Georgetown Lombardi Researchers Apply Engineering Principles to Breast Cancer

March 1, 2012

Robert Clarke, PhD, DSc, is applying an engineering approach to breast cancer.

It’s hard to understand the “decisions” that cancer cells make—and why they choose the paths they do. That is why Robert Clarke, PhD, DSc, a professor of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and GUMC’s dean for research, decided that an engineering approach that utilizes mathematics and computer modeling is needed
to understand the biological problem of cancer.

Clarke and his collaborators at Virginia Tech and Fox Chase Cancer Center have debuted the first fruit of their five-year, $7.5-million federal grant to develop a systems approach to understanding and treating one of the most common forms of breast cancer.

Last year, they published the first roadmap to mathematical modeling of a powerful basic “decision circuit” in breast cancer.

The model is designed to understand estrogen signaling in breast
cancer cells, and by extension, why some cancer cells are susceptible to
treatments that block the estrogen while others are not. The estrogen
hormone is involved in over half of the 180,000 cases of invasive breast
cancer diagnosed each year, yet anti-hormonal (endocrine) therapies
designed to shut down this growth pathway are not as successful
as simpler models would have predicted, Clarke says.

“We need an engineering approach to a biological problem, and
this is a very novel, and promising, start,” he says. “No one has built
a model of breast cancer cell fate decision-making like this before.”

His colleagues in this endeavor are Louis M. Weiner, MD, director
of Georgetown Lombardi; John J. Tyson, PhD, a computational cell
biologist and professor at Virginia Tech; William T. Baumann, PhD,
an electrical and computer engineer and associate professor at Virginia Tech; and Yue Wang, PhD, the Grant A. Dove Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech. 

Their work comes under the umbrella of Georgetown Lombardi’s Center for Cancer Systems Biology. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) last spring awarded a $7.5-million dollar grant to establish the center, making Georgetown Lombardi one of 11 institutions to house an NCI-funded study of cancer systems biology.

Written By: Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications