Dec 292010
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Medical researchers are trying a new approach in their decades-long quest to control and cure cancers–they are seeking the help of experts in unrelated fields such as physics, engineering and computer science

The war on cancer has been a long, slow slog, but a new breed of soldier, with a new set of skills, is entering the fray.

Historically, biologists have studied cancer through trial and error, testing molecular pathways and treatments one by one in hopes of finding a cure. That approach has not led to one. In October 2009 leaders at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)National Cancer Institute launched a campaign to draw more scientists, engineers and thinkers outside of the field into the cancer research sphere. The hope is that collaboration between traditionally disparate fields will produce new tools for cancer treatment—and perhaps get biologists and doctors thinking more like physicists.

“They threw up their hands and said, ‘We’re not winning this battle; we have to invite people in with different points of view,'” says Daniel Hillis, a computer scientist, roboticist and inventor who previously served as vice president of Walt Disney’s Imagineering division.

Now Hillis is applying his engineering expertise to the search for a cancer cure as the principal investigator of one of several major new organizations that channel the talents of doctors, biologists, physicists and engineers into figuring out how and why cancer develops.

“The death rate from cancer hasn’t changed much since the 1950s,” explains David Agus, the head of the University of Southern California (U.S.C.) Westside ProstateCancer Center and co-investigator, along with Hillis, of what the NIH calls a Physical Sciences–Oncology Center (PSOC). “We need new innovations and new ways of thinking,” Agus says.

For instance, to this day cancer researchers cannot properly predict or control how and when chemotherapy works. “There is no real data that shows that chemotherapy hits only the cancer cells,” Agus says. Whatever its mechanism, the delicate biomolecular dance between a chemical treatment, cancerous cells, and the healthy living tissue around them works well for some patients, but completely fails to help others. Agus and his colleagues want to know why.

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