Using Computation to Understand the Mechanics of a Cancer Cell
Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada and the statistics leave no room for doubt that the disease impacts virtually everyone in the country. About half of all Canadians will get cancer during their lifetimes and a quarter will die as a result. While seemingly everyone knows someone who has had the disease, the ways in which it plagues the human body are numerous and are often a mystery even to the experts. Common to all forms of cancer is the uncontrolled proliferation of cells in the body; those cells often form tumours on vital organs, such as the lungs or brain. The masses of cancer cells can go unnoticed by the body’s immune system and infiltrate its tissues, eventually leading to organ failure and death.
The ability to evade the body’s own natural defence system and ensnare vital organs, comes down to a number of complex features of cancer cells. Many of these intricate features are still being uncovered by researchers, meaning that traditional methods of cancer treatment have lacked the precision to disable certain functions within the cancer cells. Well-known treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, have radically improved outcomes for patients, however, their random methods of targeting mean it often takes months or years to recover from brutal side effects on the body. Adverse effects from these treatments include the suppression of the body’s own immune system, severe nausea, and hair loss, making the path to recovery extremely difficult.
Mikko Karttunen and his research group in the Department of Chemistry at Western University are developing computational models to better understand cancer cells at the molecular level. “Computational power removes the limitations of observing cancer cells under a microscope. We can only see to a certain degree of resolution, and only at a specific point in time.
Our models re-create the fundamental mechanics of a cancer cell, so we get a much better understanding of how those cells actually behave,” he explains. Karttunen’s models account for factors such as the stiffness and elasticity of the “skeleton” forming the backbone of a cancer cell, and the friction between the cancer and the body’s own tissues. These factors, and others which influence the Karttunen group’s computational analysis, govern the way cancer invades the human body; knowing the cancer’s path into healthy tissues means completely new avenues to treat the disease can be devised.
The Karttunen group’s analyses are already being put to use at the experimental level. In addition to their cell modelling, they have also modelled new methods of targeting cancer with drugs. By encapsulating the medicines with biological membranes, Karttunen and his collaborators are able to precisely administer the therapy without it leaking into the body and causing the severe side effects we normally associate with cancer treatment. Modelling the fundamental structural properties of cells and their components means that, for the first time ever, we can know how the cells will behave and pre-emptively stop them from invading healthy tissues. These targeted approaches mean that a new generation of cancer treatment can be more efficient, and without damaging side effects.