Black Holes And Cancer: Evolution Compared (Astronomy)

A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Oncology exploits a conceptual parallelism between accretion and feedback mechanisms of supermassive black holes at the center of active galaxies and tumors to enter into a virtuous methodological and analytical exchange. In particular, the application of the multi-scale approach in the treatment of growth and feedback mechanisms has made it possible to borrow accurate mathematical models used in astrophysics and apply them to the medical one, and vice versa.

An unexpected and virtuous collaboration, that between two old schoolmates who remained friends and with two apparently very different careers. One is an astrophysicist, the other is an oncologist. An idea born in front of one, two … some shared aperitifs in Macerata, in the Marche, the birthplace of the two. And, confirming the fact that moments of relaxation make more creative and capable of associations of ideas useful for problem solving – as some studies on the subject claim – the two researchers have been able to find conceptual and methodological similarities between their respective research fields, enough to decide to write an article together. The article was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Oncology . The first author is Matteo Santoni, medical oncologist at the Macerata hospital, and his schoolmate and co-author is Francesco Tombesi , astrophysicist of the University of Rome “Tor Vergata” and associate Inaf, expert in supermassive black holes in active galactic nuclei (Agn).

The key to the parallelism and the meeting between the two worlds, the astrophysical and the medical one, lies in an approach that scientists call multi-scale. In essence, it is a question of breaking down a complex phenomenon that acts on different distances, or scales precisely, to describe its behavior in a series of concentric shells – ranging from small to large, from local to global.

Francesco Tombesi, of the University of Rome “Tor Vergata” and associated Inaf, winner of the Aspen Prize in 2017 for his studies on supermassive black holes in active galactic nuclei. Credits: Aspen Institute Italia

“The scientific problems related to the physics of black holes in active galaxies and tumor evolution in oncology both show complexities that can only be understood through a multi-scale approach, in which apparently disconnected processes are actually connected to each other through the different physical scales »explains Tombesi to Media Inaf . “Therefore, the mathematical and statistical approaches developed in oncology to study extremely complex phenomena dependent on many parameters could be borrowed by astrophysicists to investigate the exchange of matter and energy of galactic nuclei active on galactic scales”.

In the astrophysical case, there are more than six orders of magnitude to consider when studying the accretion and feedback phenomena of supermassive black holes at the center of active galaxies (the Agn ): in fact, one passes from the size of the active galactic nucleus (of the order of milliparsec ) to those of the entire galaxy (of the order of kiloparsec). The strategy of breaking down the problem using a multi-scale approach, in this case, was extensively analyzed in a recent articleby Tombesi himself in collaboration with his colleagues Massimo Gaspari and Massimo Cappi of INAF of Bologna, who proposes a theoretical and observational study concentrated simultaneously on three levels: the micro one – of the Agn dimensions – the meso one – corresponding to the dimensions of the galaxy – and the macro one – on galactic halo scales.

Even in the oncological case, and this is the main object of the new study, the proposed approach for black holes is applicable, since the phenomena to be considered occur on six different orders of magnitude, from the cellular scale (of the micrometer) to the scale of the human body (of the meter). Also in this case, three scales can be identified: the micro, internal to the tumor cells, the meso, connected to the interaction between the tumor and the immune system, and finally the macro, between the primary tumor region and metastasis.

«Multidisciplinarity is a fascinating challenge and a moment of growth for all the disciplines involved» comments Inaf Santoni to Media . “Confronting and understanding whether elements coming from areas apparently distant from us can simplify dynamics that are not defined at the moment can represent the keystone of scientific thought in the years to come”.

In fact, this study is not just a descriptive exercise. From a medical point of view – explains Santoni specifically – the creation and validation of mathematical models capable of predicting the interactions between the various components of the tumor microenvironment would represent a fundamental step forward in the field of cancer research. It would allow, for example, to optimize the processing of in vitro and in vivo models that better reflect the complexity of the interactions that occur in the human body, and to develop therapeutic approaches capable of interrupting or shaping intracellular communication.

Matteo Santoni, medical oncologist at the Macerata hospital and first author of the study published in Frontiers in Oncology

“Predicting defined by means of mathematical models the behavior of a neoplasm in terms of growth, interactions with cells of the immune system, and ability to metastasize in certain locations and at predetermined times – continues Santoni – would have a fundamental impact in the field of treatment and follow- up of these patients and would represent a conspicuous step forward towards the personalization of care ».

But – to understand how this parallelism is established in detail – let’s see what happens, at different scales, in a galaxy at the center of which there is an active supermassive black hole and in a body in which a tumor microenvironment has crept.

In the astrophysical case, we start from the micro scale , that relating to the active galactic nucleus with the growing supermassive black hole in the center, from which very fast jets and winds of matter can be launched. At the meso scales , the intermediate ones, there is the interaction between the winds and jets produced by the central black hole and the interstellar medium of the host galaxy. Finally, at the macro level – in the halo of the host galaxy or in the cluster of galaxies – the gas resulting from the feedback cools, condenses and partly falls back towards the central areas, giving rise again to the accretion and feedback cycle.

In the medical case, one of the characteristic elements of the tumor microenvironment is the infinite series of information that the cells of the primary tumor exchange between themselves, with the immune system and with tumor cells at a distance. Millions of messages contained in microvesicles released by primary tumor cells allow the tumor itself to grow, invade, inhibit the activity of the immune system and colonize certain sites at a distance. In turn, the information that the primary tumor receives from the surrounding microenvironment constitutes a continuous feedback system capable of contributing to the growth of the disease, to the acquisition of drug resistance and, more generally, to tumor escape mechanisms .

«The analogies between the two multi-scale approaches in the study of the accretion and feedback cycle in supermassive black holes and the tumor evolution environment have proved useful for a fruitful exchange of mathematical models between these two basic sciences» concludes Tombesi. «Greater cooperation and dialogue between apparently so distant disciplines could lead in the coming years to overcome the limitations of current astrophysics and oncology modeling. In this regard, we are thinking of organizing interdisciplinary conferences in the future to increase the interaction between our two scientific communities ».


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Provided by INAF

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