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Could physics provide the key to cancer?

Tom Feilden | 09:59 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010

In the 40 years since President Nixon first declared a "war on cancer", mortality and morbidity rates have remained stubbornly high.

Trillions of research hours have been racked up, and billions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen have been spent trying to crack the problem, but cancer remains a major killer around the world.

It's a disappointing outcome - all the more so when you consider the progress made in other areas, like heart disease, where spectacular advances in treatments have lead to dramatic improvements in outcomes - and one which begs a simple question: Why?

It's a question the National Institutes of Health in America has clearly been giving a lot of thought. The answer it's come up with is to approach the problem from a completely new direction - the direction of physics.

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"Physicists think about the world in a very particular, sometimes quirky, way" says the astronomer Paul Davies, who heads the Beyond Centre for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. "The whole idea is to think creatively, outside the proverbial box, and by importing ideas from the physics community maybe we will get that big breakthrough we've all been waiting for".

The NIH is funding twelve new centres to explore the insights physics could bring to the treatment of cancer over the next five years. Professor Davies will lead the centre at ASU, which will focus on the 3D imaging of cancer cells and computer modelling of tumour growth.

Of course applying the lessons of physics to medicine is nothing new - the technology behind both MRI and CAT scans was originally developed to probe the structure of the atom - but the approach being pioneered at Arizona State University takes the relationship to a more fundamental, conceptual level.

"Cancer cells are physical objects with properties such as elasticity, adhesion forces and electric potentials" says Davies. "These are things that physicists understand well. Perhaps we can spot something the biologists have missed".

So how have biologists reacted to having a bunch of - medically at least - ill-informed outsiders poking about in their labs and telling them where they might be going wrong? One of the leading experts in the field, Donald S. Coffey from the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, was surprisingly upbeat at a recent conference to discuss the idea.

"This is just amazing. It's just wonderful to see all this talent come together and wrestle with the question of how to make a difference on cancer".

And if a fresh look at an old, intractable, problem can break the logjam, no one is going to worry too much about whether it was a physicist or a biologist who provided the spark of inspiration.


  • Comment number 1.

    This is a great step forward! Science flourishes when there is cross-fertilization bewtween different disciplines with different perspectives and a variety of skill mixes. The reason why medical research especially cancer research has hit a stalemate is that it is often carried out by doctors or scientists viewing the problem from a narrow perspective.

    The first lesson in genetics at medical school was that epidemics are never genetic in origin but have an environmental root. Only 5% of medical conditions have a genetic cause. In reality what happens is that something goes wrong in the interaction between an idividual's genetic heritage and what he is exposed to in life and this interaction allows the expression of certain diseases such as cancer. There have been several international congresses on the role of xenobiotics and envorinmental pollutants and toxins and the development of cancer through these substances affecting the genetic material. However this remains off the radar of practicing clinicians and is forgotten in the hunt for the 'cancer gene' by the scientists active in this field. It is time that we re-focussed on the key factor that has clearly changed alongside the epidemic of cancer that is besieging us all which is changes in our lifestyle in particular constant exposure to toxic substances.

  • Comment number 2.

    I really enjoyed this feature but of course there is a long history of physics in medicine and not just in imaging techniques. The Institute of physics and engineering in medicine ( will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013 and Cambridge University have just opened a department dedicated to Physics of Medicine ( As a medical physicist myself I know how important the cross fertilisation of scientific discipline is across all aspects of medicine. Our remit in the build up to 2013 is to get this message across to school kids as well as young scientists at the beginning of their careers; this feature is step towards that, thank you.


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