under the leadership of two prominent investigators with strong ties to the university’s physical sciences and cancer research communities. Jonathan Widom, PhD, who held appointments in the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, the Lurie Cancer Center, and the Department of Molecular Biosciences, served as the Center’s principal investigator from its inception in the fall of 2009 until his sudden death in July of 2011. Following Dr. Widom’s passing, Thomas O’Halloran, PhD, became the Center’s new principal investigator. Dr. O’Halloran is the Morrison Family Professor of Chemistry, the Director of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, and the Cancer Center’s Associate Director for Basic Sciences Research. He leads the PS-OC in conjunction with Jonathan Licht, MD, who has served as the Center’s senior co-investigator since 2009. Dr. Licht is the Chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology in the Feinberg School of Medicine and the Cancer Center’s Associate Director for Clinical Sciences.

The PS-OC’s four interrelated research projects focus on the molecular mechanisms responsible for the encoding and decoding of genetic and epigenetic information in cancer cells. Utilizing a variety of state-of-the-art approaches from the physical sciences–including nano- and atomic-scale investigation, advanced optics, high-level computational power and mathematical modeling–the center’s researchers hope to gain new insights into fundamental properties that distinguish normal and cancer cells.

Cross-disciplinary teams lie at the heart of the PS-OC enterprise. The center’s members include chemists, engineers, theoretical physicists, mathematicians, cancer biologists, and oncologists from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Feinberg School of Medicine, and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. The PS-OC also includes faculty from the University of Chicago, the California Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute in Israel.