Thursday, March 29, 2007

The cost of validation

Many interesting speakers in this workshop in Dundee but most of them fall in the mathematics part of biomathematics. Among the few who do not is the biologist Vito Quaranta (Vanderbilt University). Although I have been told many times that things are changing for the better in that respect, the scarcity of life scientists and medical doctors in these type of conferences tells me that there is still a lot of work to do to convince them that computational and mathematical biology is not only relevant but necessary.

The talk from Vito Quaranta was not so much about science as about doing science at the interface between theory and experiments. He is lucky to count with the resources of the Vanderbilt Integrative Cancer Biology Center. Otherwise the problem of validating the mathematical and computational models with theoreticians come with would be next to impossible. This theoretical models make a number of assumptions about the properties of tumour cells, tissues and micro environments and predict outcomes that in many cases have to be contrasted with in vivo and in vitro experimental results. This experimental work is really challenging given the level of fragmentation of knowledge and expertise in biology and medicine. Different labs with different experimental techniques, machinery, cell lines and the necessary permissions to perform animal experiments and access human clinical data are required to validate one single theoretical model. That means that unless centres like the one in Vanderbilt become much more common most theoretical models will remain experimentally untested unless they proof to come out as the result of the consensus of the theoretical biology community.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Cooperation in a tumour and workshop in Scotland

I find myself in Dundee, in Scotland, attending a workshop entitled Mathematical modelling and analysis of cancer invasion of tissues. It promises to be an interesting event and some of the attendees are working on topics that are very close to mines so it is good to know what is their contribution to the state of the art.

When I arrived this morning I was expecting good stuff from people like Philip Maini (Oxford), Bob Gatenby (Arizona), Vito Quaranta (Vanderbilt) and Sandy Anderson. Still today's most relevant talk for me was given by Anna Marciniak-Czochra (Heidelberg) who presented work based on the research presented very recently by Robert Axelrod (and reviewed in this blog here). Axelrod's work is about how the collaboration between tumour cells could mean that cells do not have to acquire all the necessary capabilities (mentioned in Hanahan and Weinberg's 2000 work) in order for the tumour to become agressive. This is a word model but in Marciniak-Czochra's presentation a mathematical description was shown in which the characteristics of the growth factors (eg. diffusion strength) can determine how useful this collaboration is. It looks like an interesting model and hope a paper will come out soon so I can take a look. Still it seems that a paper that covers Axelrod's work more comprehensively is still work to be done.