$12 million grant to fund new approach to cancer study at Stanford

Sylvia Plevritis

Sylvia Plevritis

The Stanford University School of Medicine has been awarded $12.8 million over five years by the National Cancer Institute to establish a Center for Cancer Systems Biology. The center is one of 12 recently funded by the NCI to stimulate integrative systems approaches and the application of computational modeling to cancer research.

“Our work views cancer as a complex system,” said associate professor of radiology Sylvia Plevritis, PhD. “Instead of focusing on the function of one gene or protein, we want to identify a molecular network that captures interactions between many genes and proteins. Our approach differs from more traditional scientific methods. Rather than starting with a hypothesis then collecting data to test it, we start by collecting global expression data, analyze the data with computational methods to generate a hypothesis, then collect new data to test the hypothesis.”

Plevritis is the director of the center; professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan, PhD, is the co-director. The center includes Stanford faculty and researchers across multiple disciplines, including Ron Levy, MD; Dean Felsher, MD, PhD; and Ravi Majeti, MD, PhD, from medicine; Daphne Koller, PhD, and David Dill, PhD, from computer science; Robert Tibshirani, PhD, from biostatistics; Andrew Gentles, PhD, from genomics; and Gunnar Carlsson, PhD, from mathematics.

The center meshes biological and computational research to reconstruct molecular networks in the study of non-solid tumors such as adult myeloid leukemia, follicular lymphoma and T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The center will also establish resources for complex data analysis and an education and outreach component targeted to the Stanford cancer research community and the community at large.

“We are delighted that Dr. Plevritis has received this award on the basis of the pioneering work she has conducted with her group,” said Stanford Cancer Center director Beverly Mitchell, MD. “She has leveraged the unique strengths at Stanford to build an integrated program of computational and cancer cell biology that will greatly improve our understanding of cancer evolution and its implication for treatment.”

The center had its inception in 2004, when Plevritis and colleagues applied for and received a preliminary round of funding from the NCI to support a planning effort for a full-scale center. Of all the institutions that received planning funds, Stanford is the only one to subsequently receive funding for a full center. The program achieved its intended mission to coax researchers out of their comfort zone to face some difficult questions involving the intersection between biology, mathematics and clinical outcomes.

“For years scientists have been applying principles of computational biology to relatively simple systems like yeast and bacteria,” said Plevritis. “With these grants the National Cancer Institute is promoting this research in the more complicated system of cancer.”

The 12 centers form the core of the NCI’s Integrative Cancer Biology Program. They are expected to share knowledge and resources and to facilitate interdisciplinary work on the understanding and management of cancer in all its messiness.

“We are developing new methods to answer old questions,” said Plevritis, who pointed out that it’s also important to understand normal cell biology in the study of cancer. The major research goal of the center is to understand what role cellular differentiation plays in cancer progression. “We want to understand the regulators of differentiation and how they contribute to what we think of as a hierarchical structure of cancer. We suspect that cancer manifests itself in a cellular organization that emerges from the disregulation of normal cellular differentiation processes.”

In addition to research and computation, the center is also working to educate students and faculty members about cancer systems biology. It is planning a course in computational biology for graduate students in the medical school’s cancer biology program, a regular schedule of seminar speakers for interested faculty and staff and an annual symposium.

More information about the center can be found at http://ccsb.stanford.edu. The NCI’s Integrative Cancer Biology Program website is at http://icbp.nci.nih.gov/.


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