Math Could Help Solve Cancer Tumor Mysteries

We all know that one-plus-one equals two. That’s simple math. But researchers at the University of Texas Health Science center at Houston think a far more complicated mathematical model could someday be helpful in predicting cancer tumor growth and how some cancers will respond to chemotherapy. Jack Williams explains.


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Even though it’s probably the most studied disease in the world, the process of cancer growth is still hard to understand. But Dr. Vittorio Cristini, the senior author of a study at UT Houston, says tumor growth, a biological behavior, is not an independent science and can be predicted.

“If you are now able to calculate biophysics and biochemistry, then you should be able to develop physical objects, visual objects, that live in the computer, but behave like biological entities.”

Cristini and his team of researchers, including Dr. Hermann Frieboes, have developed a complex mathematical model they say could help see the future of tumors, what they’ll look like as they grow. They call it math oncology.

“What we find, using a physical description, using the mathematics to describe this, is that we can describe the behavior of the overall tumor in a way that makes sense based on what the cells are experiencing at their level.”

The mathematical model is implemented as a complex code that’s run through a powerful computer. Frieboes says it’s important to extrapolate how a tumor will look early on from the cellular level.

“Nobody really dies from just an individual cell going crazy. The reason cancers kill people is because they grow, the become large and they invade other tissues and so they disrupt the function of the body in that way and so looking at the systems scale of the tumor is very important, it’s very critical. So through the model we try to look at that in a way that’s predictable and that’s more rational.”

image of Human brain tumor represented in three dimensions by the mathematical model. Using the model, the variation in oxygen and nutrients that the cells experience may be predictably linked to the overall tumor shape, invasiveness and response to drug treatment.
Researchers have used their mathematical model retrospectively on cancer in humans, and so far, the accuracy is pretty good. They say it shows promise in predicting the shape and invasiveness of brain tumors and what breast cancer’s responsiveness will likely be to chemotherapy. Frieboes says using math to predict cancer growth isn’t unlike using numbers to solve other mysteries of the universe.

“You know when we think about astronomy for example, or physics and we see like the Hubble telescope look at the stars and studying things. We can just imagine how complex that is to use. That uses mathematics too. It’s the application of mathematics to the physical world, to the stars and galaxies. Here we’re trying to do the same thing, but instead looking at biology.”

Although real patient applications are still probably years away, researchers hope their work will someday help doctors more effectively treat cancer.

Jack Williams, KUHF Houston Public Radio News.

Above image courtesy of the University of Texas Health Science Center.

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