Make us your home page

At Moffitt, math modeling aims to generate new treatments for cancer

“Getting Cancer Wrong" is, at first glance, a scary headline. It appears atop the online version of Newsweek's March 28 cover story focusing on an admittedly little understood cluster of math gurus housed at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

They are a rare bunch in cancer research. A bit like medical Moneyball guys who use mathematical models to find fresh ways to treat one of the toughest diseases.

"Think of them as Big Bang Theory meets hurricane spaghetti models," says Moffitt spokeswoman Patty Kim.

These numbers wizards in Moffitt's Integrated Mathematical Oncology Department are charged in their own way with fighting cancer no less intensely than the most dedicated doctors of surgery, radiology or chemotherapy. Moffitt's math guys, led since 2008 by Dr. Robert A. Gatenby and Dr. Sandy Anderson, see the cancer war differently. As Newsweek says:

"The mathematicians … are convinced we do not really understand cancer and that, until we do, our finest efforts will be tantamount to swinging swords in utter darkness. As far as these Tampa iconoclasts are concerned, your average cancer doctor is trying to build a jetliner without having grasped aerodynamics: Say, how many wings should we slap on this thing?"

Why bring up the notion that the war on cancer is so poorly understood following a story in Monday's Tampa Bay Times celebrating the FDA's approval of a drug combo that extends the survival of folks suffering from skin cancer?

Because the Newsweek article assesses the cancer fight honestly in three ways. It notes that cancer "victories" these days typically mean incremental success in giving patients a few more weeks or months of life. It describes modern-day cancer research as too often bureaucratic and risk averse. And it suggests that using mathematical models to treat individual cancers may help reignite the nationally declared "war on cancer." That war officially began in 1971, the year Patton won the best picture Oscar.

Moffitt's Integrated Mathematical Oncology Department is the only one of its kind. Other big cancer centers, such as Memorial Sloan Kettering or Dana-Farber, may have a few theoreticians; Moffitt has a five-person math group. Anderson credits Gatenby and Bill Dalton, Moffitt chief at the time, for having the vision to back his math team.

Moffitt is delighted, to say the least, to have landed on a Newsweek cover, coming shortly after the once-all-digital magazine again began publishing on paper. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Moffitt's Kim says of the attention generated by the cover story.

But it is also a sobering recognition of cancer's challenge.

Writes Newsweek of Gatenby: "After 30 years, he has come to the uneasy conclusion that cancer is smarter than we are, and will find ways to evade our finest medical weaponry."

That's why broadening the attack on cancer using advanced math may yield as-yet-unimagined treatments. And longer lives.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at

At Moffitt, math modeling aims to generate new treatments for cancer 04/07/14 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2014 11:09pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Water Street Tampa unveils video showing downtown's transformation (w/video)


    TAMPA — Water Street Tampa, the sweeping, 50-plus acre redevelopment project in Tampa's urban core, has unveiled new images and video of what the downtown district will look like upon completion.

    Strategic Property Partners released a conceptual image of what the Tampa skyline will look like once its redevelopment of 50-plus acres of downtown will look like. [Photo courtesy of  of SPP]
  2. Florida ranks high for workplace equality between men and women

    Working Life

    When it comes to the workplace, Florida ranks fifth in terms of gender equality, a WalletHub study released Tuesday found.

    Florida ranks high in terms of equality between men and women in the workplace. Pictured is Sandra Murman, county commissioner in 2015, talking about the differences in pay between men and women. | [Times file photo]
  3. Treasury secretary's wife boasts of travel on government plane, touts high fashion


    U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's wife, Louise Linton, boasted of flying on a government plane with her husband to Kentucky on Monday and then named the numerous fashion brands she wore on the trip in an unusual social media post that only became more bizarre minutes later.

    Steven Mnuchin and his then- financee Louise Linton watch as President Donald Trump speaks during Mnuchin's swearing-in ceremony as  treasury secretary in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 13. [Mandel Ngan | AFP via Getty Images]
  4. Ford, Chinese partner look at possible electric car venture


    BEIJING — Ford Motor Co. and a Chinese automaker said Tuesday they are looking into setting up a joint venture to develop and manufacture electric cars in China.

    In this April 23, 2016 photo, attendees take smartphone photos at a promotional event for Ford Motor Company ahead of the Auto China car show in Beijing. Ford Motor Co. announced an agreement Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017 with a Chinese partner to look into forming a joint venture to develop and manufacture electric cars in China. [AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein]
  5. Judge throws out $458,000 condo sale, says Clearwater attorney tricked bidders

    Real Estate

    CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold on Monday threw out the $458,100 sale of a gulf-front condo because of what he called an "unscrupulous" and "conniving" scheme to trick bidders at a foreclosure auction.

    John Houde, left, whose Orlando copany was the high  bidder June 8 at the foreclosure auction of a Redington Beach condo, looks in the direction of Clearwater lawyer and real estate investor Roy C. Skelton, foreground,  during a hearing Monday before Pinellas County Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold.  [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times ]