Could Physics Cure Cancer?

Question: What do you hope to accomplish \r\nby applying physics\r\nto cancer research? 


Paul\r\nDavies:  A couple of years\r\nago I had a call from the deputy director at the National Cancer \r\nInstitute,\r\nAnna Barker, with an amazing proposal. \r\nShe said "Well, we’re spending billions of dollars worth of \r\ntaxpayer’s\r\nmoney on the famous war on cancer and most of this is going to cancer\r\nbiologists, oncologists, geneticists following sort of the well trodden \r\npath\r\nthat those very brilliant people have trodden and they’ve accumulated a \r\nvast,\r\nvast amount of information. Here\r\nis a subject about which an enormous amount is known, but unfortunately \r\nvery\r\nlittle is understood." And so she had this very bold proposal that maybe\r\nphysicists and physical scientists generally, including mathematicians \r\nand\r\nchemists and so on might be able to lend a hand, not by giving the \r\ncancer\r\nbiologists a new death ray, but by lending some of the concepts in, say,\r\nfundamental physics to the problem of cancer.  Physicists\r\n think about the world in a very particular way.  They\r\n go about solving problems in a\r\ncertain manner.  The whole culture\r\nof physics is really very different from that, biology, so maybe \r\nphysicists\r\nhave got something to contribute. \r\nNow this is obviously a bold venture, but as a consequence of two\r\n or\r\nthree workshops exploring that possibility the National Cancer Institute\r\nannounced about a year ago that they will be funding 12 centers around \r\nthe\r\ncountry and Arizona State University has one and I’m principle\r\ninvestigator.  There are about 12\r\npeople on my team, a similar number in the other centers, and it is \r\nearly days\r\nyet, but it’s an experimental as well as a theoretical program. 


Because I’m completely new to the field I’m having \r\nto learn\r\nvery fast.  My own contribution is\r\nin running workshops, brainstorming workshops questioning the hidden\r\nassumptions that go into our current folklore understanding of cancer.  If you open a textbook or talk to an\r\noncologist you will be taught all sorts of things about the nature of \r\ncancer,\r\nstuff which may be true, but it may not be true, and it’s always good in\r\nscience to say "Well how do you know that?" and "Are you really sure?" \r\nand "Could\r\nthere be an exceptional case?" And so my job really is, I call it \r\ngrandly a "cancer\r\nforum."  I run a cancer forum in\r\nwhich I bring together from time to time about 20 people from different \r\ndisciplines\r\nand we’ll pick a particular subject. \r\nThe next one is applying evolutionary mathematics to cancer and \r\nwe’ll\r\nfocus on that and we’ll really try and come up with a totally new way of\r\nthinking and hopefully with a new research agenda.  It’s\r\n all about coming up with new ideas, but we’ve got to be\r\nable to test those ideas in the lab or at least with computational \r\nmodels to\r\nsee if we can move forward, so what we’re aiming for is the big \r\nbreakthrough,\r\nthe penicillin moment, which cancer research has never had.  If you look at the mortality rate from\r\ncancer it has largely unchanged in 40 years whereas almost all other \r\ndiseases\r\nhave had enormous success and so there hasn’t been that really major\r\nbreakthrough, that now we’ve nailed it type of moment where the cancer \r\ncan be\r\ntackled to make a really dramatic difference in the mortality rate.  There are one or two cancers that have\r\nbeen cleared up.  Childhood\r\nleukemia, has been huge success there, but you know it’s odds and ends.  The overall picture of the major\r\nkillers, breast cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, and so on, the \r\nstatistics\r\nthere are really pretty dreadful and I think all of us working in this \r\nfield\r\nfeel that if we can make a contribution by coming up with a genuinely \r\nnew idea,\r\ntackle the problem in a completely different way, then this could be \r\nwhat we\r\nhave really waited a long time for, which is that big breakthrough that \r\nis\r\ngoing to maybe halve that mortality rate. \r\nThat’s my ambition.

Recorded April 15, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

Seeking a "penicillin moment" in cancer research through a radically new approach.

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