Stepping Up To The Complexity Challenge: The Systems Biology Era of Cancer Research
More than 100 people heard some of the top researchers in the country talk about the emerging field of systems biology that many believe is critical to accelerating the search for new brain tumor treatments. Summaries of the presentations as well as a video from the panel discussion are below. Check back in the coming weeks for videos of the presentations.
Cancer Systems Biology: The Science and the Research
Predicting how a tumor will react to treatment
Michael B. Yaffe, MD, PhD, professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), started the day by underscoring the need for a systems biology approach to research. Instead of looking at single genes, proteins, or other parts of a brain tumor, “we need to understand the integration of thousands of proteins” and other tumor components, he said. At MIT, systems biologists do this by using what Dr. Yaffe called the "four M’s" – model, modify, mine, and measure. Modeling is carried out using highly mathematical models and other sophisticated techniques to help determine how different tumors will respond to treatments. With the use of models, scientists can try to predict how a tumor will react when “modified,” or treated with a drug. Data can be mined, or assessed, and measured to note outcomes. The goal: to find the best targets, or combinations of targets, to stop brain tumor growth.
Personalizing treatments, based on a tumor’s genetic makeup
Lynda Chin, MD, chair of the department of genomic medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston echoed Dr. Yaffe’s comments in her talk on translating cancer genomics. Cancer arises when multiple genes are improperly regulated, for multiple reasons. As such, scientists need to look at the tumor as a whole to find ways to treat it. “We can no longer hope to look at one part of an elephant, study it, and understand the whole elephant,” Dr. Chin said. Ultimately, researchers need to look at the thousands of gene combinations and other factors that comprise each individual tumor. The hope is that eventually, treatment can be personalized based on the makeup of the tumor.
Identifying the "keys to the car"
Andrea Califano, PhD, Founding Director of the Columbia Initiative in Systems Biology, compared systems biology research to "trying to build the assembly manual for cancer." You can’t understand how a car motors down the highway by looking at the steering wheel, brake, wheels, and other parts individually, he said. You have to look at how each works together. It’s the same with brain tumors, he added. A key focus of the systems approach is singling out the tumor’s "master regulators." Like the keys to the car, master regulators are key genes that have to be “turned on” to start a series of complex cellular reactions that "ignite" a tumor and drive its growth.
Cancer Systems Biology: Strengthening the Field to Strengthen the Research
Michael E. Berens, PhD, professor and Director, Cancer and Cell Biology Division at TGen, facilitated a panel discussion on systems biology and the opportunities to advance the field through collaborations, investment, philanthropy, and public policy. The panelists were Daniel Gallahan, PhD, Deputy Director, Division of Cancer Biology at the National Cancer Institute; Vito Quaranta, MD, Director, Center for Cancer Systems Biology at Vanderbilt University; and N. Paul TonThat, Executive Director of the National Brain Tumor. Dr. Gallahan spoke of NCI’s Integrative Cancer Biology Program and TonThat discussed the challenges involved in calling on the scientific community to refocus their efforts and accelerate development of new treatments for brain tumors.
Watch as N. Paul TonThat, Executive Director of the National Brain Tumor Society, passionately described both the frustration and the challenges involved in calling on the scientific community to refocus their efforts and accelerate development of new treatments for brain tumors.
To close the afternoon, Michael Berens, PhD, Professor and Director of the Cancer and Cell Biology Division of TGen, eloquently reminded the community that we are all trying to do something that no one else has done. Although there will be unavoidable challenges along the way, this effort promises to have a huge impact.