Scientists Share Skills to Crack Cancer Cell Secrets

In its November 2012 report, “Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise,” the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) encouraged the Federal Government to adopt policies that enable researchers to collaborate more efficiently. The recommendation recognized that interdisciplinary collaboration can increase productivity and innovation by ensuring that the best expertise and widest range of capacities are brought to bear on the toughest problems.

Across the Federal Government, agencies are stepping up to do just that. In one recent example, the Physical Sciences – Oncology Centers Network (PS-OC), a program run by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), assembled an interdisciplinary group of physicists, engineers, mathematicians, chemists, computational scientists, and biologists from 20 laboratories across the country to investigate the biophysical progression of malignant tumor cells.

Using identical cells and chemicals, and under carefully standardized and well-documented conditions, 95 researchers, including 46 graduate students and post-doctoral scholars, used nearly 20 distinct laboratory techniques to perform coordinated molecular and biophysical studies on tumor cells to accomplish what no scientist could have done alone: track what happens to a cell as it gains the capacity to  spread to other parts of the body—a key transition that makes cancer much more difficult to treat and is the main cause of cancer-related mortality.

As part of the NCI’s PS-OC Network, the researchers were able to leverage their particular expertise, coordinate their studies, and effectively share their data with one another. For example, data from one lab’s atomic force microscopy test suggested that metastatic cancer cells feel “soft,” while data from another lab’s traction force microscopy tests suggested that those cells are much “stronger.”  When metastatic cells migrate, it is thought that their “soft” properties allow them to squeeze through narrow channels to gain access to the bloodstream and migrate to organs distant from the primary tumor. However, their greater “strength” may allow cancer cells to adhere to, migrate on, and remodel their surrounding extracellular matrix during metastasis. Due to the multitude of techniques and standardized cell lines, protocols, and reagents used in this study such findings could be validated by multiple laboratories quickly.

Taken together, those kinds of observations of physical properties of cells could potentially be used in clinical applications to help to identify cells that are more metastatic or that are more responsive to specific types of therapy. Their collaborative study was published on April 26, 2013 in the journal Scientific Reports.

But that’s just one example of many. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy also fund projects that encourage interdisciplinary teams of scientists to solve big challenges by working together.

We at OSTP are excited to see government researchers reaching across disciplines and teaming up together and with university and private-sector partners to innovate on the cutting edge of science. 

Robbie Barbero is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at OSTP.

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