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Pac-12 Rivals Collaborate On Cancer Research

Photo: W. Daniel Hillis and David Agus, USC Physical Sciences Oncology Center

When the National Cancer Institute was looking for homes for its fledgling Physical Sciences Oncology Centers, they looked to the University of Southern California (USC) and Arizona State University to lead two of those "think outside the box" centers.

Both universities landed one of the prestigious centers, which are focused on new and innovative scientific approaches to better understand and control cancer.

David Agus, M.D., professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the USC Center for Applied Molecular Medicine and the USC Westside Prostate Cancer Center, and W. Daniel Hillis, Ph.D., professor of research medicine at the Keck School and research professor of engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, are leading the effort at USC. 

“We’re taking a different approach to cancer here,” Agus said in 2010, after hosting a first-of-its-kind symposium that brought together researchers from both the physical and biological sciences. 

The USC Physical Sciences Oncology Center — a consortium of universities that includes Arizona State, Caltech, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York University, Stanford, the University of Arizona and the University of Texas at Austin — is focusing on creating a set of “virtual cancer” models based on measurements from individual cancer patients. The models then would be used to simulate cancer growth and predict drug responses for each patient.

Arizona State’s center is headed by physicist Paul Davies, Ph.D., who has spent his career tackling the big questions, such as the origin of the universe and the beginning of life. Now he also is focusing on the persistence and spread of cancer, often bringing a fresh perspective to this age-old disease. 

“I came into the field of cancer unencumbered by any knowledge,” Davies said. “Cancer is not a random bunch of selfish rogue cells behaving badly, but a highly efficient pre-programmed response to stress, honed by a long period of evolution.

“Tumors are a re-emergence of our inner Metazoan 1.0, a throwback to an ancient world when multi-cellular life was simpler,” he added. “In that sense, cancer is an accident waiting to happen.”

They believe this because cancer revisits tried-and-tested genetic pathways going back a billion years, to the time when loose collections of cells began cooperating in the lead-up to fully developed multi-cellular life.

The overall goals of the NCI centers (there are 12 of them in total) are to join often disparate areas of science — such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering — to better understand the physical and chemical forces that shape and govern the emergence and behavior of cancer at all levels.

Arizona State’s center is headed by physicist Paul Davies, Ph.D., who has spent his career tackling the big questions, such as the origin of the universe and the beginning of life. Now he also is focusing on the persistence and spread of cancer, often bringing a fresh perspective to this age-old disease. “I came into the field of cancer unencumbered by any knowledge,” Davies said. “Cancer is not a random bunch of selfish rogue cells behaving badly, but a highly efficient pre-programmed response to stress, honed by a long period of evolution.

Arizona State’s center is headed by physicist Paul Davies, Ph.D., who has spent his career tackling the big questions, such as the origin of the universe and the beginning of life. Now he also is focusing on the persistence and spread of cancer, often bringing a fresh perspective to this age-old disease. “I came into the field of cancer unencumbered by any knowledge,” Davies said. “Cancer is not a random bunch of selfish rogue cells behaving badly, but a highly efficient pre-programmed response to stress, honed by a long period of evolution.

“Tumors are a re-emergence of our inner Metazoan 1.0, a throwback to an ancient world when multi-cellular life was simpler,” he added. “In that sense, cancer is an accident waiting to happen.” They believe this because cancer revisits tried-and-tested genetic pathways going back a billion years, to the time when loose collections of cells began cooperating in the lead-up to fully developed multi-cellular life.

The overall goals of the NCI centers (there are 12 of them in total) are to join often disparate areas of science — such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering — to better understand the physical and chemical forces that shape and govern the emergence and behavior of cancer at all levels.


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