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Could math help defeat cancer? Moffitt is betting it will

By Justine Griffin
Dan Nichol from the Institute of Cancer Research in London was one of about 80 attendees at a recent workshop at Moffitt Cancer Center to discuss the intersection of mathematics and medicine. Moffitt's Integrated Mathematical Oncology department hosts the event every year to brainstorm on ways math can be used to help defeat cancer. [Photo courtesy of Moffitt Cancer Center]

TAMPA ó On any given day, the lobby at Moffitt Cancer Center is buzzing with patients and their families.

A few are waiting to check in for another round of chemotherapy. Others are hopeful for more good news about their remission. Some look more tired than others.

Above them, on an upper floor, a group of staffers is working to find new ways to fight or even cure cancer, but they arenít doctors or nurses, and their office looks nothing like the rest of the hospital.

They are decorated mathematicians, members of Moffittís Integrated Mathematical Oncology department, who spend their days writing equations on chalkboards, whiteboards and glass partitions.

Department chair Alexander Anderson, who came to Moffitt from the University of Dundee in Scotland, said he struggled in the past to convince doctors that math could help in the battle against cancer. "They didnít want to talk to me," he said.

But at Moffitt, "they realized the traditional perspective wasnít working," he said. "They needed to consider other things, like physical sciences, that could factor into cancer."

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The department recently hosted its seventh annual Integrated Mathematical Oncology (IMO) workshop, drawing 80 researchers to Tampa to brainstorm over mathematical ideas and equations that could solve some of the health care industryís greatest puzzles.

The group included oncologists, physicians, mathematicians and professionals with post doctorates in physical sciences, who broke into teams and were given a week to come up with an idea. An independent panel of judges ranked presentations at the end of the week, and the winning team received a $50,000 pilot grant to pursue research on their idea.

Anderson said interest in using math with science and medicine has grown exponentially since he came to Moffitt in 2008 to launch the department. And each year, he said, researchers come from all over the world to participate in the workshop.

"At first it was hard to get clinicians to commit to any extended period of time," he said. "But now, weíve got plenty who are asking to be on the team. Itís a very different way of looking at something that they treat every day. Itís a new perspective."

The theme of this yearís IMO workshop was the role of stroma, or connective tissue, and how it plays into tumor progression and treatment.

The event has helped elevate Moffittís status as an innovator and shed light specifically on the math program, Anderson explained. He said the teamís work has led to five clinical trials related to research on various cancers, and is often published in medical journals.

Combining math and physical sciences, like biology, has lead researchers to make some monumental discoveries in cancer research. Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first-ever Chimeric Antigen Receptor Therapy, known as "CAR-T," which uses white blood cells from a patientís immune system and re-engineers them in a lab to target and wipe out cancer cells.

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"This high-pressure brainstorming forces creativity. And it forces people who would never really work together to talk to one another," Anderson said. "Itís enlightening."

The event is just one avenue of study for the IMO team. On a more everyday basis, the mathematicians use equations to help clinicians come up with the best ways to treat individual cancer patients.

Anderson compares it to the way meteorologists study weather patterns.

"Just like how we use equations to predict wind flow and the physical laws of where a hurricane could go next, we are trying to predict the cancer trajectory," he said.

Doctors use computer models created by the equations from the IMO department to simulate various treatments for a specific patient to help them come up with the best strategy toward remission.

"The models quickly show that the standard Ďone size fits allí approach isnít the best strategy," Anderson said. "After that initial treatment, our model helps clinicians develop their own strategy to help that specific patient and outline a tailored treatment based on how they respond."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.