John Lowengrub, UC Irvine mathematics professor and chair, knows the devastating effects of cancer. His aunt died 10 years ago of ovarian cancer, and several members of his wife’s family have battled and recovered from the disease.

Applying his academic skills to the question of how cancer spreads, Lowengrub began building mathematical computer models to predict tumor growth and evaluate therapy options. The goal: maximize treatment effectiveness and minimize patient suffering.

“Most everyone has been touched by the loss of a loved one to cancer,” Lowengrub says. “I hope my team’s work will bring us closer to controlling this terrible disease.”

In May, Lowengrub published a study in the journal Cancer Research showing that cancer growth is not as erratic as previously thought.

Using a computer model, he predicted tumor changes in part by assessing the environment around the cancer – for example, levels of oxygen and sugar, which feed cancerous cells. Aggressive cells moved to areas with more nutrients, making the tumor unstable and altering its shape. Cancer progression could be determined by tracking these changes, and therapy options could be tailored accordingly, the study found.

The model consistently reproduced cell invasion patterns observed in experiments and patient biopsy samples. Lowengrub hopes doctors someday will use this tool to make better decisions when treating cancer patients.

“Cancer is driven by many factors. Clinical experiments alone are not enough for us to understand its complexities,” Lowengrub says. “Mathematical modeling will play an increasingly important role in the future of health sciences.”

Lowengrub and his team collaborated on the study with Vittorio Cristini and Mauro Ferrari of the University of Texas Health Science Center, Dr. David Agus of the Cedars-Sinai Cancer Center, and Dr. Elaine Bearer of Brown University. The National Science Foundation Division of Mathematical Sciences and the National Institutes of Health supported this work.

Also a professor in UCI’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Lowengrub is writing a book about cancer modeling with Cristini.