NSF-NCI Square-Table (SQT) Summary
Recognizing recent advances in new tools/techniques, computational capabilities, and our understanding of biology, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Division of Cancer Biology (DCB) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate partnered to explore the frontier of the intersection of fundamental mathematics and science with cancer research through a series of special meetings. The Square-Table (SQT) format for the meeting was employed to provide structure to bring together researchers that do not normally intersect in a substantial way to explore the intellectual landscape 10-15 years out. The SQT approach defines four groups of researchers from the 1) Mathematical and Physical Sciences, 2) Synthetic and Systems Biology, 3) Cancer Biology, and 4) NSF MPS and NCI DCB program directors for the starting point of broad and exploratory conversations.
Screenshot of SQT-Windows on the Cell meeting, April 2021
The format emphasizes mixing of groups into breakout sessions for discussions, guided by context setting background material and guiding questions organized by each SQT meeting co-chairs and a synthesis/analysis intellectual roadmap summary prepared by the co-chairs. These outcomes will provide the material needed for further discussions between NSF and NCI program directors to inform each agency on areas of mutual interest for a potential joint effort to enable novel interdisciplinary research as well as inform more broadly the multiple communities on important scientific questions.
The joint NSF-NCI organizing team defined the areas for three SQT meetings, selected the 3-4 co-chairs representing the different sides/disciplines of the table, provided guidance on the selections of 35-40 participants to ensure balanced representation of disciplines, organized the participation of fed agency representatives, and ensured feedback/adjustments as needed throughout the meetings.
This page is a companion website to a similar one at NCI (https://www.cancer.gov/about-nci/organization/dcb/news/square-tables)
(Co-Chairs: Shannon Mumenthaler (USC) – Cancer Biology; Shelly Peyton (UMass) – Biomaterials; Krishnendu (Krish) Roy (Georgia Tech) – Synthetic and Systems Biology) 23, 30, 31 March 2021 and 06 April 2021.
The label “Living Materials” may invoke several perspectives, which is the intention, as it is a very new and emerging paradigm. One perspective is that of Engineered Living Materials (ELMs) that are defined as engineered materials composed of living cells that form or assemble the material itself or modulate the functional performance of the material in some manner. In ELMs, the living cells can act as foundries to produce molecular building blocks, templates for a desired material morphology, or they can maintain the material’s properties. Another related perspective is that of Cellular Engineering, to push the boundaries of existing cells and their assembled tissues and extra-cellular matrices for functions and properties not explored by Nature.
Cancer is the embodiment of all aspects and perspectives of a Living Material. If it were not for the hugely negative consequences of cancer, which focuses attention on its remediation and treatment, cancer would be viewed as a natural example of how nature generates hierarchical structures and regulates function outside that of an organism’s biology. Learning to replicate the assembly, structure, and imbued functions of cancer for non-canonical settings would benefit technology broadly. It would also open new avenues to deal with cancer, to redirect or otherwise tame the progression of this Living Material.
(Co-Chairs: Rosie Sears (Oregon Health and Science University) – Cancer Biology; Reto Fiolka (UT Southwestern Medical Center) – Imaging Methods for Cancer; Jonathan Sweedler (Department of Chemistry at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign) - Analytical Chemistry) 16, 22, 26, 30 April 2021.
Given the complex nature of Cancer Biology, and cell biology in general, research advances in this area depend on and are correlated with the development of new methods to probe and measure biological processes and systems with molecular resolution. Research breakthroughs in fundamental sciences, mathematics and computer science have had tremendous “ripple” effects in imaging technologies such as the fluorescence microscopy and consequently in cancer biology. The “windows on the cell” created by new imaging methods become increasingly clearer and the Square Table on this topic focused on challenges and opportunities that need to be overcome and taken advantage of, respectively, to accelerate progress in cancer biology.
(Co-Chairs: Stacey Finley, Ph.D. - Associate Professor and Gordon S. Marshal Early Career Chair; Jen Schwarz, Ph.D. - Associate Professor of Physics, SU (Syracuse University); Heiko Enderling, Ph.D., FSMB - Fellow of the Society for Mathematical Biology, Associate Member, Moffitt Cancer Center; Adam Marcus, Ph.D., Interim Executive Director, Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University]) 4, 10, 11, 12 May 2021.
Cancer is a complex, adaptive system that evolves over time and across multiple biological scales. Chemical and physical processes at the genetic, cellular, and tissue and organism level interact to help drive the initiation and progression of individual tumors and their complicated response to therapeutic interventions. As such, a tumor is an emergent phenomenon.
Emergence is a dynamical process by which simpler, individual units, e.g., molecules, cells, or tissues, interact to form collective structures such that the properties of the collective cannot be solely derived from the properties of the individual units. It is the interactions that drive the collective with properties more prolific than a simple sum, if you will, of the constituent units.
Emergent properties involve concepts from self-organization, collective behavior, network theory, evolution and adaptation, pattern formation, systems theory, nonlinear dynamics, and even game theory. From a physical sciences perspective, emergent properties generally encompass non-equilibrium phenomena in the context of active matter. Given its societal impact, cancer is a particularly interesting system exhibiting emergence.
Recent advances in the fundamental sciences, theory, computation, and instrumentation, as well as advances in synthetic and systems biology, along with those in cancer biology have illuminated the need to explore the theme of emergent properties in cancer from a holistic, multidisciplinary perspective, hence the reason for this Emergent Properties in Cancer Systems Square Table.
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