Spring 2017

Predicting cancer's next move


Illustration by Chris Gash

In cancer research, cell movement is of paramount interest. Particularly with brain and pancreatic cancers, where cell migration—metastasis—is a major concern, investigators want to know: How do cells move forward? 

What makes them move faster or slower? Can we predict their movement? And, ultimately, can we slow them down or stop them? 

At the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, researchers are looking at how cancer spreads in an unusual way: through the lens of physics. “There’s been a real lack of application of the physical sciences to oncology research in the past, such as trying to understand how cells work by using engineering concepts like math modeling and instrumentation,” says David Odde, a professor in the U’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and a Masonic Cancer Center member. “But now that’s changing.” 

In a big way. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently awarded an $8.2 million Physical Sciences Oncology Center grant to the University to develop a cell migration simulator. As a grant recipient, the U joins an elite network of 10 institutions around the country that are working on a physics-based approach to cancer research.


Novel ideas in research can stall or even fail to get off the ground because scientists don’t have the funding to pursue them. That’s why private gifts in the form of smaller seed grants can have a huge return on investment. 

Paolo Provenzano, for instance, received philanthropic support as a Masonic Scholar and from the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund that helped him develop the ideas that underlie the U’s new Physical Sciences Oncology Center grant and generate preliminary results that were crucial components of the grant proposal. 

Funding David Odde received from the Children’s Cancer Research Fund and the Masonic Cancer Center helped him develop essential preliminary data and allowed his work to advance during gaps in the grant process. 

“Investigators really need to have this kind of funding available when they’re trying to do something new because new ideas don’t always fit into existing federal funding programs,” Odde says. “Philanthropy really encourages and enables innovation.”

Looking at cancer cells as tiny machines, Odde uses the simulator (a computer model) to predict how they will move. “It’s like a flight simulator,” he says of the innovation. “One day you want to fly a Cessna, the next day you want to fly a fighter jet. It’s the same simulator, but the details are different.”

So far, Odde is pleased with the results. “Our 1.0 version of the simulator made powerful predictions that we tested and found to be true,” he says. “Next, we want to take patient-derived cells and see if we can predict, using our simulator, how they’ll progress.” 

He expects to continually modify and improve his simulator so he can keep studying new cells, maybe even on a patient-by-patient basis. 

Odde ultimately hopes that by understanding cell migration patterns, he and his colleagues can unlock the secret to suppressing movement. That could stop cancer from progressing to more deadly stages and turn it into a low-grade, localized disease that can be managed. 


The U’s new Center for Modeling Tumor Cell Migration Mechanics, created by the NCI grant, formalizes work begun years ago by Odde and others—work that lacked financial support until now. 

Odde and David Largaespada, associate director for basic sciences at the Masonic Cancer Center and holder of the Hedberg Family/Children’s Cancer Research Fund Chair in Brain Tumor Research, are co-leading the U’s efforts. 

Whereas Odde is looking at cancer cells from the inside out, his colleague Paolo Provenzano, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is looking at them from the outside in. “Paolo’s studying the environment the cancer cells live within,” Odde says, “while I’m focused on the guts of the cell.” 

Odde, Largaespada, and Provenzano hope to integrate their research findings into clinical practice within the next five years. 

“The physical sciences, including engineering concepts and mathematical modeling, can offer tremendous new insight into the behavior of cancer cells, including the process of invasion and metastasis,” Largaespada says. “The new knowledge could lead to new methods for therapeutic intervention.”

To that end, they’re already asking patients if they’re willing to donate, in the course of their regular treatment at U-affiliated cancer clinics, tissue samples that can be analyzed using the simulator. 

“There are some big ideas here,” Odde says. “We don’t have new treatments yet, but maybe we hit a home run. I’m pretty optimistic that this kind of modeling will have a big impact, and from that, we’ll keep building.”

Barbara Knox is a Twin Cities writer.