Precision Medicine Vision

Precision medicine is medical diagnosis, prevention and treatment based on an individual’s variation in genes, environment, and lifestyle. Knowledge of an individual’s personal genome allows us to make informed decisions about the best medical care available, for that person. From fundamental discoveries to the clinic, Columbia... Read more

Precision Medicine Blog

Harnessing math to expose cancer

October 24, 2016

My colleague, Andrea Califano, Director of Systems Biology here at Columbia, and Gideon Bosker, recently authored an article in the Wall Street Journal discussing recent progress in cancer research. The Columbia Precision Medicine Initiative is striving for novel and more effective cancer diagnosis and treatments, and Dr. Califano’s approach shines a light on how fundamental research can translate into new clinical applications. His recent Journal article distinguishes his comprehensive “systems” approach from the conventional search for single gene mutations that drive tumor growth.  Califano and his team are trying to uncover the bigger picture in cancer: a full scientific understanding of cancer disease mechanisms as complex interdependent systems. I see this as an important approach to precision oncology – tailoring treatments to individual patients based on the genetic profiles of their tumors, and it shows great promise for the future of cancer research and treatment. 

The authors postulate that in cancer, a number of mutations and their resulting biochemical and physiological changes converge into simple master regulatory nodes, or bottlenecks, that affect a spectrum of downstream cancer maintenance and progression processes. These bottlenecks represent points of vulnerability that could provide clinicians with specific therapeutic targets.

Califano’s lab in the Systems Biology Department at Columbia is one of several centers across the globe that have harnessed the power of computational biology to analyze vast amounts of tumor genomic data. They are interrogating these data to identify such bottlenecks and use them in three specific ways: (1) as therapeutic targets using known drugs; (2) as starting points for identifying potential downstream physiological targets; and (3) as starting points for identifying novel upstream driving mutations or other factors involved in tumorigenesis, the formation of tumor cells.

This strategy has already resulted in the discovery of several universal bottlenecks in cancer. Califano’s group has also launched exploratory clinical trials, the so called ‘N-of-1’ trials, in which computational methods for regulatory network analysis are applied to the discovery of genetic and molecular factors essential for cancer growth in individuals. I find these clinical trials interesting, and potentially exciting because if successful, they herald a new frontier in the treatment of cancer using precision medicine.

I invite you to visit Andrea’s web page here and read the full WSJ article here.

Andrea Califano is the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical Systems Biology at Columbia University and co-founder of DarwinHealth Inc., and Bosker is the CEO and co-founder of DarwinHealth Inc.


Jonathan Pritchard 

Professor in the Departments of Genetics and Biology at Stanford University and an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute