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The cutting edge of cancer research

9 September 2019

The Physics of Cancer, by Caterina A M La Porta and Stefano Zapperi, Cambridge University Press

Breast cancer cells

Cancer is a heterogeneous phenomenon that is best viewed as a complex system of cells interacting in a changing micro-environment. Individual experiments may fail to capture this reality, given spatially and temporally limited scales of observation, however, in recent years, physicists have contributed insights into the interplay of phenomena at different scales: gene regulatory networks and communities of cells or organisms are two examples of systems whose properties emerge from the behaviour of individual components. Unfortunately, however, such research is usually confined to journals and specialised conferences, hindering the entry of interested physicists into the field. The publication of a new interdisciplinary textbook is therefore most welcome.

La Porta and Zapperi’s The Physics of Cancer, one of the few books devoted to this subject, brings 15 years of exciting and important results in cancer research to a wide audience. The book approaches the subject from the perspective of physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science. As a result of the vastness of the subject and the brevity of the book, the discussion can occasionally feel superficial, but the main concepts are introduced in a manner accessible to physicists. The authors follow a logical thread within each argument, and furnish the reader with abundant references to the original literature.

The book begins by observing that the “hallmarks” of cancer are not only yet to be understood, but have increased in number. Published at the turn of the millennium, Douglas Hanahan and Robert Weinberg’s seminal paper identified six: sustaining proliferative signalling; evading growth suppressors; enabling replicative immortality; activating invasion and metastasis; inducing angiogenesis; and resisting cell death. Just 11 years later the same authors published an updated review adding four more hallmarks: avoiding immune destruction; promoting inflammation; genome instability and mutation; and deregulating cellular energetics. The amount of research that has been distilled into a handful of concepts is formidable. However, La Porta and Zapperi argue that a more abstract and unifying approach is now needed to gain a deeper understanding. They advocate studying cancer as a complex system with the tools of several disciplines, in particular subfields of physics such as biomechanics, soft-condensed-matter physics and statistical mechanics.

The book is structured in 10 self-contained chapters. The first two present essential notions of cell and cancer biology. The subsequent chapters deal with different features of cancer from an interdisciplinary perspective. A discussion on statistics and computational models of cancer growth is followed by a chapter exploring the generation of vascular networks in its biological, hydrodynamical and statistical aspects. Next comes a mathematical discussion of tumour growth by stem cells – the active and self-differentiating cells thought to drive the growth of cancers. A couple of chapters treat the biomechanics of cancer cells and their migration in the body, before La Porta and Zapperi turn to the dynamics of chromosomes and the origin of the genetic mutations that cause cancer. The final two chapters focus on how to fight tumours, from the perspectives of both the immune system and pharmacological agents.

La Porta and Zapperi’s book isn’t just light reading for curious physicists – it can also serve to guide interested researchers into a rich interdisciplinary area.

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