Math can help uncover cancer's secrets

Mathematical modeling can help test hypotheses and move science forward if we learn how to ask the right questions.

About the talk

Irina Kareva translates biology into mathematics and vice versa. She writes mathematical models that describe the dynamics of cancer, with the goal of developing new drugs that target tumors. "The power and beauty of mathematical modeling lies in the fact that it makes you formalize, in a very rigorous way, what we think we know," Kareva says. "It can help guide us to where we should keep looking, and where there may be a dead end." It all comes down to asking the right question and translating it to the right equation, and back.

About the speaker

Irina Kareva · Theoretical biologist

As a theoretical biologist, Irina Kareva believes we can find more accurate answers if we learn how to ask the right questions. She uses mathematical modeling to test biological hypotheses. The primary focus of her research lies in looking at cancer as an evolving ecosystem, where heterogeneous populations of cells compete and cooperate with each
other, fight off predators (the immune system), migrate (metastases), all within the ecosystem of the human body. By shifting perspectives, Irina changes how we think about treating cancer: just like in other ecosystems, the best way to extinguish species is to destroy their habitat. As a research scientist in simulation and modeling at our company, based in Billerica, USA, she searches for ways to target the environment of the tumor cells without killing the host. Formulating and testing hypotheses about therapeutic interventions using mathematical models can allow designing more targeted treatment strategies at a lower cost, both for patients and for drug developers. Her book Understanding Cancer from a Systems Biology Point of View is just out by Elsevier.