“Today the physics of cancer are known; what remains is massive engineering.”
Time magazine, April 2013
Wayne Brodland is an outlier in the world of cancer research. He is not a biologist or medical practitioner, he’s a civil engineer at the University of Waterloo, whose expertise is inventing and using computational models to understand how cancer cells physically move about, or metastasize, to other sites in the body. He knows if he can figure out the basic mechanical forces behind cell movement through his modelling, it will be a step closer to discovering therapeutics that can halt these potentially murderous cancer cells from spreading. And cancer metastasis is a terrible thing – it accounts for 90% of the eight million cancer deaths per year.
But what he does isn’t currently in vogue in cancer research – his work is not about genetic anomalies, which is where 80% of all cancer scientists are searching for a cure, but, instead, he is applying complex engineering methodologies to increase the knowledge of how a single cell moves. It’s not glamorous, but it is essential knowledge that could pave the way to a drug that could halt metastasis, says Brodland.
This computer model allowed the Brodland team to figure out the conditions that cancer cells (shown in orange) need to metastasize.
Already a world renowned expert on the mechanics of embryogenesis, especially neurulation (the process where embryonic cells undergo specific patterns of motion in order to form organs and other critical structures), his lab at Waterloo Engineering has offered original contributions to the knowledge of cell mechanics, including that cell motions are driven by differential tensions and how to infer forces from cell shapes. To accomplish this, Brodland and his team invented Video Force Microscopy (VFM) that uses high-quality time-lapse images of cells along with complex computational modelling. With this unique technology, the team was able to gain new knowledge on the mechanics of wound healing and embryogenesis.
Yet, as successful as he was in the neurulation field, Brodland wasn’t satisfied. After 20 years of embryonic cell mechanics research and discovery, he knew he could take his deep engineering knowledge and innovative technology to a greater calling – to help fight cancer- specifically cell metastasis. Using new proprietary technology, CellFIT, Brodland and his team are close to explaining why some cancerous cells can escape a tumour, while others do not.
But the battle to fight cancer has its own obstacles. While cancer research is a $20 billion a year industry with more than 200,000 cancer researchers in labs around the world, finding the financial support to carry on “the mechanics of cancer” is proving to be difficult. Despite a fruitful collaboration with Dr. Andy Ewald of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and various small research grants over the years, the Brodland Lab and its groundbreaking work on the cancer cell mechanics is facing an uphill battle for funding. Yet Brodland is not discouraged. He knows that unconventional researchers like himself, even though they are highly respected with significant papers published, are on the funding fringes.
“We are close, within three years,” says Brodland “We think we can solve the problem of why cancer cells leave the primary tumour. That’s the big deal. And we have one of the best labs in the world to make this happen.”