Cancer Systems Biology Overview

Cancer systems overview

President Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971 when he signed the National Cancer Act and in the past 40 years some progress has been made against some cancers. Combined five-year survival rates have improved from 50 percent in 1975 to 68 percent in 2007. While scientists understand more each decade, cancer kills at almost the same rate it did in 1970 and is the second leading cause of death in the United States.

Why is cancer so difficult?

The problem is more complicated than our public figures imagined in the 1970s. Curing cancer is so difficult because it is a very, very complex set of diseases. Not only are there hundreds of different cancers, but also no two tumors are alike even for the same type of cancer. Tumors evolve rapidly, changing their characteristics and gaining resistance to different cancer-killing drugs. Making it more difficult, scientists don’t fully understand what happens even in normal human cells.

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A two-pronged approach

The Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center involves researchers from all disciplines working at every stage of the cancer problem. Some are analyzing how cancer behaves based on historical patient data. By mapping a patient’s cancer characteristics to other patients’ cancers and their treatment results, systems biology researchers hope to suggest treatments that can help many people immediately. (See Predicting the best treatment)

Short term long term payoff

The other approach is more long term: by using systems biology to thoroughly understand how human cells function by themselves at a basic level, researchers hope to tackle the harder cancer problems and ultimately develop the optimal treatment for every cancer patient. (See Pursuit of the virtual cell)

Precision medicine of the future will rely on cancer systems biology research today.

Renewed Optimism

We do know that genes play a central role. Genes can be thought of as instructions that are followed by different cells under different conditions. Thanks to procedures and knowledge developed by the Human Genome Project, scientists can now sequence the genes in cancer cells to detect mutations involved with cancer. It is now possible to measure the activity of most of the genes in each patient's tumor.

Scientists now know that networks of genes operate inside cells and within groups of cells. In cancer, changes in the gene function and re-wiring of their communication networks can promote cancer cells to grow uncontrollably and spread. Researchers have renewed optimism that they can build the map of how these genes work together and develop treatments to interrupt the faulty instructions of cancer cells — and maybe someday to correct them.


Because the reality of cancer is so complicated, researchers use simplified models to gain basic understanding and to test their theories. A model can be anything that is simpler than a human cancer patient and each field uses different types of models. A model could be a mouse used to test treatments before human testing, a computer program that automatically sorts through data, or a mathematical model of a human cell — a virtual cell.

The power of systems biology

Engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, and physicists have joined biologists, chemists, and doctors in the fight, using an approach called systems biology. This promising technique applies engineering and mathematical analysis techniques to biological systems, including cancer. Using computer models to predict how a particular cancer will react to a certain treatment (or combination of treatments), available treatments can be optimized and new treatments discovered.