NCI grant funds new cancer center

The National Cancer Institute awarded a $16 million research grant to USC on Monday to bring a new perspective to the study of an old disease: cancer.

USC is one of 12 schools that received grant money from the NCI to set up a research program that utilizes the skills of both biological and physical sciences. The grant will help establish an NCI Physical Sciences-Oncology Center based at USC.

“The goal for these centers is to broadly bring perspective to the study of cancer,” said Dr. Parag Mallick, assistant professor of research at the Keck School of Medicine.

The five-year award is the first major push to apply skills that mathematicians and physicists have long been using in their fields to cancer research. USC’s research team will focus on creating a realistic, multi-scale cancer modeling system, which could be used to predict the effectiveness of various treatments.

“Can we identify what treatment option will work? And can we personalize our treatment?” Mallick said.

The new approach looks at cancer as a disease affecting particular body systems, rather than a problem of individual cancer cells.

Much of the research in the last 50 years has been focused on understanding the cancer cell rather than controlling the disease, Mallick said.

“This is a new wave approach to cancer,” Agus said. “A new way with new people.”

The program relies heavily on the modeling and data-gathering techniques developed by physical scientists who have long been using such tools to model climate systems and astronomical bodies.

The virtual models will recreate cancer from a molecular scale all the way up to the cancer tumors affecting the host.

The NCI formally announced the grant application process January of this year, but rumors had been circulating up to a year ago, according to officials.

Several USC doctors attended workshops before the formal announcement and were contacted about the opportunity.

“We wanted people who came from physical sciences to look at cancer in the way that they were trained in,” said Larry Nagahara, NCI PS-OC program director.

The deans and provosts of both the biological and physical science departments, as well as USC’s Washington, DC Office for Research Advancement, helped set up a network of scientists across the nation to aid the project, according to Mallick. The center now consists of 20 investigators, led by USC doctors.

“We can bring top researchers from across the country to share their perspective, and [we plan] to have joint seminars … and videocast simultaneously at both campuses,” Mallick said.

The USC center, named Multiscale Complex Systems Transdisciplinary Analysis of Response to Therapy —

or MC-START — will be housed in the current Clinical Sciences Center on USC’s Health Sciences Campus.

The researchers plan to use the center’s educational and outreach resources to involve USC students in the work.

“We want to train the next generation of students to mix their skills … and not just medical students,” said Dr. David Agus, senior co-investigator on the grant and director of the USC Westside Prostate Cancer Center.

Eventually the team hopes these models will be used to develop new and innovative cancer treatments, which not only battle the disease on a cellular level, but also on a system-wide level.

“I’m always a believer in mixing people from different arenas,” Agus said. “The death rate of cancer has not changed from 1950 until now. We need to take a dramatically different approach.”