My name is Teemu Kuosmanen and I am here in Basel for my master’s thesis research which focuses on the exciting and relatively novel field of mathematical oncology.
Cancer is conventionally seen as a genetic disease and characterized by the accumulation of genetic and epigenetic alterations. While this is of course per se true, such definition naturally implies that the focus of cancer research should be in the systematic study of mutations and genes. Indeed, this has and continues to be the central dogma and interest of mainstream cancer research.
But cancer is more than just mutations and genetics stuff. Cancers are complex and dynamic evolutionary processes that happen in real time in our bodies. Cancer is essentially evolution backwards from the cooperative multicellular initial state to selfish, defecting unicellular life. This subtle, almost trivial, darwinistic change in definition of cancer was the game changer that revolutionized my view on cancer.
By viewing cancer from this evolutionary perspective, we are forced to think not only the present but also the future cancer population. At the same time, we understand that the evolution of the cancer is not something independent of us, but instead, we actually have the power to influence and control it by inducing selection pressure and dynamically shaping the tumor microenvironment with our treatments. These considerations then raise the intriguing questions of whether the evolutionary outcomes of individual tumors are predictable and what would be the optimal way of controlling them, the goals and interests of my research.
Cancers exhibit incredible diversity in their growth, metastatic abilities and development of resistance and these three fundamental neoplastic traits are of utmost clinical importance. The current big idea in the field is the aim of constructing a map from the observed genotype to the phenotype where the real interest lies. Personally, I think more emphasis should be put directly to the phenotypes of interest and especially to the key role of tumor microenvironment and tumor ecology. Mathematical modelling can provide valuable insights also in this area by identifying and analyzing trade-offs between these traits, modelling the ecological interactions and determining what kind of growth and dispersal strategies are most successful in different environments.
Cancer is (from a purely scientific perspective) a fascinating biological phenomenon that directly connects and intersects to other fundamental questions like evolution of multicellularity and cooperation, biology of ageing and antibiotic resistance. Approaching these important questions from mathematical point of view is interdisciplinary research at its best and offers a very rich modelling framework which encompasses a wide variety of different mathematical and statistical tools.
This has been a unique opportunity for me to concentrate on my master’s thesis in a stimulating research environment. Basel is a beautiful city located at the heart of Europe: it is a truly extraordinary feeling to cross the German border with tram and then walk across the Rhine to France on the same trip! These cross-border day trips are ideal for a more affordable shopping and you get to sense the slightly different atmospheres between the countries. It is on these occasions that you really start to value the EU…
I wish a very pleasant autumn for all our blog readers!