Mathematical oncology takes root at the University of Southern California

Establishing the Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer

Written by Stacey Finley - October 15, 2019

Establishing the Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer (CCMC)

Almost two years ago, I sat down and thought about what I wanted my professional legacy to be. I was specifically thinking about the next steps in my career, assuming everything would go smoothly with tenure (and, I found out in February 2019 that it did!!). I enjoyed my research, was proud of the work my group had done, and found it satisfying (mostly). However, I did not want to just keep building new mathematical models and publishing them in scientific journals. Yes, publications are a tangible product of the research enterprise. But I wanted to move forward in my career with more purpose – with the goal of impacting patient outcomes. To me, this meant connecting with clinical researchers, building models that are predictive while easy to use, and most importantly, using the models to answer questions that directly affect patients. Out of this introspection came the idea to ask (more like beg…) my institution and Dean for support to start a research effort that closely integrated computational modeling and treating cancer patients.

The integration of mathematics into cancer research is rapidly becoming a mainstay of cancer biology. Mathematical modeling is impacting basic science research, where we are learning more about the evolution and progression of cancer and identifying new drug targets. And modeling is even being applied in the design of clinical trials and interpreting the results from those trials.

There are many examples of intentional, focused efforts to infuse predictive mathematical models and computational approaches to impact cancer research. A lot of this work is supported by the National Cancer Institute at NIH, through the Cancer Systems Biology Consortium (CSBC). The CSBC consists of large research centers and individual research projects that address the complexities of cancer using a combination of experimental studies and mathematical modeling.

Alongside these federally funded grants are efforts to directly integrate mathematical modeling into clinical practice. This is happening in the Integrated Mathematical Oncology department at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, the Oregon Health & Science University Center for Spatial Systems Medicine in the Knight Cancer Institute, and the Division of Mathematical Oncology at City of Hope. In addition, many research groups in academic institutions across the United States and the world are pursuing mathematical oncology and cancer systems biology.

These NIH-funded centers, institutional programs, and individual research labs are inspiration for a new research effort that I am thrilled to lead at the University of Southern California (USC) – the Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer (CCMC). I am excited to share a bit about this effort!

Why USC?

USC’s commitment to interdisciplinary and collaborative research, combined with state-of-the-art resources, make it an optimal setting in which to establish the CCMC. With the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience and the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC, there is already a rich environment for tackling biomedical research questions. The CCMC will complement and enrich those entities by emphasizing the role of computational modeling and analysis, in the particular context of cancer.

What problems will the CCMC aim to solve?

There are many outstanding questions related to cancer treatment that remain to be addressed, such as “What is the right treatment protocol for a particular patient?”, “How will a tumor respond to a certain cancer drug?”, and “How will a cancer drug affect healthy tissues in the body?” Computational modeling provides tools to address the complexity of cancer and provide detailed mechanistic insight needed to answer these questions and many more. The need to answer such essential questions is the central motivation for establishing the Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer.

How with the CCMC accomplish these goals?

The Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer will support multiple core research projects, a distinguished lecturer seminar series, and regular interactive meetings amongst the center members. Each of these components will enable the growth and success of the Center.

  • Research projects. The center will provide funds to support seed projects. An integral part of this is that each project will not only have basic science researchers but will also include one or more clinical partners. This helps ensure that the project is clinically focused and addresses a question that directly affects patient care.
  • Distinguished lecturer seminar series. The Center will host a seminar series inviting speakers from across all disciplines whose research focuses on computational modeling and analysis in cancer. This includes scientists from academia and industry, exploiting the breadth and depth of computational modeling research in cancer across different sectors. This seminar series will facilitate collaborations within and outside of USC and provide exposure to the diverse tools, expertise, and findings related to modeling cancer.
  • Center meetings. The Center will facilitate a think tank, leading to closer connections between members, novel research projects, and tangible products such as grant proposals. We will hold interactive “chalk talk” style, where members will present their ideas and get critical and constructive feedback needed to fully flesh out questions to pursue, tools to use, and specific research plans. Additionally, we will hold an annual retreat, where faculty and trainees will present their results and future plans, evaluate research progress, and outline the vision and goals for the following year.

I want to learn from my mentors and colleagues in the fields of mathematical oncology and cancer systems biology. I want to connect with clinicians and build models that answer the specific questions that arise from treating patients.

So, stay tuned! I expect that over the next few years, the CCMC will evolve from relying on institutional support and become a self-sustaining entity at USC (I’m looking at you, NIH CSBC U54 Research Center…). Seed projects funded by the CCMC will advance into larger projects. Small collaborations will lead to better ones.

Ultimately, I aim to apply the right modeling tools, bring together the right people, and answer the right questions, all with the goal of having a positive impact on cancer patients.

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