UC get $15.7M cancer research grant

October 28, 2009 12:57:38 PM PDT
The University of California at Berkeley will be at the forefront of a new national effort to have physical scientists and engineers join the war on cancer thanks to a $15.6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

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Jan Liphardt, an associate professor of physics at UC-Berkeley who is a biophysicist and is the principal investigator at UC-Berkeley's Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, said Tuesday that most cancer research has been biology-related but chemists, engineers, physicists and mathematicians will now collaborate with biologists and oncologists.

"There has been a lack of engaging all of the physical sciences," Liphardt said.

The NCI announced on Monday that UC-Berkeley's Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, which is a collaboration with UC-San Francisco, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and San Francisco's Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center, is one of 12 centers to receive grants "to bring new perspectives to the mechanisms of cancer."

The first year of grants for the 12 centers will total $22.7 million nationwide.

Liphardt said, "Nationally, this is the first effort to have physical scientists work together in close proximity with oncologists. This has never been done before."

It will be hard or even impossible to find simple rules to help researchers understand how cancer cells grow, but it's essential to try, he said.

"Even showing that one can't find simple rules is important and our hope is that as we look at a disease like cancer we can discover some relatively simple principles," Liphardt said.

He said, "The lesson is that many things in nature look enormously complicated but there are relatively simple rules that have given rise to simple dynamics."

Liphardt said an example is the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton, who formed his law of gravity after watching an apple fall from a tree.

"One never knows," Liphardt said.

UC-Berkeley spokesman Bob Sanders said a new field that will be employed in the research is mechanobiology, which tries to understand how mechanical forces affect proteins, cells and tissues and cause them to be cancerous.

Sanders said UC-San Francisco senior co-investigator Valerie Weaver, an associate professor of surgery and the director of the Center for Bioengineering and Tissue Regeneration, recently found that a stiffer web within which cells nestle can cause cancer.

Weaver will study how the mechanical characteristics of such a web, technically known as an extracellular matrix, and other aspects of a cancer cell's macroenvironment affect its growth, survival and migration.

Liphardt said in the long run the new research will be judged by how much it improves cancer treatment options and outcomes.

He said Liphardt's work is a good beginning because it raises the possibility that tumors can be treated by "altering the elasticity of the extracellular matrix."

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