NCI grant will go toward profiling cancer cells as they metastasize.

NCI has awarded a $10 million, five-year grant to a new physics oncology center led by Scripps Research Institute scientists. Research at the center aims to achieve a better understanding of the behavior of cancer cells during metastasis.
The grant is part of the first round of funding from a new NCI initiative ccalled Physical Sciences in Oncology. The program creates a series of 12 such centers with the aim of understanding of the physical laws and principles that shape and govern the emergence and behavior of cancer. 
“By bringing a fresh set of eyes to the study of cancer, these new centers have great potential to advance and sometimes challenge accepted theories about cancer and its supportive microenvironment,” says NCI director, John E. Niederhuber, M.D. “Physical scientists think in terms of time, space, pressure, heat, and evolution in ways that we hope will lead to new understandings of the multitude of forces that govern cancer. And with that understanding, we hope to develop new and innovative methods of arresting tumor growth and metastasis.”
The Scripps Research-led consortium is called Focusing on Four Dimensional Heterogeneity of Fluid Phase Biopsies in Cancer, or 4DB Center. The project brings together oncologists and pathologists at Scripps Clinic, the University of California, San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center, and Billings Clinic (Montana) with physicists and biologists at Scripps Research, applied mathematicians and engineers at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, and biomedical engineers at Oregon Health & Sciences University.
Together, the team hopes to generate a comprehensive portrait of cancer cells, including their numbers, physical properties, and gene-expression profiles as they act through space—in the patients’ body—as well as time—over the course of the disease’s progression.
The researchers will track two types of cancer cells: those from patients with colon cancer, which characteristically shows a slow clinical course, and those from patients with non-small-cell lung cancer, which typically shows a more aggressive and rapid clinical course with greater differences in disease progression among individuals.
Until recently, the technology was not available to make these types of observations about cancer cells without frequent biopsies from patients. Advances in the field, however, now make it possible to analyze information from circulating tumor cells from simple blood samples collected from patients.
“Working directly with blood samples from cancer patients provides a direct link to the bedside,” says Scripps research professor Peter Kuhn, Ph.D., who is the principal investigator of the grant. “There is a rather long and depressing list of anticancer therapeutics that were tremendously successful in animal models but that failed to exhibit activity against cancer when tested in humans. Our ability to work with human blood samples should increase the relevance of our findings to those in need.”

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