Taking aim at cancer

CSE researchers are engineering new ways to treat cancer

Engineers have long played a role in fighting cancer. They have developed imaging technologies to detect tumors, electron microscopes to see the disease at a cellular or microscopic level, and the software necessary to analyze the genetics that may lie at the root of various cancers.

But more recently, engineers have taken a more central role in fighting the disease—using engineering principles to understand the mechanics of tumors, and building components of drug therapy that might treat cancer.

“That’s exactly right. It is relatively new,” said David Odde, a professor of biomedical engineering, who is leading an effort at the University of Minnesota to understand the physics underlying the movement of cancer cells and progression of the disease—specifically applying engineering principals to characterizing cancer.


“In terms of treating, it’s basically been drugs, and drugs have been developed without modeling or engineering playing an important role in the process,” Odde said.


“It’s really been done by biologists and chemists,” he added.

As engineers move to the actual discovery process, “that is very exciting to me,” Odde said.

A national movement

As though to underline the point, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently awarded the University of Minnesota an $8.2 million grant from the NCI’s Physical Sciences in Oncology Initiative, which brings cancer biologists and oncologists together with mathematicians, chemists, and engineers to investigate how cancer cells move and spread throughout the body.

With the grant, the University joins a network of nine other U.S. research institutions collaborating on a physics-based approach to cancer research.


“Now we have a chance to actually use those engineering principals to understand how cells behave,” said Professor David Largaespada.


“Engineers and mathematicians add a formal mathematical description of the things that we see when we look through a microscope—as an example, literally measuring the stickiness that cells have for other cells, and the force that the cells generate as they go along in their environment,” he explained.

Largaespada is one of the directors of the research with Odde. He is a professor in the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development and Department of Pediatrics at the Masonic Cancer Center.

“They have the ability to help measure those things,” he continued, “and then describe how the forces can change over time as the cells move around. Then we can write an equation that describes these phenomena, which are controlled by proteins and molecules that we can manipulate using genetics. That’s what the engineers bring.”

Minnesota at the hub of innovative research

In addition to the NCI Physical Sciences in Oncology grant, thanks to the success of the University’s MnDRIVE (Minnesota Discovery, Research, and InnoVation) initiative, the Minnesota Legislature recently authorized $8 million over two years to expand cancer research through a newly created statewide cancer clinical trials network.

MnDRIVE is a partnership between the University and the state aimed at advancing Minnesota’s economy by backing University research that aligns with the state’s areas of strength and competitive advantages.


“With geographical access to world-class hospitals and partnerships with global med-tech corporations, the University of Minnesota is at the hub of innovative research,” said Allen Levine, University vice president for research.


“Because we have a medical school that’s located across the street from a school of engineering, and because we, as an institution, have encouraged work across the disciplines,” he said, “our researchers have an environment that helps foster new discoveries."

Read and watch videos about how four College of Science and Engineering researchers are using their engineering skills in collaboration with experts from multiple disciplines across the University to find new ways of treating cancer.

David Odde and Paolo Provenzano: Predicting cancer cell movement

Efie Kokkoli: Tiny technology treats big disease

Chad Myers: Exploring genetic connections in breast cancer

Story by Greg Breining

If you’d like to support innovations within the College of Science and Engineering, visit the CSE giving web page.