Mathematical models, not doctors, could soon become the best predictor of when cancer will jump from one organ to the next.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota received an $8.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute last week to develop a simulation to predict cancer’s spread. The grant is part of a push from schools and hospitals around the country to make the spread of cancer more predictable.
Metastasis, the process where cancer cells migrate from one site in the body to another, currently can’t be predicted, said Anja-Katrin Bielinsky, a Masonic Cancer Center (MCC) program co-director.
“The [medical] landscape is black,” said Steven Rosenfeld, director of the Brain Tumor Research Center at Cleveland Clinic and a lead on the project.
The invasion of nearby cells by cancer currently can’t be predicted.
The team plans to measure factors that change cancer’s invasion speed, said David Largaespada, an associate director for basic science at the MCC and one of the project’s leaders, adding that they’ll use the measurements to create formulas that predict cancer’s spread.
“What we’re trying to predict is how fast [cancer] will spread … based on the measurements we make to inform our simulator,” said David Odde, a Minnesota biomedical engineering professor and project lead.
The spread of cancer throughout the body can damage vital systems and complicate treatment, said Bielinsky. If cancer growth could be tracked more easily, better treatments could be potentially created.
After developing the simulation, researchers plan to test its accuracy by genetically altering cancer cells and testing if their altered migration speeds match the model’s predictions, Largaespada said.
“[Metastasis] is a complex cascade of events … we have to perturb the system and see if the predictions of the model bear fruit,” he said.
Another team within the project will research what effect differing conditions near a tumor have on its spread, said Paolo Provenzano, a Minnesota biomedical engineering professor.
These conditions, like the stiffness of surrounding tissue, can influence whether a tumor spreads, Provenzano said.
Initially, the researchers plan to focus on the study of brain and pancreatic cancer, Odde said. Brain cancer tends to spread to nearby cells and make removal difficult while pancreatic cancer’s prognosis also hinges on cell migration.
“Their median survival rates are measured in months and long term survival … is just a few percent. There is a lot of room for improvement, and they both focus on cellular migration,” he said
The team hopes their cancer migration research could make the disease more manageable by letting doctors more accurately target tumors with surgery or radiation, he said.