Rethinking the War on Cancer

jones for web.jpgA two-day symposium taking place today and tomorrow at Northwestern University, June 6 and 7, is bringing together internationally renowned scholars working at the intersection of the physical sciences and oncology to share insights about rethinking the War on Cancer.

Sponsored by Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, the events are taking place in the auditorium of the Pancoe Life Sciences Building, 2200 N. Campus Drive.

A standing-room-only crowd gathered early on Monday to hear talks by Alexander Ruthenburg from the University of Chicago, Peter Jones from the University of Southern California and Northwestern’s Richard Carthew. Later sessions will feature presentations by Lucy Godley and Chuan He from the University of Chicago, Leonid Mirny of MIT, Frank Pugh of Penn State, Olivier Elemento of Cornell University and Ji-Ping Wang of Northwestern.

“Experienced and aspiring investigators are coming together inspired by the knowledge that a new understanding of cancer is necessary,” said Jonathan Widom, the principal investigator of Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center. “The center is based on the belief that such an understanding will help secure a conclusion to what has been a difficult and prolonged war.”

Supported by a five-year, multi-million dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute, the Physical Sciences-Oncology Center represents a dramatic attempt to fundamentally rethink approaches to fighting cancer.

The center operates under the leadership of Widom, who holds the William Deering Professorship in Biological Sciences in the department of molecular bioscience, is a member of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and holds appointments in the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and the departments of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology; and Jonathan Licht, the center’s senior co-investigator, chief of the division of hematology/oncology in the Feinberg School of Medicine and associate director for clinical sciences at the Lurie Cancer Center.

By importing techniques, ideas and methods from the physical sciences into the unfamiliar terrain of tumor biology and oncology, the center and its eleven sibling research centers are creating new insights into cancer by revealing the physical and chemical forces shaping the emergence and progression of the disease at all levels.

“Breaking from the orthodoxy of established thought, the center is eschewing cell- and organ-specific studies to develop a systemic or global understanding of how cancer functions from carcinogenesis to metastasis,” the center’s senior co-investigator Licht said.

The reappraisal underway at the center is undergirded by a series of analytical approaches, including nano- and sub-atomic microscopy, advanced optics, mathematical modeling and high-level computational power that will generate the raw data necessary to solving perplexing and lethal riddles.

“The importance of the center’s work is best highlighted by the elusive nature of cancer itself,” said Will Kazmier, education, training and outreach coordinator in Northwestern’s Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.

“Forty years after President Richard Nixon famously opened a “war on cancer” that has required the commitment of enormous financial and scientific resources, survival rates for most forms of the disease remain largely unchanged,” he added.–Pat Vaughn Tremmel