Physics Professor Min Xu, PhD, and Biology Department Chair and Professor Shelley Phelan, PhD, lead students in innovative, three-year study on the growth and aggressiveness of cancer cells.
This method of predicting aggressiveness could provide new avenues in cancer diagnosis and prognosis..."
— Dr. Shelley Phelan, professor and chair of the Biology Department
College of Arts and Sciences faculty members Min Xu, PhD, associate professor of physics and Shelley Phelan, PhD, professor and chair of the Biology Department, have been awarded a three-year, $238,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, to conduct an interdisciplinary study on the physical principles behind the growth and aggressiveness of cancer cells.
The innovative research project is scheduled to start at the end of the fall 2017 semester and will use microscopic imaging to determine whether or not it is possible to identify specific cell properties, such as nuclear structure or cellular metabolism, that control the rate of a cancer cell’s growth. If these factors can be identified, scientists would be able to predict cancer aggressiveness directly from cell imaging, which would provide breakthrough advances in cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment.
“The determination of the aggressiveness of cancer is key in choosing the optimal treatment strategy for a patient,” explained Dr. Phelan, who also serves as the director of the College of Arts and Sciences School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences and Mathematics. “This method of predicting aggressiveness could provide new avenues in cancer diagnosis and prognosis, and would be especially helpful in treating cancers that are more difficult to diagnose with surgical or other invasive methods.”
Employing an interdisciplinary approach to research, the new study will be facilitated by motivated students enrolled in the University’s physics, biology, engineering, and other natural science departments. Dr. Xu and Dr. Phelan believe these multi-disciplinary perspectives allow for a unique point of intersection that is essential to understanding cancer biology.
“There are many researchers within the field who have traditional training in biology or chemistry, and while they have contributed to great progress, some of the most complex issues are not being addressed by single fields,” Phelan explained. “This is being seen in a wide variety of areas, and that is why diagnostics and therapies in the cancer field now include contributions from physics, engineering, and materials science.”
Dr. Xu's and Dr. Phelan’s upcoming study is just one of a large number of active research projects taking place on Fairfield’s campus. Faculty members within the natural science departments conduct research alongside undergraduates on a daily basis, providing them with the essential training needed to become the next generation of scientists and critical thinkers.
“The most exciting advances in science and technology are interdisciplinary nowadays,” said Dr. Xu. “Interdisciplinary research involving undergraduates offers these students training in broad skill sets and perspectives that are invaluable to their future careers.”