Section: Research Program
Axis 3: Quantitative cancer modeling for biological and preclinical studies
With the emergence and improvement of a plethora of experimental techniques, the molecular, cellular and tissue biology has operated a shift toward a more quantitative science, in particular in the domain of cancer biology. These quantitative assays generate a large amount of data that call for theoretical formalism in order to better understand and predict the complex phenomena involved. Indeed, due to the huge complexity underlying the development of a cancer disease that involves multiple scales (from the genetic, intra-cellular scale to the scale of the whole organism), and a large number of interacting physiological processes (see the so-called "hallmarks of cancer"), several questions are not fully understood. Among these, we want to focus on the most clinically relevant ones, such as the general laws governing tumor growth and the development of metastases (secondary tumors, responsible of 90% of the deaths from a solid cancer). In this context, it is thus challenging to exploit the diversity of the data available in experimental settings (such as in vitro tumor spheroids or in vivo mice experiments) in order to improve our understanding of the disease and its dynamics, which in turn lead to validation, refinement and better tuning of the macroscopic models used in the axes 1 and 2 for clinical applications.
In recent years, several new findings challenged the classical vision of the metastatic development biology, in particular by the discovery of organism-scale phenomena that are amenable to a dynamical description in terms of mathematical models based on differential equations. These include the angiogenesis-mediated distant inhibition of secondary tumors by a primary tumor the pre-metastatic niche or the self-seeding phenomenon Building a general, cancer type specific, comprehensive theory that would integrate these dynamical processes remains an open challenge. On the therapeutic side, recent studies demonstrated that some drugs (such as the Sunitinib), while having a positive effect on the primary tumor (reduction of the growth), could accelerate the growth of the metastases. Moreover, this effect was found to be scheduling-dependent. Designing better ways to use this drug in order to control these phenomena is another challenge. In the context of combination therapies, the question of the sequence of administration between the two drugs is also particularly relevant.
One of the technical challenge that we need to overcome when dealing with biological data is the presence of potentially very large inter-animal (or inter-individual) variability.
Starting from the available multi-modal data and relevant biological or therapeutic questions, our purpose is to develop adapted mathematical models (i.e. identifiable from the data) that recapitulate the existing knowledge and reduce it to its more fundamental components, with two main purposes:
to generate quantitative and empirically testable predictions that allow to assess biological hypotheses or
to investigate the therapeutic management of the disease and assist preclinical studies of anti-cancerous drug development.
We believe that the feedback loop between theoretical modeling and experimental studies can help to generate new knowledge and improve our predictive abilities for clinical diagnosis, prognosis, and therapeutic decision. Let us note that the first point is in direct link with the axes 1 and 2 of the team since it allows us to experimentally validate the models at the biological scale (in vitro and in vivo experiments) for further clinical applications.
More precisely, we first base ourselves on a thorough exploration of the biological literature of the biological phenomena we want to model: growth of tumor spheroids, in vivo tumor growth in mice, initiation and development of the metastases, effect of anti-cancerous drugs. Then we investigate, using basic statistical tools, the data we dispose, which can range from: spatial distribution of heterogeneous cell population within tumor spheroids, expression of cell markers (such as green fluorescent protein for cancer cells or specific antibodies for other cell types), bioluminescence, direct volume measurement or even intra-vital images obtained with specific imaging devices. According to the data type, we further build dedicated mathematical models that are based either on PDEs (when spatial data is available, or when time evolution of a structured density can be inferred from the data, for instance for a population of tumors) or ODEs (for scalar longitudinal data). These models are confronted to the data by two principal means:
when possible, experimental assays can give a direct measurement of some parameters (such as the proliferation rate or the migration speed) or
statistical tools to infer the parameters from observables of the model.
This last point is of particular relevance to tackle the problem of the large inter-animal variability and we use adapted statistical tools such as the mixed-effects modeling framework.
Once the models are shown able to describe the data and are properly calibrated, we use them to test or simulate biological hypotheses. Based on our simulations, we then aim at proposing to our biological collaborators new experiments to confirm or infirm newly generated hypotheses, or to test different administration protocols of the drugs. For instance, in a collaboration with the team of the professor Andreas Bikfalvi (Laboratoire de l'Angiogénèse et du Micro-environnement des Cancers, Inserm, Bordeaux), based on confrontation of a mathematical model to multi-modal biological data (total number of cells in the primary and distant sites and MRI), we could demonstrate that the classical view of metastatic dissemination and development (one metastasis is born from one cell) was probably inaccurate, in mice grafted with metastatic kidney tumors. We then proposed that metastatic germs could merge or attract circulating cells. Experiments involving cells tagged with two different colors are currently performed in order to confirm or infirm this hypothesis.
Eventually, we use the large amount of temporal data generated in preclinical experiments for the effect of anti-cancerous drugs in order to design and validate mathematical formalisms translating the biological mechanisms of action of these drugs for application to clinical cases, in direct connection with the axis 1. We have a special focus on targeted therapies (designed to specifically attack the cancer cells while sparing the healthy tissue) such as the Sunitinib. This drug is indeed indicated as a first line treatment for metastatic renal cancer and we plan to conduct a translational study coupled between A. Bikfalvi's laboratory and medical doctors, F. Cornelis (radiologist) and A. Ravaud (head of the medical oncology department).