Physics of Cancer (1)

If you are confused by the title, that’s okay. Usually, when we read something about cancer, it is about something biology-related, for example about specific mutations or the environmental conditions that increase cancer risk. A lot of research is happening with regards to the biology and biochemistry of cancer: which tumour suppressor genes are mutated in certain cancers, what are the effects cancer has on someone’s health, what drugs can we use to treat a cancer, … ? But, perhaps surprisingly, studying the physics of cancer also has its merit. Why, it’s a whole field in itself!

So I’d like to talk a little bit about this topic, the physics of cancer, and in this first part, I will focus on how physical forces can change the behaviour of cells (and how this might be involved with disease).

Cells not only sense their biological environment, they also feel their physical environment. They sense the stiffness of the cells and protein structures around them, they sense how other cells are pushing and pulling on them, and then they react to it. And these mechanisms could actually be quite important for the development and progression of cancer.

Recent research showed that the cells surrounding a tumour are under mechanical stress because of the growth of the tumour. As a tumour grows, it pushes on its environment. So the – initially healthy – cells in its direct surroundings, feel a pressure. In this specific study, they showed that this pressure caused the cells to start a mechanical response pathway leading to the upregulation of a protein β-catenin. This protein is involved in activating certain pathways involved in cell proliferation.

Which is exactly what its upregulation leads to in cancer. In the case of colorectal cancer (which, if you remember, I am particularly interested in), a mutation of Apc (adenomatous polyposis coli, in case you were wondering) also leads to an accumulation of β-catenin amongst other things. The APC protein has been linked to many functions, but the best known is its involvement in forming a complex that binds to β-catenin and tagging it for destruction. That way the proteins involved in protein recycling know that the β-catenin proteins can be cut up. But when APC is mutated, β-catenin gets tagged and starts piling up and doing some of its jobs a little bit too well, including inducing proliferation pathways.

So back to the study, if healthy cells are experiencing a constant pressure (due to a big bad tumour growing into their space, or – as they tested in the study – artificially caused pressure), they start acting more “cancer-like”. This suggests that mechanical activation of a tumorigenic pathway, in this case, the β-catenin pathway, is a potential method for transforming cells.

This is just one example of how physics and cancer are potentially related. As a side note, I myself am also interested in how cells respond the mechanical stresses, which prompted me to do an experiment where I placed weights on top of cells.


Feeling the pump.


This subject was the topic of my first FameLab performance, which ended in a little song (to the tune of “Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure). It’s sung from the perspective of a cell that is stuck next to a growing tumour:

Hello there, I am a cell.
Feeling healthy, fit and well.
Life is good, yes, life is swell.
But my neighbour’s got it worse.

Something about him does not belong.
The way he pushes is just wrong.
They say in him the force is strong,
they say he’s got the force.

He takes up so much space.
And is always getting up in my face.
It’s putting me in a stressful space.

You could say he’s left his mark.
It’s like swimming with a shark.
He’s pushing me towards the dark,
the dark side of the Force,
the dark side of the Force.

Oh, have a mentioned that I like Star Wars?


Last week, I was in New York City.

For the most part, I was on holiday.
*cue 3-line rant about how amazing it was*
I can’t stress enough how amazing it was – obviously; New York is awesome – and how much delicious food we had – lobster sandwiches and NY pizza and (no-Turkey-for-me) Thanksgiving dinner – and how sad I am about being back in the real world.
*end rant*

But alongside the fun and leisure, I also volunteered for a science education event organised by RockEdu, Rockefeller University’s educational outreach office.

Apparently, it was surprising that I would give up half a day of my holiday to volunteer at an outreach event. But to me, it was an interesting experience, an opportunity to try out my outreaching enthusiasm in a different context, make some useful connections and most of all, a whole lot of fun! After this experience, I’d really like to pitch a new idea: EduTourism (#EduTourism, spread the word, folks): volunteering in educational programmes while on holiday. It gives a new perspective on outreach, it gives you a good excuse to visit another academic institution, and it is a perfect way to interact with locals! Also, it makes you feel that your trip was more than just a – albeit entertaining – waste of money.

What I especially liked about the RockEdu lab, was how organised everything is. Instead of the usual format of a science education team, i.e. a bunch of volunteering PhD students and PostDocs who want a break from their research and the occasional coordinating staff member, RockEdu has a team of 5 or 6 people permanently working in outreach. They write grants, create activities, set up mentoring programmes, coordinate summer projects, etcetera etcetera. Moreover, they have a lab space that is exclusively and specifically used for science education. Instead of activities carried out in some corner between labs or in an improvised table-based laboratory missing crucial equipment or sockets, these benches are meant for education! Classes can come in – for free – and participate in a science experiment tailored for their age and level.

So I spent part of the day helping a group of 16ish-year-old AP bio students through a GFP purification process, something I myself knew about but had never actually carried out. Using blue flashlights and yellow goggles, the whole process could be followed closely, which was pretty neat. We learned about proteins, fluorescence, jellyfish, what doing a Phd is all about. We ran a gel and looked at some GFP-expressing worms as an example of an in vivo application. I thought it all was pretty cool and the students also seemed to have enjoyed themselves (while learning something, of course).

Overall, I’m really glad I took the time to participate in EduTourism, and totally hope that this will become an actual thing.


Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 09.25.24.png
C. elegans with GFP. Image from @RockEdu (twitter)


“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

… and all it takes is for someone to show it to the world.

Pursuing a career in research involves more than working in a lab or sitting behind a computer all day, it also involves disseminating results and promoting the research. Within the scientific community, communicating research happens through the publication of papers and participation at conferences, but it is equally important to engage to the general public through outreach activities. Part of my PhD project includes participating in outreach, and I have to say I’ve quite enjoyed the projects I’ve been involved in so far (even though I’ve actually not done any outreach yet, just preparation of). Therefore, a bit of internet ramble on outreach.

1. What is outreach?

In this context, I guess outreach can be defined as raising awareness on a certain topic, such as science or academic research. It involves disseminating information about that topic to the general public and people outside the field to increase understanding and interest. Additionally, it could help engage children to the field. Outreach tools would include advertisement leaflets, newsletters, stalls or exhibitions in community centres, university open days, and the organisation of lectures and workshops at schools. Just to give a few examples.

2. Why even do research?

There is a discrepancy between how science is communicated through media and the actual reality of the research. Increasing the understanding of the topics of research, how research is done and how results are generally interpreted can perhaps help solve this problem. Additionally, outreach towards primary and secondary school pupils can perhaps shed a light on how research works and open up prospects of future studies and jobs. Research isn’t at all like the science you learn in school, and it can help get a few nerds enthusiastic about pursuing a career in science by showing them what’s in store.

3. Does outreach actually have an effect?

Let’s hope so. I’m sure there’s numbers out there, but I don’t know how to find them. And as I haven’t actually participated in any events yet, I can’t draw on personal experience. But even if all outreach does is raise awareness, I think that’s already a worthy cause. And if I can get even one child enthusiastic about science, I would consider that an accomplishment. “Did you know you can actually walk on water, if only you add enough cornstarch and turn it into a non-Newtonian fluid, isn’t physics awesome?”

4. My favourite outreach project

I guess it all started when I was 17 and went to the university open days. I already knew what I wanted to study, it wasn’t a hard choice, but had never considered anything further than the 3 year bachelor. Something a master student told me that day just stuck. She was studying nanoscience and when we asked her why, her answer was something along these lines: “It’s just fascinating. You know how the universe is infinitely large, well the nanoworld is sort of the same, just infinitely small.” And I could never get that out of my head.

An extract of my motivation letter to do my own master in nanoscience:

“I have always been fascinated in the aspect of infinity: the infinity of the universe, the infinite amount of atoms inside it, and the infinite amount of even smaller particles we’re only just beginning to understand. I have read several books on astrophysics in my spare time, for example “The Universe in a Nutshell” by Stephen Hawking, and have come to understand that there is a great analogy between the infinity of the universe and the infinity of what happens on atomic scale. The study of the infinitely small is a field that is particularly intriguing to me.”

I got in and 3 years later I was asked to get involved in a project linking images from outer space to images of “inner space”, i.e. the world inside a cell. Think about it, haven’t you ever seen a picture of a cell and though that it looked like a far away galaxy? Or noticed that certain patterns and structures seem to reappear at every size dimension? It’s almost uncanny how images on such different size scales can look so alike. As an example, some time ago I came across the following image on my second favourite waste-of-time website:

The images on the left are representations of “the Flower of Life” as described in Sacred Geometry. The images in the middle are of structures in outer space, the images on the right depict multiple cell divisions.

I guess it suffices to say that I didn’t need much convincing to get into this project.

So, the Outer Space Inner Space (OSIS) project makes the link between the macroscopic world of outer space and the microscopic world as viewed through a microscope. We (a bunch of people from different schools within the University) are planning to convert the Mills Observatory seminar room into a platform for multimodal and immersive engagement. This will include a room-filling presentation screen to show images of the macro and micro cosmos, and space for workshops and exhibitions. It will also feature human-computing interfaces, ensuring that all audiences can experience and interact with the presentations. Within this framework, we also plan to organise activities within the International Year of Light. We have already started setting up an exhibition that aims to teach the general public about the principles of optics, and how this can be used to look at both things that are very far away as things that are very small. As my supervisor once pointed out: there’s not much difference between trying to look at something very small or trying to look at something very far away. A lot of principles in astronomy are being applied to microscopy as well, such as adaptive optics. And to throw in another quote, this one’s by Oliver Heaviside:

“There is no absolute scale of size in the Universe, for it is boundless towards the great and also boundless towards the small.”

I’m involved in a few other outreach projects as well, this blog might be considered as one of them I guess, though I’m not always – not to say hardly ever – talking about science or my life as a researcher. I’m involved in another project, in which we will try to organise a lecture series on the topic of “Science of Sci-Fi movies,” exploring the reality and feasibility of science and technology that appears in science fiction popular culture, and hopefully proving that some these nerd’s dreams have the potential to become reality. Finally, next month I will be participating in a “Bright Club” training, in my own small effort to prove that scientists can be funny too.

End of internet ramble.


This post is based on an article that I’ve written for the PHOQUS newsletter that will be published soon, I have therefore plagiarised myself and apologise for anyone who has or will read certain sentences and ideas twice.

The quote in the title is attributed to Carl Sagan.