McCormick Professors to Participate in New Cancer Research Center

Eight McCormick professors will participate in a multimillion-dollar interdisciplinary project that will study genes and their role in cancer.

Northwestern University has been awarded a $13.6 million five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to establish the Physical Sciences-Oncology Center (PS-OC), one of 12 established nationwide by the NCI. The center brings together physical scientists and cancer biologists to use non-traditional, physical-sciences based approaches to understand and control cancer. A better understanding of the mechanisms could lead to better diagnostics and therapeutics and open up new directions for research.

Cross-disciplinary teams are at the heart of the new center. The center will consists of five project areas, each focused on different aspects of the storage and expression of genetic information. Each project integrates methods and ideas of experimental molecular and cell biology with experimental methods and theoretical ideas from the physical sciences.

At the core of the project is the epigenome, a set of biochemical reactions that turns genes on and off. Your epigenome can change according to your environment; it's part of the reason identical twins can develop some different characteristics as they grow. At the heart of epigenetics is the histone, a protein in the nuclei of the cells of higher organisms that packages and folds DNA within the nucleus and that can regulate gene expression when modified. Researchers hypothesize that the epigenome has become "out of order" in cancerous cells, and that controlling it could potentially lead to new ways of preventing or "turning off" cancer.

Before that's possible, however, researchers need to better understand how these processes work. William Kath, professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics, will lead a project to model DNA in different states of genetic expression to try to determine why cells are stable in some states and why cells switch states. McCormick professors also working on this project include Luis Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering, Dirk Brockmann, associate professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics, and Mary Silber, professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics.

Other McCormick professors involved in the center include Vadim Backman, professor of biomedical engineering, Linda Broadbelt, professor of chemical and biological engineering, Vinayak Dravid and Mark Hersam, both professors of materials science and engineering. McCormick professors are working on all five of the projects, which include studying information encoded in the sequence-dependent mechanics of DNA and encoding and interpreting information at the protein level.

"Our center will be studying the regulation and expression of genes in both normal health and development and in cancer," said principal investigator Jonathan Widom, the William Deering Professor in Biological Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "We need to understand healthy cells to understand and control cancer."

The PC-OS initiative is expected to generate new knowledge in order to identify and define critical aspects of physics, chemistry and engineering that shape and govern the emergence and behavior of cancer at all scales.

"By bringing a fresh set of eyes to the study of cancer, these new centers have great potential to advance, and sometimes challenge, accepted theories about cancer and its supportive microenvironment," said NCI Director John E. Niederhuber, M.D. "Physical scientists think in terms of time, space, pressure, heat, and evolution in ways that we hope will lead to new understandings of the multitude of forces that govern cancer -- and with that understanding, we hope to develop new and innovative methods of arresting tumor growth and metastasis."

The Northwestern center is the result of a joint effort between the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute (CLP) and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Its focus is on the molecular mechanisms by which genetic and epigenetic information is encoded and decoded in cancer cells. By combining diverse approaches from the physical sciences, including nano- and atomic-scale investigation, advanced optics, high-level computational power and mathematical modeling, the center's investigators hope to gain new insights into fundamental processes of the cell.

Principal investigator Widom is a member of the CLP and the Lurie Cancer Center. Jonathan Licht, the Johanna Dobe Professor in Hematology/Oncology in the Feinberg School of Medicine and associate director of clinical science research at the Lurie Cancer Center, is senior co-investigator of the Northwestern PS-OC.

The Chemistry of Life Processes Institute will support the center's mission by bringing together a range of physical sciences researchers. The Lurie Cancer Center will link the fundamental inquiries of the physical scientists with the pressing needs of clinical oncologists and cancer patients.

The Northwestern PS-OC draws scientists -- theoretical physicists, mathematicians, molecular biologists, chemists, engineers and endocrinologists -- from Weinberg, Feinberg and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Other investigators are from the University of Chicago, Children's Memorial Hospital, the California Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute.

In addition to funding for five research projects and two core facilities, the NCI grant also will provide funding to Northwestern investigators and potential collaborators at other PS-OCs across the nation for new interdisciplinary pilot projects that relate to the overarching theme of the Northwestern PS-OC.

The grant also will fund multidisciplinary workshops, seminars and specialized programs for training the next generation of interdisciplinary physical scientists and clinicians.

The Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and the Lurie Cancer Center will provide administrative infrastructure and many specialized core instrumentation facilities to create a fertile interdisciplinary environment for the scientific teams, helping to advance both the fundamental science and its clinical application.

More information about the Physical Science-Oncology Centers program can be found at