Applying mathematics in the fight against cancer

Treatments for malignant brain tumors (glioma) vary little from one patient to the next and are limited to radiation, surgery, and drugs that often cause debilitating side effects with modest survival improvement. Mathematics might seem an unlikely addition to the mix, but could provide a powerful new tool enabling more accurate prognosis and more personalized treatment that could improve quality of care and of life. That’s the goal of Kristin Rae Swanson, a mathematical biologist and Research Associate Professor of Pathology, Neuropathology, and Applied Mathematics.

Malignant gliomas are fatal because the cells tend to spread rapidly and diffusely in the brain. Swanson developed a mathematical model and computer simulation that can predict with startling accuracy where a tumor will grow and how likely a patient would be to respond to various treatment protocols. She recently received a five-year $1.9 million grant from the

National Institutes of Health to study patient response to radiation therapy and is collaborating with clinicians and researchers at the UW and three other institutions, including one in Paris.

Just a decade after earning her doctorate at UW, Dr. Swanson is a rising star in the new and burgeoning field of mathematical oncology. The UW Center for Commercialization began working with her about a year ago to develop an intellectual property strategy to protect her mathematical algorithm and software. These early-stage discussions focused on future research directions, a possible patent application, and a business strategy to assess potential demand for her tools and the likely adopters. With a goal of impacting patient care, these early discussions can identify key questions to be pursued to increase the likelihood of translating her work to the clinic.

“The partnership between my lab and the UW Center for Commercialization has laid the groundwork that could allow us to translate these mathematical tools into clinical application as early as 2011,” Swanson said.

The hope is that her innovative work will lead the way for the next generation of treatments that could extend the lives of patients with glioma.