August 12th, 2013

UNM Cancer Center Scientist Develops a Numbers Approach to Treatment


View PDF

Vittorio Cristini, PhD, uses the example of an airplane to explain what he does in cancer research. “Before calculus,” he says, “people couldn’t really design a plane that would fly. You can do it by trial and error, but it would probably take centuries.” Dr. Cristini has a faster way to try to understand cancer treatment. Like airplane designers today, he uses a mathematical model.

Dr. Cristini is a University of New Mexico Professor of Pathology at the UNM School of Medicine and the Victor and Ruby Hansen Surface Professor in Molecular Modeling of Cancers. He is also a UNM Professor of Chemical Engineering and of Biomedical Engineering. He has developed a detailed mathematical model of cancer that accurately predicts how individuals respond to cancer treatment. His model, based on biology and physics at the cellular, tissue and organ levels, takes over a dozen complex processes into account to give him insight into how drug molecules are transported within cancer tissue and how they interact with cancerous cells. “From the molecular biology point of view, the processes are very complex and very large in number,” he says. “So a mathematical framework can help to make sense of it all.”

Dr. Cristini and his team gather information from computerized tomography (CT) scans, patient tissue analyses, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), mammography, and other non-invasive or minimally-invasive procedures that the patient would normally receive. They then translate this patient-specific information into numerical values for a few key variables in the model. These variables include the ratios that describe the volume of  blood to tumor cells, the number of drug molecules in the tumor, and the proportion of fast-growing cells in the tumor. The model also includes variables for how drug molecules diffuse between cells, tissue layers and organs; how cells absorb, distribute, metabolize, and excrete drug molecules; and other physical phenomena. A molecule’s shape and size can strongly influence its diffusivity in tissues—how well it travels through layer upon layer of tumor cells once the blood vessels expel it.

Using the physical and biological values together, the model’s “Master Equations of Cancer,”— as Dr. Cristini calls them — compute how many drug molecules reach the tumor, how far into the tumor they can penetrate, and how many tumor cells they kill. Because the model uses patient-specific values, it can predict the fraction of the tumor that the individual’s treatment regimen kills, and even whether the treatment will ultimately be successful and prolong life. So far, the predictions have been astounding.

“We have now demonstrated that the model parameters are significantly correlated with outcome,” says Dr. Cristini. “And by outcome, I mean pathologic response. This means that they can be used to predict outcome in a given patient. They even correlate with survival.” Dr. Cristini and his clinical collaborators at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston, have submitted the results of one study to Science Translational Medicine. They determined from just a CT scan with contrast—and before any treatment—how  pancreatic cancer patients would respond to standard treatments, based on the physical properties of each person’s tissue. Another paper, written in collaboration with Elaine Bearer, PhD, UNM Professor of Pathology at the School of Medicine, was recently accepted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In that paper, Dr. Cristini and Dr. Bearer describe how the model accurately predicted chemotherapy response in people with colorectal cancer that invaded the liver and in people with malignant brain tumors.

The model is also useful in making predictions about recurrent tumors. “You can’t say that the patient is cancer-free just because you can’t see the cells,” Dr. Cristini explains. Current imaging technology can’t detect very small tumors, which is why periodic screening for certain cancers is recommended. Dr. Cristini’s model has shown that because of the physics of diffusion, current cancer treatments should not be expected to kill all the tumor cells; instead, they will leave tumors that are too small to detect. Depending upon the unique biological conditions in the person, those tumor cells may outstrip the immune system’s ability to combat them and regrow the tumor at an alarming rate. The model has been very accurate in predicting these recurring tumors.

Dr. Cristini’s model also predicts that current nanoparticle technologies can kill 3 times as many cancer cells as conventional chemotherapy drugs—completely kills off tumor cells. The model even predicts which physical attributes will be most important in designing nanoparticles that can target tissues and release their toxic payloads more slowly and precisely.

The next step for Dr. Cristini is to test the model prospectively in a clinical setting. Clinical testing will fully demonstrate how useful the model is in making treatment decisions. With the impressive results so far, he hopes to start that work soon.


Paper reference
“Mechanistic Patient-Specific Predictive Correlation of Tumor Drug Response with Microenvironment and Perfusion Measurements” is published in the August 12, 2013 online Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America ( Authors include Jennifer Pascal , Elaine L. Bearer , Zhihui Wang , Eugene J. Koay , Steven A. Curley , Vittorio Cristini.


About the UNM Cancer Center
The UNM Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in the state. One of just 67 premier NCI-Designated Cancer Centers nationwide, the UNM Cancer Center is recognized for its scientific excellence, contributions to cancer research, the delivery of high quality, state of the art cancer diagnosis and treatment to all New Mexicans, and its community outreach programs statewide.  Annual federal and private funding of over $72 million supports the UNM Cancer Center’s research programs. The UNM Cancer Center treats more than 60 percent of the adults and virtually all of the children in New Mexico affected by cancer, from every county in the state. It is home to New Mexico’s largest team of board-certified oncology physicians and research scientists, representing every cancer specialty and hailing from prestigious institutions such as M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins University, and the Mayo Clinic. Through its partnership with Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, the UNM Cancer Center brings world-class cancer care to the southern part of the state; its collaborative clinical programs in Santa Fe and Farmington serve northern New Mexico and it is developing new collaborative programs in Alamogordo and in Roswell/Carlsbad. The UNM Cancer Center also supports several community outreach programs to make cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment available to every New Mexican. Learn more at


UNM Cancer Center contact information
Dorothy Hornbeck, JKPR, (505) 340-5929,
Michele Sequeira, UNM Cancer Center, (505) 925-0486,



Tags: Press Release Archive 2013, publication, research program