Virginia Tech provides critical expertise for Center for Cancer Systems Biology

BLACKSBURG, Va., March 22, 2010 – Virginia Tech has been selected as a partner in a new $7.5 million Center for Cancer Systems Biology that will focus on the development and treatment of breast cancer.

The ultimate goal of the center, funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and led by researchers at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University Medical Center, is to develop more advanced and better targeted treatments for the disease. Scientists at Virginia Tech will contribute bioinformatic analysis for an enormous amount of data to be collected. Virginia Tech’s mathematical models will guide the later phases of the center’s research.

The center’s specific focus is on the role of a single protein receptor, the estrogen receptor, in breast cells. Estrogen is considered to be fuel for breast cancer whose cells have the receptor.

Lombardi scientists will focus on biology, examining cell cultures, mammary tumors in animals, and patient breast tumors to decide estrogen receptor-positive molecular signaling systems. Virginia Tech scientists will provide bioinformatic analysis of the Lombardi data and build mathematical models of the molecular control systems revealed by the bioinformaticians and experimentalists. Guided by the experimental findings and the predictions of the mathematical models, researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center of Philadelphia will test what happens when specific genes and proteins are knocked out.

Virginia Tech scientists are Yue Wang, the Grant A. Dove Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Jason Xuan, electrical and computer engineering associate professor, both at the Advance Research Institute in Arlington, Va., who will provide the bioinformatic analysis; and William Baumann, electrical and computer engineering associate professor, and John Tyson, professor of biological sciences, who will build the mathematical models.

“We’re combining the strengths of top scientists in this large-scale team science approach to achieve a new level of understanding of the estrogen receptor. That will allow us to make more meaningful predictions about clinical treatment of breast cancer and to be able to correctly identify new targets for therapy,” said Robert Clarke, professor of oncology and physiology and biophysics at Lombardi, and leader of the new center.

"The molecular regulatory networks that control the proliferation of normal breast epithelial cells -- and the abnormal growth of breast cancer cells -- are extremely complex and difficult to understand at an intuitive level," said Tyson, University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. "We hope that mathematical models will help to guide our intuition, and help us to make accurate, testable predictions about cancer cell development and treatment."

The new center is part of NCI’s Integrative Cancer Biology Program, which is the NCI’s primary effort in cancer systems biology, a field that is rapidly seen as an essential component in the future of cancer research. “These centers represent a unique multidisciplinary union of outstanding scientists and clinicians who will work to unravel the complexities of cancer through the novel application of technology and mathematical modeling. Their discoveries and models will be critical to our continued success in understanding and treating this disease,” said Dan Gallahan, program director for the NCI Integrative Cancer Biology Program.

In addition to the funding received by Georgetown, Virginia Tech, and Fox Chase Cancer Center 10 other outstanding centers nationwide will share NCI’s commitment to this area of research. According to the NCI announcement, "These new centers and the research that evolves from them should enable scientists to gain a better understanding, and therefore better treatment and prevention, for the disease. Virginia Tech’s involvement in the NCI’s Integrative Cancer Biology Program reflects the university’s growing leadership role in the systems biology community. "

“This program is part of the next generation of cancer research, in that it will approach the disease from a holistic or comprehensive viewpoint in order to understand how all of the components of the disease fit together,” said John E. Niederhuber, NCI director.

The NCI announcement explained, "This approach to cancer research is made possible by advances in technology and computational modeling. The research at Georgetown, Virginia Tech, and Fox Chase will not only explore new insights in the areas of cancer systems biology, but will generate computational and mathematical models for application in the lab and the clinic."

Wang is director and Xuan is associate director of the Computational Bioinformatics and Bioimaging Laboratory at Virginia Tech. Baumann, Wang, and Xuan are members of the electrical and computer engineeing biomedical applications group, which applies signals and systems theory to problems in biology. And Baumann is a member of Tyson's Computational Cell Biology Lab, which builds mathematical models of cellular control systems in order to better understand the complex molecular interactions within living cells and how they are perturbed in diseased states.