Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cancer, Traffic Jams, and the Braess Paradox

The article, "Old Ideas Spur New Approaches in Cancer Fight," in today's New York Times is a MUST-READ! In it, a reference is made to an article published in The Lancet in 1962, and written by Dr. Smithers, with the quote: Cancer is no more a disease of cells than a traffic jam is a disease of cars, Dr. Smithers wrote: A lifetime of study of the internal combustion engine would not help anyone understand our traffic problems.

The article goes on to demonstrate how results in "old" research papers are starting to ring true. Fascinatingly, the Times article begins with a female researcher, Mina Bissell, recalling how one of her research papers on the genesis of cancer was heaved into a waste basket by a prominent scientist twenty years ago. Her thesis: gene mutations are part of the process of cancer, but mutations alone are not enough. Cancer involves interaction between rogue cells and surrounding tissue.

The above statement reminds me of a traffic network with individual cells or drivers in cars competing for resources from the supply of the infrastructure.

Interestingly, several years back I heard from a group of medical researchers who were intrigued by possible analogies between the Braess paradox and cancer-targeted therapies. The therapies were not working out as expected and it seems that the concepts fom transportation networks of user-optimization vs. system-optimization might be relevant.

In fact, I included a note on this in the presentation that I gave as a Science Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University that year and mentioned it in my talk and discussion. A few weeks ago, I heard, once again, from one of the medical researchers who also sent me several articles from the biological/medical/oncological scientific literatures.

As I tell my students, acquire as much knowledge as you can in your studies, since you never know when you may be applying different tools and methodologies in your future work. Interestingly, last June, while on the Traffic panel at the World Science Festival, the organizers had the prescience of convening a biologist (Iain Couzin of Princeton University), an operations researcher/economist/network scientist (yours truly of UMass Amherst), and an architect (Mitchell Joachim of Columbia University) to discuss traffic and its solutions!

I will be reading the materials forwarded to me by the medical researchers carefully and hope that what is old and even from other disciplines can shed new light and insights into one of the most challenging medical issues of modern times -- cancer and its cures.

If you would like to learn more about networks and their fascinating applications, please listen to the podcast interview with me by Barry List made possible by INFORMS.