Exploradio Origins: Using Math to Better Understand Cancer Cells

Sep 19, 2019

Mathematics and biology sound like pretty distant relatives, but for Wanda Strychalski, an assistant professor of mathematics at Case Western Reserve University, they’re a perfect match.

“I really see mathematical biology - or mathematics, as another tool or assay for lab scientists to use to try and understand really complicated data," Strychalski said.

Strychalski has been developing mathematical simulations to learn how cells, especially cancer cells, migrate around your body by flexing their stiff internal structure, called a cytoskeleton, which pushes and pulls the cell’s membrane, the barrier between the cell and the outside world.

“So as it’s migrating, the cytoskeleton is rearranging and then causing this motion to occur,” Strychalski said.  “We start out with a minimal model based on the results from experiments, and then see if indeed, is that how it works, and usually, that's not true. So usually the one thing with the model is that we can say, well, this doesn’t happen with these minimal components so let's add in this. And when you're building a model, you can make choices on how you want to do things as long as you're able to then solve or simulate the resulting equations.”

Strychalski’s mathematical models help biologists test things they’d never be able to measure in the lab, and with math, they’re able to take on critical questions about how cancer cells migrate and spread disease around your body.