Medical Math: Mathematicians doing cancer research
In a few years, a mathematician may be part of every medical team that treats a cancer patient.
Growing up in Scotland, Alexander "Sandy" Anderson discovered early that he had an aptitude for numbers. He wasn't much interested in abstract math; instead, he focused on "the idea of using mathematics to characterize the real world."
In his academic training, he explored using complex equations to describe processes that seem random but have underlying patterns — for instance, the movements of storms or the flight of birds. Find the formula that describes the pattern, he says, and "you can make predictions" — about a storm's path, for example.
In the early 1990s, Anderson was using mathematics to analyze how microscopic worms called nematodes find food, including
potatoes being grown by farmers. He developed a series of equations that described how fast nematodes moved toward potatoes based on how much of certain chemicals are in the soil.
Anderson believed that the models he built had value beyond helping potato farmers. Cancer tumors, research had shown, also send out certain chemicals that attract blood vessels, which then form around the tumor and feed the cancer's growth. "The way a nematode finds a potato is precisely the way a blood vessel finds a tumor," says Anderson.
Adapting his models to the biological mechanics of cancer, Anderson hoped he could generate new insights into how to disrupt the process by which tumors form and spread.
Initially, Anderson felt his line of inquiry fell on deaf ears among colleagues at the University of Dundee. Anderson says his colleagues asked: " 'Why do I need a mathematician? Why do I need a model?' "
Anderson began collaborating with researchers at Vanderbilt University and other American medical institutions in formulating mathematical models of cancer's behavior — an endeavor that now has evolved into a discipline called mathematical oncology.
In 2008, Anderson got a call from Dr. Robert Gatenby, an American radiologist and math whiz he'd met on the conference circuit. Moffitt Cancer Center had just hired Gatenby to shore up its radiology department. Gatenby had accepted the job offer on one condition — Moffitt had to let him create a freestanding unit of mathematical oncologists. Gatenby says Anderson was the first person he wanted to hire for what has become Moffitt's Integrated Mathematical Oncology department — the first, and so far, only freestanding mathematical oncology department at a cancer center in the U.S.