Why do engineers study cancer?


You probably know that cancer research is routinely done by biologists, but you might be surprised to learn that engineers increasingly contribute to our understanding and treatment of this disease.

Here are some examples:

  • Cancer cells migrate through the body to take root in distant organs. These cells have to survive the
    Bob Riter
    Bob Riter

    “flowing river” of a blood vessel and to break through the wall of that blood vessel. Why do some cells survive this journey and others don’t? Bioengineers study the sheer forces and other physical dimensions of this migration in the hopes of preventing metastases.

  • Diagnosing cancer is increasingly done with sophisticated imaging. Bioengineers create ways to “paint” cancer cells with markers that allow physicians to distinguish cancer from normal tissue. Some clinical trials are underway that enable a surgeon to recognize painted cancer cells in real time during surgery.
  • Some drugs have to get inside the cell to work. Engineers use nanotechnology to create drug delivery systems that enable the drug to be released only when arriving at its targeted location.
  • There’s a great deal of interest in “liquid biopsies” which have the potential to diagnose cancer through blood tests. To do so, the blood test has to find a few cancer cells amidst millions of other cells. Bioengineers are developing incredibly advanced chips (almost like computer chips) that can identify and capture those cancer cells.

Cancer is unbelievably complex and multidimensional. We increasingly think of the ecosystems of cancer – from the cellular level to the individual level to the population level. No single academic discipline has the ability to understand it all. I think it’s terrific that engineers and other physical scientists are applying their creative thought and sophisticated toolboxes to the cancer world.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: April 15, 2017

Bob Riter is the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. He can be reached at [email protected]