Thirty-two year-old Austrian-born biomathematician Franziska Michor believes that cancer cells may behave in predictable ways that can be understood with advances in mathematics.
Evolutionary biologist Franziska Michor, who earned her Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Harvard University in 2005 at the age of 22, knew from childhood that she wanted to be a mathematician.
It was that or marry a mathematician. Her mathematician father and nurse mother had decreed that she and her sister must either become mathematicians or marry one. "Marry? Anything but that!" she is quoted as saying in a 2007 interview with Esquire, and at a very tender age Michor earned her doctoral degree at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. This began her career looking at cancer as an evolutionary process.
What Does It Mean To Say Cancer "Evolves"?
Cancer, Dr Michor explains, doesn't really evolve in the sense that humans evolved from earlier hominids or land creatures evolved from sea creatures. It isn't a natural progression from normal cell to cancer cell, as if the cancer cell were, in the sense most people understand it, "more evolved." Instead, the evolution of cancer recapitulates what really happens in the evolution of organisms.
The human body contains trillions of cells. Most of them function normally. Of those trillions of cells, however, millions or even billions carry mutated DNA. Cells sometimes can repair mutated DNA, and go back to normal function. Cells sometimes die because of errors in their genetic code, and are removed the immune system with inflammation. A few cells with mutated DNA become cancerous, and multiply to cause the disease.
If cancer cells are allowed to multiply unchecked, in most cases they form tumors, invade neighboring tissues, grow their own blood vessels, and enter the sto attach to new organs.
The end result of unfettered cancer growth is death. Treatments for cancer, understandably, focus on killing cancer cells. However, imprecise treatments like chemotherapy kill both cancer cells and healthy cells, rolling the dice that they will kill more cancer cells than healthy cells and result in net benefit to the patient. More precise treatments like modern radiation therapy kill cancer cells and sometimes only cancer cells, but the body still has to remove the debris with inflammation. Even the most modern immunotherapies cause temporary enlargment of tumors (which can put pressure on blood vessels and adjacent organs) as they knock out the disease.
Dr Michor's Innovation
Franziska Michor's work focuses on using modern methods to refine commonly available cancer treatments. Chemotherapy, despite its many detractors, tends to do more good than harm, at least the first few times it is used, and it is relatively inexpensive and widely available. Michor uses mathematics to calculate the least harmful doses of chemotherapy used at the optimal time to interrupt the orderly and predictable multiplication of cancer cells using modern math. Her approach has found some major successes, which will be discussed on the next page.
For her innovations, Michor received the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science, awarded to immigrants to the United States who make noteworthy contributions to "immigrants who have made lasting contributions to American society through their extraordinary achievements in biomedical research and the arts and humanities." Using math to minimize chemotherapy certainly falls into this category.