The University of Edinburgh, Harvard University, and John Hopkins University have successfully developed a 3D computer model to further understanding of cancerous tumours.
The model tracks the mutation process of DNA which leads to cancerous cells breaking away and travelling around the body.
The 3D perspective allows scientists to observe and note the role of genetic variation in a tumour. It was found that the movement of cells in a tumour stunts the growth of cells that are well suited to the environment.
Dr Bartlomiej Waclaw, lead author and a member of the faculty of Edinburgh University’s Physics and Astronomy School explained, “Computer modelling of cancer enables us to gain valuable insight into how this complex disease develops over time and in three dimensions. The model was based around exploring the idea that the cells in the cancerous tumours are making a number of local migrations which make the cells more and more aggressive.
“We wanted to see what kind of diversity of cells there were in the tumour and we discovered there was very little diversity at all.
“In principle, by targeting some of these local migrations we could find a way to slow down the cancer by making the tumour grow more slowly.”
The new, spatial model provides a number of advantages over non-spatial predecessors. Primarily, the spatial model displays the longitudinal characteristics of cancerous tumours. Previous, non-spatial models allowed scientists to gather the number of cells and their particular mutations, without clear knowledge of their spatial arrangement.
As Professor Nowack from Harvard University states, “It is the spatial structure of a tumour that plays a key role in its growth and evolution.”
This clear-cut spatial model of a cancerous tumour allows scientists to examine how a tumour is formed – by the escape of certain cells from an already existing tumour to other parts of the body. “Cellular mobility makes cancers grow fast, and it makes cancers homogenous in the sense that cancer cells share a common set of mutations,” Professor Nowak said.
The research, which was published in the journal Nature, helps explain why some patients will initially respond well to chemotherapy treatment, before relapsing later.
Henry Scowcroft, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, concluded, “The idea of understanding cancer by using computers to create 3D ‘virtual’ tumours may sound like science fiction but, as this shows, it’s something researchers around the world are working on.
“The next step is to see if the way this virtual tumour grows can make useful new predictions about how cancers grow in real life.
“If it does, then it could lead to further advances in cancer research and even more progress over the coming years.”
Image credit: University of Edinburgh