Cancer System Biology

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Cancer systems biology encompasses the application of systems biology approaches to cancer research, in order to study the disease as a complex adaptive system with emerging properties at multiple biological scales. More explicitly, because cancer spans multiple biological, spatial and temporal scales, communication and feedback mechanisms across the scales create a highly complex dynamic system. The relationships between scales is not simple or necessarily direct, and sometimes become combinatorial, so that systems approaches are essential to evaluate these relationships quantitatively and qualitatively.

Cancer systems biology therefore adopts a holistic view of cancer aimed at integrating its many biological scales, including genetics, signaling networks, epigenetics, cellular behavior, histology, (pre)clinical manifestations and epidemiology. Ultimately, cancer properties at one scale, e.g., histology, are explained by properties at a scale below, e.g., cell behavior. Likewise, a higher scale, e.g., epidemiology, can encroach on a lower scale, e.g., genetics. The fundamental concept is that percolation of properties across scales must be measured and taken into account in order to fully understand etiology, progression and dynamics of cancer. The systems biology approach relies heavily on the successes of decades of reductionism, which has clarified the component parts and mechanistic principles of living organisms, as well as their key alterations in cancer, especially at the genetic/genomic scale, to deep detail. Basic researchers and clinicians have progressively recognized the complexity of cancer and of its interaction with the micro- and macro-environment, since putting together the components to provide a cohesive view of the disease has been challenging and hampered progress. Cancer Systems Biology transcends the “reductionist” approach to cancer that typically produces causative explanations focused on a single gene or mutation, with little emphasis on inter-scale relationships.

Cancer systems biology merges traditional basic and clinical cancer research with “exact” sciences, such as applied mathematics, engineering, and physics. It incorporates a spectrum of “omics” technologies (genomics, proteomics, epigenomics, etc.) and molecular imaging, to generate computational algorithms and quantitative models that shed light on mechanisms underlying the cancer process and predict response to intervention.

In 2004, the US National Cancer Institute launched a program effort on Integrative Cancer Systems Biology to establish Centers for Cancer Systems Biology that focus on the analysis of cancer as a complex biological system. The integration of experimental biology with mathematical modeling will result in new insights in the biology and new approaches to the management of cancer. The program brings clinical and basic cancer researchers together with researchers from mathematics, physics, engineering, information technology, imaging sciences, and computer science to work on unraveling fundamental questions in the biology of cancer.
Input by : Rahmah Agustira





Rahmah Agustira


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“Cancer System Biology,” Open Educational Resources (OER) , accessed April 14, 2024,